ShareThis Page
Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Ralph Kiner is greatest Pirates player

| Saturday, March 31, 2018, 3:36 p.m.
In this April 23, 1951 file photo, Pirates all-star Ralph Kiner chats  Cubs outfielder Andy Pafko before a  game at Wrigley Field.
In this April 23, 1951 file photo, Pirates all-star Ralph Kiner chats Cubs outfielder Andy Pafko before a game at Wrigley Field.
Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner during the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Sunday, July 24, 2011.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner during the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Sunday, July 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Ralph Kiner hits a single during game against Boston Red Sox in Pittsburgh
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Ralph Kiner hits a single during game against Boston Red Sox in Pittsburgh
In this 1950 photo, the Pirates' Ralph Kiner (right) talks with the Red Sox's Ted Williams before the start of the All-Star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
In this 1950 photo, the Pirates' Ralph Kiner (right) talks with the Red Sox's Ted Williams before the start of the All-Star game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, right, kicks dirt onto home plate next to umpire Tony Randazzo after a play was overturned during the tenth inning of a baseball game against the Pirates, Friday, March 30, 2018, in Detroit. Gardenhire was ejected by Randazzo.
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, right, kicks dirt onto home plate next to umpire Tony Randazzo after a play was overturned during the tenth inning of a baseball game against the Pirates, Friday, March 30, 2018, in Detroit. Gardenhire was ejected by Randazzo.
The Pirates' Francisco Cervelli scores in the ninth inning next to the Tigers' Shane Greene on March 30, 2017 in Detroit, Mich.
Getty Images
The Pirates' Francisco Cervelli scores in the ninth inning next to the Tigers' Shane Greene on March 30, 2017 in Detroit, Mich.

As the Pirates prepare for Monday's home opener, we look to the past. (No point looking at the present and probably not the future, either.)

Debate often rages over who is the greatest Pirate ever.

Everybody who saw Honus Wagner play is dead, and there's little video.

MVP awards (two in seven years as a Pirate) point to Barry Bonds, but lack of popularity negates.

John Steigerwald says if Roberto Clemente had played in any park besides spacious Forbes Field, he would have hit 900 home runs. Clemente was, indeed, pretty good.

But the greatest Pirate ever is none of the above.

It's Ralph Kiner.

Not most valuable, but greatest ever. The Pirates finished last three times and second-to-last twice during Kiner's seven full seasons with the team. As GM Branch Rickey once famously told Kiner, “We could finish last without you.”

Kiner's power kept attendance respectable at Forbes Field, with the faithful sitting through lost causes to see Kiner's last at-bat. Kiner enabled the Pirates to sell tickets to see a bad team playing at an old, rundown ballpark in an old, rundown neighborhood.

During Kiner's Pirates tenure, he led the National League in home runs seven consecutive times (1946-52). The left fielder also led the NL in OPS and slugging three times; on-base percentage, runs and RBIs once. Kiner led the league in a major statistic 16 times in seven years with Pittsburgh, including baseball's most storied category every season he spent with the club.

Bonds led eight major stats in seven years with Pittsburgh, Clemente four (all batting titles) in 18. The only Pirate comparable to Kiner is Wagner (32 in 18).

Career stats favor Kiner, too. His OBP, slugging percentage and OPS with Pittsburgh all top Bonds, Clemente and Wagner. (The all-time team leader in all three categories is Brian Giles, who played outfield from 1999-2003. Maybe Giles is the greatest Pirate ever. Maybe he had a little help.)

Right about now, Clemente spokesmen chime in about his defense, his throwing, his running, his grace, his winning, etc.

Clemente won two World Series to Kiner's none. Clemente's teams were a lot better.

But baseball gets broken down to numbers, period. We get told what statistics count. Kiner tops Clemente in all those.

Take out the romance and it's clear: Kiner is greater than Clemente and any other Pirate. Wagner comes closest. Numbers can't be adjusted or diminished for the sake of an argument's convenience.

Kiner, by the way, hit many of his home runs in spacious Forbes Field. But the dimensions in left and left-center were shortened by 30 feet during Kiner's heyday via creative placement of the bullpens: 335 down the line and 376 in left-center. It was “Kiner's Korner.”

Not short, but not far. Give the people what they want.

Kiner's window was brief. He played just two more big-league seasons after the Pirates traded him to the Chicago Cubs in 1953. He retired following the 1955 season because of a back injury. Kiner was 32 when he quit.

In keeping with Kiner's legacy, the most interesting thing about this year's Pirates might be seeing how many tickets get sold.

Pirates attendance dropped 600,000 over the past two seasons. Don't expect a precipitous decline this year. Most people who were going to stop going (or go less) probably already have.

Don't expect a precipitous decline in the Pirates' record, either: Corey Dickerson will approximate Andrew McCutchen's production. Gerrit Cole was a bum in 2017. Somebody will do roughly what he did.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me