Thanks to an innocuous folk singing group called the Serendipity Singers, back in the seemingly innocuous early 60s, I learned what serendipity means. I used a dictionary, which many who have entered the world only after the Google Age began may be unfamiliar with, he said, almost ending his sentence with a preposition. The dictionary informed me that serendipity (from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip) is the faculty of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for, which the Serendipity Singers’ songs may or may not be. That, of course, brings us to Ralph Kiner and other baseball topics for today.
I mentioned the other day that the first major league ballpark that I ever visited was Forbes Field, one of the former homes of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I wanted to know more about that place, which was built in four months in 1909. The Pirates played their home games there, with Schenley Park and the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning nearby, from June 30, 1909 until June 28,1970, when it was replaced by Three Rivers Stadium, which had better sight lines but little else to offer. My source, by the way, for this information is an excellent book published in 1992 entitled Lost Ballparks by Lawrence S. Ritter. John Forbes was a General from Britain who killed Indians and others and captured Fort Duquesne from the French in 1758 and renamed it Fort Pitt. He didn’t know squat about baseball but got a park named after him back before parks started getting named after clever sounding corporations like Smoothy King.
Forbes Field had its charms, and one of them was that it was a great yard for hitting triples but not home runs. Perhaps that is why, to this day,I prefer triples to home runs and throws from deep right field toward third base like Roberto Clemente used to make. However, before the 1947 season began, the Pirates acquired a right handed hitting outfielder and first baseman from the Detroit Tigers for $75,000. His name was Hank Greenberg and he was a great power hitter. In 1946, Greenberg had hit 44 home runs and driven in 127 runs for Detroit. So why did they sell him? Well, he was going to be 36 years old and 75K was a lot of money in those days but who knows? The Tigers finished second with him, and then they finished second without him. Anyway, Pittsburgh management made a decision. To assist their new slugger, they moved the bullpens out to where the left field fence had been at Forbes Field and put up a new fenced enclosure that was soon dubbed Greenberg Gardens. That shortened the distance for a homer to left field from 365 to 335 feet. As it turned out, Greenberg, who had hit 50 doubles and 41 homers for the Tigers in 1940 and 58 home runs in 1938, did not set a home run record for Pittsburgh in 1947. Despite missing most of the 1941 and 1945 seasons and all of ’42, ’43, and ’44 due to military service, he proved himself as a slugger with 306 career homers before the ’47 season. So the Pirates had reason to expect more than what he produced in what became Greenberg’s final pro season. In 119 games, he batted .249 with 25 home runs and 74 RBI. However, serendipity yielded Ralph Kiner.
Pittsburgh had finished seventh in 1946, 34 games behind St. Louis. Attendance was 749,962 for an average of 9,615 people, which would be a death blow to a franchise today. They were not good, obviously, but they had some players—Al Lopez, Elbie Fletcher, Billy Cox, Fritz Ostermueller, and a 23 year old outfielder named Kiner. When Greenberg arrived, he took time to show young Kiner how to be selective at bat and get good pitches to hit. Ralph Kiner’s home run output that season increased from 23, his 1946 total, to 51, along with 127 RBI. So even though Greenberg played just the one year, the 75K was no doubt worth it. The Pirates tied the Phillies for last place in ’47 but the attendance soared well over the million mark all the way through 1950. Kiner remained a fixture through 1952, clubbing 40,54,47,42,and 37 homers before being traded to the Chicago Cubs, where he played two seasons before finishing his career in Cleveland and then becoming a beloved broadcaster for the New York Mets. He will always be associated with good attendance combined with terrible winning records in Pittsburgh. The Pirates finally decided to start improving the whole team after hitting bottom in 1952 with a record of 42-112.
The song most remembered by the Serendipity Singers was Don’t Let the Rain Come Down, an apparent appeal to the universe at large to protect the singers because their roof had a hole in it and they might drown. Sort of like praying for a home run slugger because you don’t want to fix the roster, or roof. I looked up that forgotten song on Google.