Monday, February 10, 2014
How Kiner Out-Slugged the Mahatma
Ralph Kiner's death at 91 on February 6, a day before pitchers and catchers were due in to start spring training, provokes a pool full of thoughts, considering my experience with him has been as a New York Mets fan since the day they were born. Kiner was one of the original Mets broadcast trio (Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, both of whom preceded him in death, were the others) but the longest-serving, even if Bell's palsy finally wore him down to periodic appearances the Mets never begrudged him.
He was a charmingly incisive analyst and a solid, meat-and-potatoes play by play man whose facility with malaprops could be at least as engaging as those of Herb Score and Jerry Coleman; his home run call was one of the most unforgettable in baseball broadcasting, in New York and elsewhere: Deep to [wherever], going, going, it is gonnnnnnnnnnnnnne, goodbye! — a refinement of his original going, gone, forget it, goodbye!
But sometimes over all those wonderful seasons when he seemed New York's congenial grandfather at the ballpark, Kiner's Hall of Fame playing career may have been forgotten other than his deft storytelling of players past with or against whom he played, or whom he'd seen growing up in New Mexico and California. He was a slugging left fielder for one after another mediocre Pittsburgh Pirates team on which he was just about the lone reason fans had to go to old Forbes Field. And he had the misfortune of having as a boss of bosses Branch (The Mahatma) Rickey, after Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn somewhat bizarrely, took on the job of trying to rebuild the Pirates, and let his notoriously penurious ways with players extend to lengths with Kiner that today's generation would consider unconscionable, if not downright criminal.
Kiner led the National League in home runs in his first seven consecutive seasons; only Mike Schmidt since has led the league more, consecutively or otherwise. A seven-time all-star, Kiner averaged 41 home runs and 112 runs batted in per 162 games lifetime; for most players that would be a career season. Only his bothersome back limited his playing career to 10 seasons and kept his wins above replacement level below the Hall of Fame average for left fielders. Yet Rickey undertook one after another bid to tear down his number one gate attraction even while he was, yes, planting the seeds for a revival that would end up with the Pirates' unlikely World Series championship in 1960.
The best-remembered of Rickey's insults is surely the occasion on which he informed Kiner during one salary haggle, "We finished in last place with you, and we can finish in last place without you." Exactly how one of the most brilliant and farsighted minds baseball has ever known could have been so shortsighted as to assume one player could make an entire team into a winner is almost as lost as is just how Rickey came up with an even worse insult that isn't as well remembered, a piece of verse that belongs in the Hall of Fame under the category of "the most insipid blasts of balderdash baseball has ever borne":
Babe Ruth could run. Our man cannot.
Ruth could throw. Our man cannot.
Ruth could steal a base. Our man cannot.
Ruth was a good fielder. Our man is not.
Ruth could hit with power to all fields. Our man cannot.
Ruth never requested a diminutive field to fit him. Our man does.
Had someone spiked one of Rickey's famous cigars with an explosive round?
Ralph Kiner was actually a slightly better baserunner than Babe Ruth. He never got the chance to show it, of course, but it's extremely doubtful that Kiner would have run his team into a World Series loss with one power hitter at the plate and a second on deck with two outs in the ninth inning. Ruth did that to end the 1926 World Series in the St. Louis Cardinals' favor. Kiner didn't try to steal bases too often, but in the five years for which the record is known he tried 11 times and stole 9 bases. Ruth's stolen base percentage isn't anywhere close.
Kiner's throwing arm was rather average for a corner outfielder; Roberto Clemente he wasn't. Neither was Ruth, who also had about an average throwing arm for a corner outfielder. If you put stock into this statistic, Ruth's range factor is actually nine points lower than Kiner's, which I submit may suggest Kiner was a slightly better defensive outfielder than Ruth who got to a few more balls a little more often. And as for hitting to all fields, perhaps Allen Barra (in Clearing the Bases) should have the word about that:
"As long as one hits with power what difference does it make what field or fields he hits to? For my own part, I never heard anyone say that Babe Ruth was good at hitting to "all fields"; in fact, I've never heard of a great power hitter who was known to hit to all fields. From period descriptions, Ruth seems to have been the quintessential pull hitter...
"I assume that Rickey meant that Ruth was a much more consistent hitter than Kiner, and that is certainly true. Ruth's lifetime average was .342 to Kiner's .279, which was a bit low even for a slugger in the late '40s and early '50s when batting averages had gone down. But the difference between the two is not so great as one might think at first glance. The National League batting average from 1946 to 1955, the 10 short years of Kiner's career, was .2612. The American League's batting average from 1920 to 1929, Babe Ruth's peak years, was .2860.
