A month after the Indians were swept in the 1954 World Series, they made headlines once again – this time in a positive way.
On Nov. 16, 1954, Indians general manager Hank Greenberg announced that the Indians had signed Ralph Kiner, who had been one of the National League’s most feared sluggers since making his debut with the Pirates in 1946.
Kiner, who died Thursday at the age of 91, was during his career probably the greatest slugger the game had seen since Babe Ruth. Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons, a feat that remains unduplicated. Kiner had an off year in 1954, when he batted .285 and hit 22 home runs for the Cubs, but Greenberg, who mentored Kiner in Pittsburgh, was thrilled to get him – and had expressed an interest in Kiner after the 1952 season.
“I don’t consider 32 the age where a fellow has lost his athletic ability,” Greenberg said when Kiner was signed. “Any time we can get anyone who has a chance to help us, we should.”
Kiner, for his part, was overjoyed to be part of a winning team, and happy to be reunited with Greenberg and Indians manager Al Lopez, who had been a teammate of Kiner’s in Pittsburgh, saying he was “looking forward to being with Cleveland, where some of my best friends play.”
Kiner was born in New Mexico but raised in the Los Angeles area. He signed with the Pirates after graduating high school, but World War II intervened. In 1946, his rookie year with the Pirates, he hit 23 home runs, tying the club record. The next year, the Pirates signed Greenberg as Kiner’s mentor. Kiner later called him the biggest influence of his adult life.
The Pirates also built a bullpen in left field at Forbes Field, bringing the fences 30 feet closer. Although it was initially dubbed “Greenberg’s Gardens,” it became known as “Kiner’s Korner.” Greenberg retired after the 1947 season to join the Indians front office, but Kiner continued to play – and draw fans to see what was otherwise moribund baseball.
In 1948, Kiner hit 40 home runs for the only Pirates team he played for to finish with a winning record. By 1950, Kiner was the highest-paid player in the National League, and because Bing Crosby owned part of the Pirates, Kiner was living the Hollywood life, dating stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. When Branch Rickey left Brooklyn to come to Pittsburgh, he made it a point to run Kiner out of town, slashing his pay and saying, “We finished last with you. We can finish last without you.” Rickey ultimately dealt Kiner to the Cubs. He played a season and a half in Chicago before Greenberg came calling.
But the back problems that started to curtail his productivity in Chicago continued in Cleveland. Kiner played in 113 games for the Indians, who finished second to the Yankees in the American League, and hit 18 home runs with a .243 average. He retired after the season and took a job managing the San Diego Padres, then the Indians Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League. When Kiner retired, his 369 home runs were sixth on the all-time list, but he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, his last year on the ballot, by a margin of just one vote.
He spent five years as Padres manager, and spent a year calling Chicago White Sox games. After Major League Baseball expanded in 1962 and the National League returned to New York City, Kiner became part of the broadcast team of the Mets. “They looked at my background with the Pirates and saw that I had losing experience,” Kiner joked.
He spent 50 years with the team as a broadcaster, becoming famous for his malapropisms: getting Darryl Strawberry and Marv Throneberry confused, wishing all the fathers listening on Father’s Day a happy birthday and talking about Rick Aguilera’s saves coming in relief appearances.
Kiner started scaling back his schedule after a stroke and a battle with Bell’s palsy, but he was still calling Mets games in 2013, making him the oldest active broadcaster in Major League Baseball.