Remembering Ralph

Ralph Kiner died yesterday. He was 91 but in my mind he is, and always will be, a strapping, young, home run slugging left fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was Kiner who introduced me to the beauty and mystery of baseball, a love I have maintained and enjoyed all my life.

I was eight years old when Kiner, a 23-year-old rookie, began to hit prodigious home runs for the otherwise dreadful Pirates. That was the year I began the summer evening ritual, in the days before television, of sitting on the front porch with my father listening to radio broadcasts of Pirates games.

The colorful announcer was Rosie Roswell, who did live broadcasts of home games at Forbes Field and, as all baseball announcers had to do in those days, described in detail Pirates away games while sitting in a studio in downtown Pittsburgh with a ticker tape machine clattering in the background. Listening on the porch, I waited for Kiner to come to bat, hoping and praying for a home run. When he hit one Roswell would blow a whistle and call out “Open the window Aunt Minnie. Here she comes!” Sometimes there was also the sound of smashing glass for dramatic effect. Ralph Kiner hit a lot of home runs, 369 over a 10-year career while maintaining a respectable life-time batting average of .279. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.

Sealtest Ice Cream sponsored Pirates broadcasts and in grocery stores and delicatessens all over Central and Western Pennsylvania a life-size cardboard replica of Kiner stood in the corner, bat on his shoulder in his menacing stance, advertising ice cream. I loved going to the corner store just to see that wonderful display. Somehow my father convinced the proprietor of that little store to give him the cardboard Kiner, and so he stood in the corner of my bedroom for ten years until I moved away from home.

The remarkable thing about Kiner is that he hit most of those home runs for mediocre-to-awful teams. In the ten years of my youth and adolescence, the Pirates had exactly one winning season. They lost more than 100 games three times and lost more than 90 games five times. In the meantime, Kiner was hitting 40-45-50-54 home runs per year, leading the National League seven times.

A good friend of mine, whose life curiously intersected with Kiner’s, also died three weeks ago. As a young man he was an FBI agent. Ralph Kiner was the object of an extortion plot and his family was threatened. The FBI created a sting operation, discovered that my friend, Red, was the same size as Kiner and looked like him. So for part of one summer Red impersonated the baseball star, coming and going from the Pirates clubhouse in Kiner’s clothes, driving Kiner’s fancy car.

On a designated night, Red, followed by a contingent of agents, drove to the spot the extortionist had described with a suitcase ostensibly full of money. The plan was that when Red handed over the suitcase the FBI agents would move in and make the arrest. Fortunately or unfortunately the extortionist never showed up and Red’s brief career as a major league home run king was over. I loved that story and asked Red to tell it to me every time we were together.

From the perspective of the years, I have concluded that Kiner and his dismal Pirates actually prepared me for these past 25 years as a Cubs fan. The Chicago Cubs have been dreadful recently. Like the Pirates of my youth the Cubs have lost a lot, 91,101 and 96 times in the last three years. New management is taking the long view and investing in the future, not next year, which means that Cubs fans face the prospect of another losing season.

So why do we do this? Why do we care? The late Bart Giamatti, President of Yale and Major League Baseball Commissioner, said that it has to do with community, belonging to something larger than oneself, loyalty to and cheering for the home team, one’s home town, one’s home. It also meets the human need for ritual, not unlike religion.

The game hasn’t really changed much in more than a century.  Ball players have been spitting in their gloves, kicking the infield dirt, taking warm-up swings in the same way as they have decade after decade. There is the ritual of shared food at the ballpark and a kind of communion, shared exaltation and joy and shared disappointment and grief. There is the strategy, invisible to the uninitiated: the way an infielder moves a few feet to his left depending on what he knows about the hitter and the particular pitch he will be trying to hit; the carefully calibrated lead a base runner takes in order to get a step in an attempt to steal a base.

Unlike football and basketball, each admirable in their own way, baseball is a stately game in which it appears that players are not doing anything much of the time, until there is a sudden, shocking explosion: a crashing home run, a squeeze play at home, a vicious line drive to the third baseman just sixty feet away from the hitter. And there is the understated athleticism, the turning of a double play with the fluid grace of ballet.

There are also life lessons, spiritual lessons, if you will, of hope in the midst of despair, patience in suffering, forbearance and steadfastness through a string of losing seasons and the prospect of another one this year. And the wonderful annual possibility that the eschaton will come, the possibility of fulfillment, satisfaction, bliss, salvation.

Pitchers and catchers will report for Spring Training soon and then all the players. Fans of each team, in spite of hard evidence to the contrary, will once again entertain the notion, and their spirits will be lifted up and buoyed by it, that this will be the year when we win it all.

In a way Ralph Kiner taught me all that and I am grateful for him.

Comments

  1. Bill Cunningham says:

    I well remember those things. Once a year I got to go to a Sunday doubleheader. Saw Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals. Pittsburgh lost both games. Also saw awesome NY Giants. Game had to be called at six o’clock so people could go to church.

  2. Charles Brown says:

    Dear Dr. Buchanan,
    Thank you for sharing your remembrance of Ralph Kiner. This morning, NPR broadcast another fine remembrance of Ralph Kiner that I think you will enjoy; this link takes you to the NPR webpage that has the print comments of Bill Chappell, but also a link to a marvelous conversation between David Greene and Mike Pesca, with just a bit of recorded audio of Ralph Kiner. Mike Pesca marveled at the direct historic links between Kiner, and his mentor, Hank Greenberg, to Greenberg’s friend and Detroit Tiger teammate Charlie Gehringer, who played with Ty Cobb. “That was Ralph Kiner, and that was baseball…”

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/02/06/272681683/a-legend-at-the-plate-and-in-the-booth-ralph-kiner-dies-at-91

    They mentioned as you did the remarkable Ralph Kiner stat; that for seven straight seasons in a ten-year career he led the National League in home runs. He is the only player in the history of baseball with such a record.

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