If more baseball players knew in the 1940’s how lifting weights would enhance their careers, Cadillacs would have been in short supply. Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame outfielder and legendary New York Mets broadcaster who passed away Thursday at the age of 91, was one of the early major league players to experience tangible results from weight training.
Kiner paced the National League with 23 home runs during his 1946 rookie season, yet returned to his home in Alhambra, Calif., unsatisfied by his performance as he also led the league with 109 strikeouts. He sought the advice of Clint Conatser, who lived nearby and served in the Navy at the same time as him.
Conatser played a few years in the low minors before going off to World War II. He had given up on baseball prior to enlisting, but during his time in the military, he took up body building and thirty pounds of muscle later, he resurrected his baseball career in the Texas League. (Conatser later made the major leagues with the Boston Braves in 1948, helping to lead them to a World Series appearance that season against the Cleveland Indians.)
“I was in the service and my friend was a bodybuilder,” said Conatser from his home in California during a 2008 interview with the author. “We’d go work out in a gym and we started teaching it. I wasn’t worried about getting muscle-bound because I figured I wouldn’t play again. It made me a better ballplayer. My arm was better, everything was better.”
At the time, lifting heavy weights was frowned upon in baseball circles, as popular opinion was that the excess muscle would impede the flexibility necessary to swing a bat and throw a baseball. Kiner saw the positive effect that Conatser’s training had in reshaping his career, and despite it being discouraged by many in the game, he wanted in. In the winter of the 1946-47 off-season, he paid Conatser a visit at his home.
“Ralph Kiner came over because he heard that I had a lot of power for my size and wanted to know if it would help him,” Conatser said. “I wasn’t sure, but I told him that he should work on his arms and maybe his calves and legs.”
Conatser’s uncertainty that Kiner would see the same results he experienced with his body-building routine didn't phase the young slugger. Conatser told Brent Kelley in “The Pastime in Turbulence,” how Kiner viewed the physical training as an opportunity to truly place himself among the great power hitters of all-time.
“I studied the great home run hitters and they’re all strong,” Kiner said to Conatser. “I’m not strong. If they throw me high or change up on me, I can’t jerk it out of the ballpark. Jimmie Foxx, they used to fool him and he’d still hit it out. I realized I needed to get strong in my hands and arms to be a great home run hitter.”
He immediately went out and purchased a weight set, built a gym in his garage, and spent the entire winter working out. The dividends were immediate. He hit 51 home runs in 1947 and cut his strikeout total to 81. No longer could pitchers get away with fooling Kiner, as he made them pay repeatedly for the same pitches he was vulnerable to the season prior.
Eddie Basinski came to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers during the same off-season that Kiner dedicated himself to building his physique. Basinski, speaking in a 2009 interview with the author from his Portland home, recalled the prodigious nature of Kiner’s newfound strength.
“Kiner put on a show at the Polo Grounds in batting practice that was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “There were some sportswriters that compared him to Babe Ruth and he didn't like it one bit. They said, ‘See that third flag over in left center field, Ruth hit a ball over the roof right at that flag, over the whole roof!’ On about the third pitch right after that, he hit one exactly in the same place. They shut up after that. He hit the ball so hard with a backspin that the ball was actually climbing and wouldn't go down. It was a fantastic home run!”