"Now, unless you want to argue that hitters suddenly got worse in 20 years — and I'm sure Branch Rickey was in as good a position to know that as anyone else and he never implied any such thing — then we have to assume that pitching or hitting conditions or something else besides talent cause batting averages to drop so severely. Actually, we have a pretty good idea of what it was: night ball, because even today we can see a huge gap between batting averages from day and night games. But we'll let that pass for now.
"The point is that it is not unreasonable to assume that Ralph Kiner, had he played in Ruth's time, would have had a career batting average of, say, .305, and since his on-base average was an already sensational .398, we can certainly assume that would have gone higher, too, to about .430. Now, those are pretty sensational statistics, and I really have to wonder if Branch Rickey, observing Kiner hit .305 with all those walks and home runs, would have singled him out for criticism.
"Or, stated another way, if Ruth had played in Kiner's time and beyond and had lost about 25 points off his average and wound up at maybe .317, with a commensurate drop in other stats, would he then remain the yardstick against which all hitters are measured? Uh-oh, better stop, we're getting into the area of heresy."
One might care to note in hand Ruth's staggering enough triples totals, then line them up to the home parks in which he played his prime as a position player. Both of them had cavernous center fields and left center fields. Which suggests that if Ruth was hitting to "all fields," he was picking up an awful lot of triples because, even if he wasn't a swift runner, those balls were traveling far enough to the rear end of the field that even a man on prosthetic limbs could have made triples out of them. (As an aside, Kiner once admitted he was a dead enough pull hitter that he didn't take as much advantage as he might have of Forbes Field's deep enough right center field to pick up a few extra extra-base hits. That merely makes him like, say, Joe DiMaggio, who believed pull hitting was the only legitimate hitting — but hurt himself hitting right-handed into that cavernous Yankee Stadium left side.)
What about Rickey's charge that Kiner "asked for" a diminutive field in which to hit? Kiner didn't "ask" for such a field any more than Ruth "asked" the Yankees to build the original Yankee Stadium with a short right field porch. Never mind that the Yankees did, deliberately, build it for him, and why on earth not? You have the most powerful left-handed bat in baseball, do you want to build him a right field he couldn't reach by taxicab? Ruth had already played his first three seasons of Yankee home games in another park with a notorious short right field porch (and a notoriously out-of-the-area-code center field): the Polo Grounds. Why would the Yankees want to impose a handicap on their number one bombardier and run producer?
But it is absolutely untrue that the Pirates brought in the left field fences to accommodate Ralph Kiner at Kiner's request — they did it for Hank Greenberg, whom they bought from the Detroit Tigers in spring 1947. Why on earth were the Tigers willing to sell the defending American League home run champion? (Greenberg led the league in homers and RBIs in 1946, his first full season following his World War II service.)
Greenberg and the Tigers were in a salary dispute in which the Tigers tried to persuade Greenberg to take a pay cut. The Tigers sold his contract to the pre-Rickey Pirates, who were willing to make Greenberg baseball's first postwar $80,000 a year man. To sweeten Greenberg's pot, the Pirates pulled in the Forbes Field left field fences enough to accommodate the pull-hitting Greenberg. Greenberg hit 25 homers and drove in 74 runs in 1947 while leading the National League with 104 walks, and though the end was clearly in sight Greenberg proved popular enough that the new short left field porch was nicknamed Greenberg Gardens.
Also in 1947, Greenberg took Kiner under his wing; the veteran saw the kid had a natural power swing but needed some focus. "All he needed was somebody to teach him the value of hard work and self-discipline," Greenberg would remember. "Early in the morning on off-days, every chance we got, we worked on hitting." Kiner doubled his home run output as Greenberg's teammate and student and, incidentally, hit only five more home runs at home than on the road even with the new shorter-porch Greenberg Gardens as his home target. Only after Greenberg retired following 1947 did the porch get a nickname change to Kiner's Korner.
Which reminds me that Kiner hit 43 percent of his lifetime home runs on the road. We can put that into perspective even without discussing Babe Ruth; or, any other players who hit more homers on the road than at home, such players as Joe DiMaggio, Mike Schmidt, and Eddie Murray. It's reasonable to presume that most players in general, and certainly most Hall of Famers, have hit more at home than on the road; assuming the dimensions of their home parks are reasonable enough, you would more or less expect even great hitters to do better before the home audience. Here is a random sample of Hall of Famers and how they hit home runs on the road; I'll explain the asterisks soon enough:
Ernie Banks: 43 percent.
Jimmie Foxx: 44 percent.
Lou Gehrig: 49 percent.
Ken Griffey, Jr.: 47 percent.
