Like many fans of the golden age of baseball I was saddened by Ralph Kiner’s death last month. I feel fortunate to have met and interviewed Ralph while filming my 1999 documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. I found Ralph to be a down to earth, intelligent and kind interviewee, and I wondered if perhaps it was his unassuming nature that prevented him from being remembered as one of the great power hitters of the era. If you look at his amazing statistics, like the fact that he lead the National League in home runs for 7 years straight beginning with his rookie season, he certainly deserves to be better known.
Ralph told me that although he grew up in California, he idolized Hank Greenberg as a kid and rooted for the Detroit Tigers during their “golden era” in the 1930s. Kiner met his idol for the first time when Hank was unexpectedly released from the Tigers after the 1946 season, despite an amazing comeback from 4 years of military service and an American League-leading 44 home runs. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Hank to the biggest contract ever in 1947, uniting him with the young Ralph Kiner, the 1946 National League “home run king.” Kiner, in his modest way, gave a lot of credit to Hank for the remarkable success he had after they teamed up in 1947. After Hank helped him overhaul his swing for the 1947 season, Kiner struggled a bit early on, but Hank convinced the Pirates management to give Kiner a chance to work it out. Kiner went on to lead the league again in his sophomore season with an amazing 51 home runs.
Although Kiner certainly made a name for himself in his own right, his career was entertwined with Hank’s in several interesting ways. After signing Hank, the Pirates pulled their deep left and left center field walls in to facilitate his right-handed home run hitting. The press nicknamed this new space “Greenberg Gardens,” but after Hank retired, it quickly became known as “Kiner’s Korner,” the destination where many of Kiner’s 369 career home runs landed. Hank went on to hire Kiner for a final season in Cleveland in 1955 (though he leaned on his old friend to take a pay cut) and then later got him a job as an announcer for the White Sox after Kiner retired from baseball.
Kiner and Hank were also close off the field. Kiner relates a cute story in my film about asking Hank to be the best man at his third wedding. Hank had been Kiner’s best man for his first two weddings, but the third time he refused. Hank decided that after Kiner’s first two marriages had gone wrong, he wasn’t about to stand by his side for a third time. Kiner told this story with a twinkle in his eye, and he made sure to note that Hank came to the wedding anyway.
Ralph Kiner, from the new DVD of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, 1991
The friendship between Ralph and Hank was one of the most heartwarming that I came across while making The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. I used new footage from my Kiner interview in the re-release of the film that came out on DVD last year, and he was one of the first people I sent a copy of the new DVD to. Knowing Ralph, I wasn’t surprised when he promptly sent me a handwritten thank you note.
By Aviva Kempner