Kiner was baseball’s greatest home run hitter during the years after WWII. Although his career was curtailed by a bad back, the powerful righthanded slugger had a ratio of homers to at-bats exceeded only by Babe Ruth.
Signed by the Pirates for an $8,000 bonus, Kiner hit 27 home runs in two minor league seasons before the war. Following military service (1943-45), he became Pittsburgh’s starting left fielder in 1946. Despite starting slowly, he hit 23 homers to tie the club record and lead the NL, the lowest total to lead the league since 1921. Kiner was the Pirates’ first home run champion since 1906, and home attendance rose to its highest level since the pennant year of 1927 even though the team tumbled to seventh place.
In 1947, the Pirates obtained Hank Greenberg, the ’46 AL home run champ, and tailored Forbes Field to the two righthanded power hitters. A double bullpen, 30 feet wide by 200 feet long, significantly cut the distances in left field. “Greenberg Gardens” (later “Kiner’s Korner”) reduced the left-field line from 365 to 335 feet and the left-center power alley from 406 to 355 feet. The two sluggers became roommates and Kiner credited Greenberg with his continued success. Greenberg managed only 25 homers in his final season, but Kiner blasted 51 to tie Johnny Mize for the NL lead. Finishing strong, he set a ML record with eight homers in four games from September 10 to 12. His batting average jumped to a career-high .313 and he led the NL with a slugging percentage of .639.
Meanwhile, attendance boomed at Forbes Field despite the Pirates’ poor record. Fans would stay in the stands until Kiner had his final at-bat, then file for the exits. More than five million fans paid to watch losing Pirates teams from 1947 to 1950.
In 1948, Kiner again tied Mize for the NL homer championship, hitting 40. The following year, a stretch drive of 16 September homers brought him to 54, only two shy of Hack Wilson’s NL record. He also became the first player to hit 50 homers twice in the NL. His 47 home runs in 1950 established a league record of 102 in two consecutive seasons, and he was named TSN Player of the Year.
Kiner was sometimes mistakenly labeled a poor outfielder. He lacked speed, but he was sure-handed and had an accurate (but weak) arm. He led the NL in HR in 1951 and 1952 to run his streak to seven consecutive titles, but the Pirates around him were in shambles. His back problems were also beginning to plague him. On June 3, 1953 he was traded to the Cubs in a famous “we finished last with you, we can finish last without you” deal. In Chicago, Kiner teamed in the outfield with the equally slow and powerful Hank Sauer, with whom he had shared the NL home run title the year before. Before the 1955 season, Cleveland GM Greenberg acquired him for the Indians. He hit 18 homers for the Tribe in his final season. Only thirty-three when his bad back ended his career, Kiner retired having hit a home run in every 14.1 at-bats.
After his retirement, he served briefly as GM of the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League, then launched a broadcasting career. Since 1962, he has done play-by-play for the Mets. In 1975 Kiner was named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.