Few players have ever made the sort of immediate and sustained impact at the beginning of their careers as Ralph Kiner.
Of course, behind nearly every “overnight” success are years of toil spent in relative obscurity, nose to the grindstone.
In Kiner’s case, it all began before the 1941 season, when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him out of high school and plopped him down in their minor league system.
He spent three years climbing before the U.S. military came calling in 1944, relegating baseball to the back burner that summer, and the next.
When Kiner became available again after World War II, though, the Pirates wasted no more time in promoting their then-23-year-old leftfielder, dropping him into the starting lineup to start the 1946 season.
He stayed there all season long, too — although he hit just .247, Kiner smacked a National League-leading 23 home runs.
An auspicious start, and one that turned out to be no kind of fluke at all, as Kiner led all of the Majors in 1947 with a hefty 51 homers … and then he did it again … and again … and again … and again.
In his first seven seasons, Kiner led the National League in home runs seven times, topping out at 54 in 1949.
It was an unprecedented feat that remains unmatched in baseball history.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so it was for Kiner and the Pirates in 1953.
On June 4 that season, the Bucs sent Kiner, Joe Garagiola, George Metkovich, and Howie Pollet to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Bob Addis, Toby Atwell, George Freese, Gene Hermanski, Bob Schultz, Preston Ward … and cash.
Whether the disruption of the trade was to blame, or whether his time had just come is hard to say, but the fact is that Kiner played an impossible 158 games — even though the schedule for each team called for only 154 — and “fell” to 35 home runs.
That dropped him to fifth in the National League, and he never cracked 30 again in his big league career.
Something else he would never do was appear on another Topps baseball card.
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Thus, Cubs fans who were “stuck” looking at their new slugger on his nifty-but-not-blue 1953 Topps card were left high and dry in 1954, too, when they went searching for a Topps Kiner card.
Kiner did land on a 1954 Bowman card, showing him with Chicago and, after the Cubbies traded him to the Indians that November, he made it onto a 1955 Bowman woody as a member of the Tribe.
But that 1953 Topps card, the last one to show a league-leading homer total for Kiner, would turn out to be his last Topps pasteboard … ever.
Because, if they were waiting for Bowman to go away and for Kiner to settle in somewhere, the joke was on them.
After a bad back limited him to just 113 games in 1955, the Indians released Kiner in October, and he was done as a player.
Good thing that last Topps issue of his was a home run, huh?
Having good, strong wrists can help with bat speed, right? That might explain why Kiner lent (rented) his name to a branded Wrist Exercises during his playing career. It looked like this:
That eBay lot offers up one of the devices, plus an original ad.
Is it worth 25 larger? That’s for you to decide, but it sure is fun to ogle.
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