SAN FRANCISCO -- When Frank Robinson took charge of the Cleveland Indians in 1975, the manager had a stern message for rookie second baseman Duane Kuiper.
"He sat me down and said, 'If you hit the ball in the air, you're not going to play.' And I believed it, because who doesn't believe him?" Kuiper said this week. "I'd hit five balls out of 10 in the air and he would pull me into his office and go, 'You're right on the edge of sitting down.'
"So I was really cognizant of just slashing it."
In a dozen big league seasons, Kuiper slashed, lined, chopped and bunted his way to a .271 average. Only one of his 917 hits, though, was a home run, and for that, Kuiper stands alone in the annals of baseball history. No player has more plate appearances with just one homer than Kuiper's 3,754. The next closest in modern baseball is Emil Verban who, to borrow Kuiper's catchphrase, "hit it high, hit it deep, outta here!" just once in 3,109 plate appearances.
The Giants and CSN Bay Area will celebrate Kuiper's rare feat Friday, handing out 40,000 commemorative bobbleheads before the series opener with the Indians, for whom Kuiper played eight productive seasons. An event like this couldn't happen unless the centerpiece has a sense of humor about it, and -- this surely won't surprise anyone who has listened to Kuiper broadcast a game -- the play-by-play man always has been able to laugh about pacing the club of little clout.
In The Associated Press story celebrating Kuiper's first homer in 1,382 big league at-bats, he joked: "This should put to rest forever the question of whether the ball is juiced up this year." Thirty-seven years later, he responds to a reporter's query with one of his own.
"The thing I always ask myself, and I'll ask it about this function: If I would have hit two, would there be a bobblehead?" Kuiper said. "No? Well, then this is fantastic!"
Kuiper has called thousands of homers, including Barry Bonds' 756th, but he still vividly remembers the details of his own. With one out and the bases empty in the bottom of the first on August 29, 1977, the left-handed hitter took Chicago White Sox right-hander Steve Stone deep to right.
"We were probably pretty much awestruck that he would keep that power hidden for so long," said former teammate Bill Melton, who hit a league-best 33 homers in 1971. "I was talking to Buddy Bell not long ago and we were trying to figure out which was the bigger event: The death of Elvis Presley (earlier that month) or Duane Kuiper's home run? Who was the true King?"
As Kuiper prepared for his second at-bat that August night, Melton approached him in the dugout and pointed out that the bat was a keepsake.
"He said, 'You're not going to use that bat again, are you?'" Kuiper recalls. "You might regret it if you don't ever hit another one."
Kuiper never did. Instead, he immediately went back to the style that kept him in the big leagues past his 35th birthday. In his first at-bat as a major league home run hitter, Kuiper squared to bunt before flying out.
"I'm sure I didn't fly out very deep into the outfield," he said, chuckling.
The lonely homer was a running joke in the Giants booth when Kuiper first teamed with Mike Krukow, who in a 1984 "Sports Illustrated" article, said of his future partner: "It's not that (he) lacks the power to hit a homer. It's just that he'd have to stand on second base, toss the ball in the air and fungo it."
For years, when a Giant would hit his first career homer, Krukow would pull out an old joke. "He just tied Duane Kuiper on the all-time home run list." The line ran its course, and these days Krukow -- who homered five times as a pitcher -- is quick to defend his partner's career, saying he was hell to pitch to. Krukow wishes more of today's uppercut-happy middle infielders would emulate Kuiper's approach.
"He was disciplined -- his job was to get pitches, bunt, get the runner over, get on base," Krukow said. "Kuip gets ridiculed for only hitting one home run in 10 years, but he never tried to hit a home run."
The one that did clear the fence produced plenty of memorabilia. Kuiper kept the ball, the bat and the jersey and even tracked down the stadium seat his homer dented. It sat in his attic for 25 years before his kids had it pulled down a month ago in preparation for the bobblehead night. For a while, Kuiper even had a black shirt that read: "Official Duane Kuiper Homerun T-Shirt," but it was swiped from his bag during a road trip.
The greatest keepsake, though, was a memory still fresh in Kuiper's mind. The Monday night game was nationally televised, giving Kuiper's father, who lived in Wisconsin, the rare opportunity to watch his son play. He witnessed a once-in-a-career moment, but four years later, Kuiper almost altered his place in longball lore.
He again was facing Stone, who by then was a Baltimore Oriole and coming off a Cy Young season. In his first at-bat that night, Kuiper hit one off the very top of the fence, settling for an RBI double. Earl Weaver yanked Stone a batter later.
"He kind of gazed at me like, I can't believe you almost did it to me twice," Kuiper said. "I remember thinking, 'God, I wish it would have gone out.' But for his sake, I'm glad it didn't.
"That would have been impossible."
Bay Area News Group staff writer Daniel Brown contributed to this story.