Ralph Kiner and the 1955 pennant race

Most New York baseball fans think of Ralph Kiner in association with his 53 amazing years of broadcasting for the New York Mets. But eight years before he first sat behind the microphone for the Mets, he almost had an impact on another New York team. Ralph Kiner was a member of the 1955 Cleveland Indians that fought down to the wire with the Yankees in that year's pennant race. 1955 was Kiner's tenth and last season in Major League Baseball and it was his first legitimate opportunity to play with a team that could go all the way. Just the season before, the Indians had won 111 of its 154 games to win the pennant by eight games over a Yankees team that won 103 games. The Indians were swept in the 1954 World Series by the New York Giants in one of the biggest upsets of the century.

Despite Kiner's prodigious career to that point, the Indians picked him up as the player to be named later in a deal that sent Toothpick Sam Jones to the Cubs from Cleveland the previous September. It seemed like a great deal for the Indians as the team's outfield had two stars in Larry Doby and Al Smith but Kiner would replace Dave Philley, who was a much weaker hitter as the third outfielder in 1954.

At the time of the deal, no one could have known it would be Ralph Kiner's last season since he was only 32 years old and still productive. And when the Indians had a two game lead over the Yankees with only nine games to play in September, it appeared that Kiner might finally reach the post season.

Such a situation was a long time coming for Ralph Kiner. He was a superstar who won the home run title the first seven years of his career. In his seven+ seasons with the Pirates from 1946 to June 3 of 1953, he hit 301 homers and had driven in 801 runs. He even compiled 795 walks during those years and made six All-Star teams. But those Pirate teams were awful.

As a member of the Pirates, Kiner's team went 457-673 for a .404 winning percentage. 1952 was the absolute zenith of the team's woes when it finished the season with 112 losses and a .275 winning percentage. It was that season that led to the famous line by General Manager, Branch Rickey to a bargaining Kiner, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you."

Rickey stayed true to his word and included Kiner in a multi-player deal to the Cubs on June 3, 1953. The Cubs were not much better than the Pirates and their record while Kiner was on the team (part of 1953 and 1954) was 117-151.

So you can see that 1955 was finally going to be Kiner's chance to play with a pennant winning team. And Kiner was performing just as the Indians had hoped during the first half. He played in 72 of the first 77 games and compiled an .830 OPS--good for a 128 OPS+ at the time. In at least two of those games, Kiner played the entire contests of 15-inning and 17-inning outings.

It must have been toward the end of May when his back started acting up because he started to miss a game here or two there. But he was producing and his OPS reached its peak for the season on June 14. The Indians were three games back of the Yankees on that date and would fall as far back as eight games by July 2.

The Indians roared back into the race and were tied with the Yankees by July 30 and it was a tight race the rest of the way. This run back into the race coincided with when Kiner really started to struggle with his back. Between July 9 and August 6, Kiner missed thirteen games and was only able to pinch hit in eleven of the fifteen games where he did appear.

On August 6, after missing eight straight games, Kiner pinch hit and knocked in a run. He started the next day and then missed a day. Then on August 10, he had his biggest moment of the season.

The Indians started that day a half a game behind the Yankees and it looked like they were going to stay that way as they were down to the Tigers, 4-2 heading into the seventh inning. The Indians put a rally together in the seventh and had a man on second and third with one out and Kiner pinch hit for Gene Woodling and struck out. The Tigers would not score and headed into the ninth inning still down by those two runs.

Al Aber had relieved Jim Bunning in that seventh inning mentioned above and it was he that struck out Kiner and had gotten out of the jam. He pitched a flawless eighth, but Aber never recorded an out in the ninth.

Hoot Evers pinch hit to lead off the bottom of the ninth and singled to left. Hank Foiles pinch hit and singled to center to make it first and second with no outs. Al Smith attempted to sacrifice to get the runners over, but he beat out the bunt for another single to load the bases. Al Aber did not strike out Ralph Kiner this time. Kiner hit the ball over the fence for a grand slam and a walk-off win that put the Indians a half a game up on the Yankees.

On September 4, 1955, the Indians again started the day a half a game behind the Yankees. Playing the White Sox at home, the team was down, 3-0, heading into the bottom of the fourth. With the bases loaded and two runs already in, Kiner again pinch hit for Woodling. This time there were two outs. He worked a walk to tie the game. Later in the sixth inning, he hit a two-out double to drive in the go-ahead two runs. Again, his heroics left the team a half a game in front of the standings.

On September 10, Kiner started and went two for five with a homer,  two runs scored and an RBI in a game the Indians won by three runs. They were a game and a half ahead in the standings at that point. The homer was Kiner's 18th of the season and the final homer of his career. He hit it off Ellis Kinder of the Red Sox.

Sadly, Ralph Kiner was pretty much finished at that point. He only had one more hit the rest of the way and was unable to play in eight of the last eleven games. Without Kiner, the Indians won both games of a double-header on September 13 against the Washington Senators to go up by two games.

After those two wins, the Indians lost four games in a row and six of their last nine games. Meanwhile, the Yankees won ten of their last twelve games and blew by the Indians to not only erase the two game deficit but won the American League by three games.

The way the 1955 Yankees finished that season, perhaps it would not have made a difference if Ralph Kiner had been healthy down the stretch. But the Indians only scored ten runs in those six losses and perhaps a healthy Kiner could have made a difference. We will never know.

The Yankees went on to lose a heart-breaking World Series to the Dodgers and the Indians went home. Cleveland released Ralph Kiner on October 10, 1955 and Kiner's short but brilliant career was over never reaching the Promised Land.

Perhaps the 1969 and 1986 Mets made up for Kiner's lack of championships as a player.

Ralph Kiner lived a full and wonderful life in his 91 years. He was a navy pilot during World War II, was one of the best players in baseball from 1946 to 1953 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He then was the voice of the Mets for an incredible 53 years. He left a legacy and will be missed. But we should not mourn his loss for his sake. His was a pretty incredible life..