Ralph Kiner, who died Thursday at the age of 91, was my boyhood hero.
At the age of 12, I became aware of him as a Pittsburgh Pirate when I began reading the sports pages of the Altoona Mirror. That was 1946, and Ralph ended that baseball season as the home run king of the National League with 23 roundtrippers. That's not many by later standards, but enough for 1946.
I first saw Kiner in person at Forbes Field the following year when my older brother Mel took me to a doubleheader against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was seeing history made because Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier by playing first base for the Dodgers that year.
Nevertheless, it was Kiner who was the object of my attention and would remain so for the seven years he spent with the Bucs.
Brother Mel knew he could aggravate me by mocking Kiner. He called him "hook foot" because of his supposed failure as a lumbering defensive liability in left field. That would infuriate me and often lead to tears. Mel just laughed at my frustration.
I visited Forbes Field every year from 1947 until 1957, but after Kiner was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1953, I slowly lost interest in the Pirates. But while he was in Pittsburgh, I can recall that the Bucs, woefully inept, would often enter the bottom of the ninth inning too far behind for any hope of victory. If Kiner was scheduled to bat, fans remained in their seats just to see if he could launch a homer.
Often, he did.
When I became a columnist, I wrote about my affection for Kiner. A personal friend of his, a lady from Blair County who later lived in Allentown, wrote me and offered to connect us by letter. She organized an annual birthday card shower in Kiner's honor and invited me to join.
That's how I got an autographed photo of him and began a correspondence.
In 1995, I was living near Washington D.C., and Kiner was a featured participant at a sports memorabilia show in the area. I drove to the venue and double parked, hoping to swiftly pay for an autograph inscribed to my brother Mel from "Hook Foot Kiner."
I approached his table and was about to offer a booklet from the 1947 season for signing, when an intimidating voice commanded, "Get to the end of the line."
It was then I realized that a long, meandering queue had formed for Kiner's table, and a wait of at least an hour was anticipated. I didn't have that much time to spare. I just gazed on his countenance, remembered my hero worship and returned to my car.
I knew Kiner's address and telephone number at his residence in Palm Springs, Calif. When I was scheduled to attend a Navy reunion at nearby San Diego in 1998, I wrote and asked for an interview at his house, focusing on his duty as a Navy officer, flying antisubmarine missions from Hawaii during WWII.
We agreed on a time. But on the day my wife and I were scheduled to fly to California, she came down with a debilitating illness, and the trip was canceled.
My chance to meet Kiner face-to-face evaporated. In our exchange of notes through the years, I learned one fact about Kiner that I'll bet no other obituary mentions. He told me he was born unexpectedly in New Mexico when his parents were en route to California.
"I am the only Hall of Famer, in any sport," he said at the time, "who was born in New Mexico."
Wentz writes a monthly column for the Mirror and is an occasional contributor to Voice of the Fan.