Any player/Any era: Ralph Kiner

Editor’s note: For anyone who likes this column, be sure to check out my debut piece at The Hardball Times.

What he did: Last week, I wrote how Mike Schmidt might have hit 600 home runs on the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1920s and ’30s, playing in a better era for hitters. A reader suggested this might have been unrealistic at Forbes Field, that the vast dimensions of the old Pirates ballpark may have given the speedy Schmidt many doubles and triples but taken away homers. It made me pause and wonder if there had ever been a great power hitter at Forbes, and then I remembered Ralph Kiner.

Selected to the Hall of Fame in 1975, Kiner may have been the best slugger in the National League for several years after World War II. He led the circuit in homers his first seven seasons, had the top OPS+ three times, and just missed the Triple Crown in 1949 when he posted a league-leading 54 home runs and 127 RBI to go with the fifth-best batting average, .310. Because his career was relatively brief, 10 years, his 369 homers rank distantly down the leader boards, though Kiner’s rate of one homer for every 14.11 at bats is eighth-best ever.

More impressively, Kiner thrived on mostly losing clubs. Imagine how he’d do in better environs and in an era where more runs were scored per game and hulking sluggers ruled.

Era he might have thrived in: Since we had Schmidt at Forbes Field, we’ll put Kiner in Schmidt’s home park, Veterans Stadium. It’s not much of an upgrade to Forbes, but it’s the price to get Kiner on a far better team than he ever had in Pittsburgh. Playing in 1993, Kiner might have been the strong bat Philadelphia lacked after Schmidt retired in 1989 and particularly needed in the World Series.

Why: There’s an unusual stat about the ’93 Phillies. They scored 877 runs, a fairly high total historically, but had no player with 30 home runs, being led in homers by Darren Daulton and journeyman Pete Incaviglia with 24 each. This is rare.

Of the 105 other teams since 1900 that scored at least 877 runs, 82 had a 30-home run hitter. Just 11 modern teams with as many runs scored as the ’93 Phillies had a lesser home run champ, and since the late 1930s, there have been only two such clubs: the 1949 Brooklyn Dodgers who scored 879 runs and were led by Gil Hodges and Duke Snider with 23 home runs each; and the 1996 Minnesota Twins who scored 877 runs and were led in homers by Marty Cordova with 16.

There’s some temptation to place Kiner on those Twins, and the stat converter has his 1949 season converting to 62 home runs, 154 RBI, and a .332 batting average for Minnesota in 1996. But the Twins finished 79-83 because even as they scored 877 runs, they allowed 900. The season was bittersweet, the first after Kirby Puckett’s retirement, and while Kiner might have been another great plodding slugger for a franchise that’s featured Harmon Killebrew, Kent Hrbek, and Jim Thome, I couldn’t see him changing things much for Minnesota.

But Kiner could be the difference in Philadelphia in 1993. His 1949 season converts to 54 home runs, and he’d add new dimension to a lineup with .300 hitters Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk, but no player with a .500 slugging percentage. In the World Series, only Dykstra offered much clout, hitting four of his team’s seven homers, and Philadelphia lost to Toronto on Joe Carter’s walk-off. Perhaps with Kiner, the World Series never would have lasted that long.

Kiner would benefit here, too. In naming Kiner one of the 20 best hitters all-time, Ted Williams noted how Kiner often played on losing clubs, frequently being pitched around and getting 100 walks six times. Pirates general manager Branch Rickey famously told Kiner upon his trade to the Cubs in 1953, “We finished last with you and we can finish last without you.”

Of course, in 1993, Kiner wouldn’t have Kiner’s Korner, the Forbes Field quirk that kept the left field fence 30 feet closer to accommodate him as a right-handed hitter. And he wouldn’t have Hank Greenberg, who was traded to Pittsburgh for his final season, 1947. Greenberg recounted in The Glory of Their Times, “Ralph had a natural home run swing. All he needed was somebody to teach him the value of hard work and self-discipline. Early in the morning, on off-days, every chance we got, we worked on hitting.”

Kiner noted in an essay years ago that Greenberg changed his stance, moved him up closer at the plate, and lobbied for him not to be sent down during an epic slump. Kiner recovered and, late that season, hit eight homers in four games. Kiner wrote of Greenberg, “His friendship and his example had an indelible effect on my life. He taught me how to live ‘the right way.'”

Greenberg was a Hall of Famer as a hitter and as a cultural icon, the first great Jewish ballplayer and a World War II stalwart to boot. But I like to think there’s a Greenberg in every baseball generation, at least someone who can step up, if needed. Perhaps in the early ’90s, that man could have been Schmidt, who’s serving as a spring training instructor for the Phillies as we speak.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Willie Mays

4 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Ralph Kiner”

  1. It was Greenberg who encouraged the young Kiner, telling him, “Do you think if you got one good pitch in every at bat that you could hit thirty five out of five hundred over the fence?”

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