Today’s Pittsburgh Pirates Seasons feature looks at the man who was born on this date in 1922 and still holds the Pirates single season record for home runs. I could have chosen any of his first seven seasons in Pittsburgh, but today we are looking at the year that Ralph Kiner set the team record with 54 home runs.
Kiner burst onto the scene in 1946, hitting 23 homers, which was enough to lead the National League. The Pirates catered to his right-handed swing by moving the left field fence in during the 1947 season when they also acquired Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg, giving them a powerful 1-2 punch in the middle of their order. Kiner took to the smaller dimensions right away and he set a Pirates record with 51 homers. At the time, just four other players reached 50 homers in a season, though Kiner was matched by Johnny Mize in 1947, making them the fifth and sixth players to reach the fabled mark. The fourth player to hit 50 homers in a year was Greenberg, nine years earlier.
In 1948, Kiner won his third straight home run crown with 40 homers, proving that the previous season was no fluke. His best was still in store. The 1949 season would cement his spot in the Pirates record books.
Kiner wasted very little time getting into the home run column in 1949. He went 4-for-10 with two walks in the opening series at Wrigley Field, then he hit a game-tying grand slam in the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds. Kiner homered the next game as well, a solo shot against Harry Gumbert, who would become his teammate later in the season. The rest of April was quiet. Kiner wasn’t getting much to hit, but he was getting on base at a high clip due to walks, giving him an .838 OPS for the month (11 games).
The first week of May was basically a continuation of April, except he saw a spike in his average. Through 16 games, Kiner was hitting .296/.465/.407, still stuck on two homers. He hit his third shot on May 6th at Shibe Park against the Philadelphia Phillies. He had three hits in that game and added five more over the next two games. He hit his fourth homer against the Boston Braves in the second game of a May 8th doubleheader, while also collecting three hits again. Kiner would homer at Ebbets Field on May 11th, then return home on the 13th to hit his sixth homer. That gave him an eight-game hit streak and a 1.242 OPS in the first 13 games of May.
After going 0-for-3 with a walk on May 18th, Kiner started another hitting streak that lasted until June 5th. In 16 games, he hit .393 with six homers, eight walks and one strikeout. Despite his own success, the Pirates went 4-12 during that stretch. Through his first 44 games, he had a .366 average, with 13 homers. In a 154-game schedule, with Kiner playing every single game at that point, he was on pace for 46 homers. He posted a 1.230 OPS and a .402 average in 29 games in May.
His 16-game hit streak was snapped on June 6th, the first of three straight games without a hit (he walked twice). He didn’t exactly break out the next day, going 1-for-6 in an 18-inning game. Kiner had two singles on June 10th and three walks the next day. That was followed by home run #14 on June 12th at the Polo Grounds. After four hits and three walks over the next four games, Kiner hit #15 at home, providing the lone run in a 7-1 loss. He went 2-for-9 with three walks over the next three days, before a big streak to help finish June strong.
On June 24th, Kiner hit a three-run homer in the first inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers at Forbes Field. The next day he hit a pair of solo homers off of Ralph Branca. Kiner had four hits on the day, but the Pirates still lost 17-10 in a wild contest. On the 29th with the Cincinnati Reds in town, he hit his second grand slam of the season. Kiner had a .347/.456/.648 slash line at the end of June. His OPS for the month was 1.069 in 24 games.
Kiner started July off with homers in back-to-back games at Wrigley Field. Exactly a week later, he had two homers in a game against the Chicago Cubs at Forbes Field. The Pirates lost that game and the second game of a doubleheader that day as well. Despite the losses, Kiner went 3-for-5 with four walks, four RBIs and five runs scored. He had another big doubleheader six days later, hitting for the cycle, though it was spread out over the two games.
On July 20th, the Pirates finally won a game in which Kiner homered twice. He drove in five runs in an 8-6 win at Ebbets Field. After touching up Ralph Branca again early in the game, he hit a three-run homer off of Don Newcombe with the Pirates trailing 6-5 in the top of the ninth.
Kiner went 3-for-19 over the final five games in July, watching his average drop to .313 through 92 games (94 team games). He had 27 home runs at that point, putting him on pace for 44 that season. He had eight homers, 22 RBIs and 24 walks in July, but a .230 average led to a .909 OPS for the month. Obviously that’s not a bad number, but it was well off of his numbers coming into the month.
To set the team record for homers, Kiner needed to pick up the pace in August and finish strong. That didn’t happen right away. He had five singles and three walks in the first five games. He then homered in back-to-back games against the Phillies. He had five RBIs in those games and the Pirates scored six runs total, losing both contests. After four singles and three walks over the next five games, Kiner homered in three straight contests. The first two came at Sportman’s Park in St Louis and the third occurred at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.
Kiner hit a three-run homer as part of a five-RBI day on August 19th. He added a solo homer two days later, and another home run three days after that one, coming off of Warren Spahn. On August 27-28, he homered in back-to-back games, then capped off the month with a solo homer at the Polo Grounds. That gave him 11 homers in August and 38 on the season, with 29 games remaining. He picked up the pace, but he would still need a big finish to break his own team record.
Kiner started September off with a bang, even if the Pirates were crawling to a poor finish. He homered in each of the first three games of the month, belting a grand slam in the first contest and a pair of solo shots in the third game. The Pirates managed to lose all three games. After going hitless in a doubleheader, he hit #43 on September 6th. Kiner homered again on the 9th, went 0-for-4 on the 10th, then gave the hometown fans a show in back-to-back wins. Kiner homered twice on the 11th, driving in four runs. He homered twice again on the 13th, this time bringing home six runs. His first homer was his fourth grand slam of the season, which tied an MLB record.
With 17 games remaining, Kiner had 48 homers. He was just three off of his own team record, but the talk switched to him reaching the NL record of 56 held by Hack Wilson. Even some looked past that and noted that he wasn’t far off of Babe Ruth’s pace during his 60-homer season. Kiner didn’t wait long to add to the excitement, hitting a two-run homer off of Robin Roberts on September 14th.
The excitement died down a bit over the next four games, with Kiner stuck on 49 homers. He hit #50 on September 19th, then tied and broke his own team record on the 21st with a pair of shots against the Boston Braves in front of his home fans. With nine games left, the NL record was still in reach, but it wasn’t meant to be. Kiner dealt with 12 walks in those last nine contests, while finishing with 54 homers on the season. His final home run came in his final at-bat of the season and it helped the Pirates to a 3-2 win.
Kiner had an incredible month of September. He had 16 homers, 33 RBIs and walked 29 times. He finished the month with a 1.351 OPS. His final season slash line was .310/.432/.658 in 152 games.
While he’s known more for setting the team home run record in 1949, Kiner also put himself well up the charts for other single-season marks in franchise history. His .658 slugging percentage in 1949 is a team record. His 10.2 AB per HR rate is a team record. His 1.089 OPS trails only Arky Vaughan’s amazing 1935 season. His 361 total bases trails another amazing season by just eight (Kiki Cuyler, 1925). Kiner had 127 RBIs, second only to Paul Waner’s team record. Despite all of those marks, his offensive WAR that season was the second best of his career and it might surprise you to find out that didn’t trail his 1947 season. Kiner’s best season actually happened in 1951, but that story is best saved for another day.