*Rogers Hornsby: 45 percent.
Willie Mays: 49 percent.
Willie McCovey: 49 percent.
*Johnny Mize: 41 percent.
*Stan Musial: 47 percent.
*Mel Ott: 36 percent.
Jim Rice: 45 percent.
Frank Robinson: 45 percent.
Ryne Sandberg: 41 percent.
Frank Thomas: 40 percent.
That would suggest you can expect an average or near-average Hall of Famer to have hit between 40 and 49 percent of his home runs on the road, on the surface. If you tally those percentages, remove one player (I'll mention him shortly), and divide properly, the average among them is 45 percent of their home runs hit on the road. Ralph Kiner is well within that average either way, and he's even with or ahead of four players minus the man I removed for the moment.
Now let's mention Mel Ott. Master Melvin hit 36 percent of his home runs on the road, and you can understand why in the proverbial New York minute — he played his entire career with the New York Giants, the Polo Grounds was their home park, and there's that yummalicious right field porch again. It was actually shorter than the one the Yankees built for Babe Ruth and shorter than the Forbes Field left field porch was made for Hank Greenberg. I think I'm hearing some crickets from Branch Rickey's cloud right about now.
Rickey was running the Brooklyn Dodgers for a sizeable portion of Mel Ott's career and he had to have known Ott took complete advantage of the Polo Grounds porch. Before he took on the Dodgers, Rickey was the mastermind of the Cardinals and handled, among other players, Stan Musial and Johnny Mize. Before becoming the prototype general manager with the Cardinals, Rickey managed the team — including Rogers Hornsby. Musial and Hornsby didn't hit that much more on the road than Kiner, and Mize hit less of his homers on the road than Kiner did, percentage-wise.
Come to think of it, Johnny Mize with a slightly longer career (elongated late when the Yankees brought him aboard for a five-year tour as a part-timer) was just about the same kind of player as Ralph Kiner: a big slugger who was about fair to middling in the field and also had shortish porches to which to pull his bombs for his entire career. (As a matter of fact, Mize tied Kiner for the National League's home run lead in 1947, when Mize was with the Giants.) Mize came up with the Cardinals while Rickey was still running the organization. Yet Rickey was never known to have tried to run Mize down publicly for any reason. Could Mize's gaudy batting averages between 1936 and 1939 have had something to do with that? As night baseball took further hold circa 1940-41, Mize's averages began dropping for the most part; after his return from World War II, he never again hit .300+ in any season after 1947. You might expect his astute former boss to notice that, too.
You may know the answer as well as I do as to why Rickey chose Kiner as a particular running-down target after Rickey joined the Pirates after 1950. Kiner was no more shy about fighting for his salaries than Rickey was in fighting to keep them down. The Mahatma was notoriously penurious with his players and not above hook, crook, insult, or subterfuge to keep their paychecks low. And Kiner, a player who usually went to bat for whatever players' rights could be had in that pre-free agency era, would say in due course that Rickey did "more than any other person to bring about the players' union." Rickey unhorsed the Babe Ruth verse at Kiner's expense in 1952, while trying (and failing) to convince Pirates owner John Galbreath to sell Kiner and use the proceeds to buy new players.
It never occurred to Rickey that a) you could do an awful lot worse than to hold a player second to Babe Ruth; or, b) that Ruth in actuality wasn't the greatest all-around baseball player who ever lived, that he was a great power and for-average hitter (who would, I repeat, have lost a passel points on his average in the night-ball era) but an average defensive outfielder with an average-to-below-average outfield throwing arm who didn't run smartly — and should have been arrested for incompetence over his insistence on trying to steal bases whenever he bloody well felt like it.
Ralph Kiner was one of the top one hundred hitters of all-time; he retired at number six on the all-time home run list; he looks a little less like the Hall of Famer he is because of his short career but it's reasonable to assume that, had his back not betrayed him, he might have had perhaps five more seasons, a WAR more in line with the average Hall of Fame outfielder, and a more obvious set of credentials — as if leading his league in home runs seven times, in slugging and OPS three times each, and in walks three times needed any further embellishment.
Branch Rickey finally did get so fed up with the salary haggling that he unloaded Kiner — during the 1953 season, a year after the Ruth verse, in a 10-player swap with the Cubs. In perhaps an irony less dubious than delicious, if only from Kiner's point of view, Rickey himself retired in 1955 — for health issues. But when the Mahatma first tried urging John Galbreath to unload Kiner while the unloading was good, when Kiner was still a terrific player and the only box office draw the Pirates had, comparing Kiner fatuously to Ruth, then and there might have been a fine time for Galbreath to consider sending Rickey going, gone, forget it, goodbye.