I was a bit surprised to hear that Ralph Kiner had passed away while driving home from work yesterday. I was going to post something, but decided to hold off until I was able to put something a little more in depth together.
Kiner's legacy with the Pirates is undoubtedly a complicated one. For much of the 40's and 50's Ralph Kiner was the sole reason to purchase a ticket to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates. The saying goes that Forbes Field emptied out after Kiner's last at bat. And a quick scroll through the Pirates records during those seasons shows why.
At no point in Pirate history has one player been so disproportionately important to a team. But as Branch Rickey reminded the world, if you can finish in last with him, you can finish in last without him.
Injuries cut short his career, and terrible teams cut short his time in Pittsburgh. But the 70 or so years after Kiner left Pittsburgh may be more interesting than the 7 he was here.
I've been told that Pittsburghers spoke of Kiner the way they do today of Clemente. That player able to solely take over the game on the field and in the minds of fans, so far above his peers that his talent is undeniable. And while he wasn't the well rounded superstar of Honus, or Bonds, or McCutchen he did something few men in Pittsburgh have done. Hit baseballs really, really far.
But upon his death Kiner may be more well known by baseball fans as a broadcaster than as a player. And certainly as a player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The franchise did little to recognize Kiner during his lifetime. While the likes of Kip Wells and Mike Gonzalez have made their way into bobblehead immortality, Kiner has not. While Pirate greats encircle PNC Park in statue form, Kiner is relegated to a casting of his hands holding a bat...placed beneath the left field rotunda in a shadowed and out of the way spot that you would have to look twice to notice.
And while the Pirates did indeed retire Kiner's number 4 in 1987, the New York Mets, a team and city in which Kiner never played a single home game, elected him to the team's Hall of Fame in 1984.
Perhaps the Pirates will kick off the home opener with a touching video tribute to Ralph Kiner. Perhaps his death will spark a campaign for his own statue. Perhaps the franchise will finally acknowledge that the losing years can be just as important as the winning ones.