Ralph Kiner, a home run-hitting Hall of Famer who starred for the Pittsburgh Pirates and later helped define the New York Mets' broadcasts, has died at 91. He was a frequent all-star who later became a favorite of Mets fans and players.
Outside of sports fans' circles, Kiner's name might not ring a bell. But as the New York Daily News reports, he was most definitely a "somebody" for nearly all of his long life:
"It is hard to imagine anyone having lived a more dream life than Kiner, who grew up in Alhambra, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, fulfilled his childhood ambition of being a major league baseball player, won a record seven straight National League home run titles to get himself elected to the Hall of Fame and, along the way, was golfing pals with Hollywood legends Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Jack Benny, dated movie stars Janet Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor, and, finally, became one of the most beloved New York sports figures as Mets broadcaster from their 1962 inception until 2006 when he finally had his workload reduced to cameo TV appearances."
Kiner died of natural causes early Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., according to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the 1940s, Kiner's big-league career was delayed by a stint in the Navy, the Daily News reports. He returned to baseball after World War II ended in 1945 and went on to win the National League home run title in 1946, his rookie season.
After joining the Pirates, Kiner hit more than 40 home runs in five different seasons. In one of his strongest years, 1949, he hit 54 homers with just 61 strikeouts, as he batted in 127 runs and drew 117 walks.
"As one of baseball's most prolific power hitters for a decade, Ralph struck fear into the hearts of the best pitchers of Baseball's Golden Era despite his easy-going nature, disarming humility and movie-star smile," said Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
"His engaging personality and profound knowledge of the game turned him into a living room companion for millions of New York Mets fans who adored his game broadcasts and later 'Kiner's Korner' for more than half a century," Idelson said. "He was as comfortable hanging out in Palm Springs with his friend Bob Hope as he was hitting in front of Hank Greenberg at Forbes Field."
Kiner met Greenberg, his friend and mentor, in Pittsburgh. As the city's Post-Gazette reports, Kiner came along at a good time for the city:
"Kiner arrived in Pittsburgh in 1946, when the city was returning to normalcy after World War II and searching for a hero. He fit the mold. Handsome, clean-cut, bright, personable and able to deliver the most exciting sports moment with astonishing frequency, Kiner shone like no Pirate before or after him.
"He led the National League in home runs his first seven seasons, 1946 through 1952. He was the idol of the town and that only increased when he courted and married, in 1951, Nancy Chaffee, a glamorous and world-famous tennis champion."
Kiner left Pittsburgh after being traded by general manager Branch Rickey, moving on to stints with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. His career was truncated by back problems, but he still managed to average more than 100 RBIs over his 10 years in the majors. He even inspired a comic book:
Years after he retired, Kiner endeared himself to New York Mets players and fans, sharing enigmatic moments during games and a show featuring his chats with athletes.
"Someone asked me how come I signed up with the Mets [as a broadcaster], since they weren't going to win many games," Kiner later said. "I said: 'I've got a lot of experience with losing.' "
From the AP:
" 'Kiner's Korner' was a delight for players and fans alike, where stars would join Kiner for postgame chats. Known for malaprops — he once even forgot his own name on air — he took the occasional slips in stride.
" 'He was a jewel,' Hall of Famer Tom Seaver said. 'He loved the game of baseball. He loved to see it played correctly and smartly. He loved to talk baseball. He deeply understood the game, especially hitting.' "
His warmth and charm also made fans forgive Kiner for his occasional verbal stumbles.
As The New York Times reports, Kiner once "declared that 'if Casey Stengel were still alive he'd be spinning in his grave,' " and described home runs with "the trademark call, 'Going, going, gone, goodbye!' "
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner has died at the age of 91. Kiner was a powerful slugger with the Pittsburgh Pirates but is best known to generations of baseball fans as the voice of the New York Mets.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FOOTAGE)
RALPH KINER: Well, hi everybody. I'm Ralph Kiner and we have as our special guest Tom Sever who, of course, started the ball game for the Mets...
GREENE: Kiner broadcast the Met's very first game in 1962, and stayed with the team all the way up to this past season. NPR's Mike Pesca is on the line to remember Kiner's legacy. Hey, Mike.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey.
GREENE: So tell me first about Kiner as a player which is before the period that many of us remember him from.
PESCA: Right. So he served in the Navy as a pilot in World War II, broke into the league in 1946. Immediately leads the league in home runs for the next seven straight seasons.
PESCA: Has a couple more good seasons with Pittsburgh, traded to Chicago. Back problems, out of baseball in 10 years. He is one of the few people - Babe Ruth is another - for whom it can be said he led the league in home runs for most of his playing career. And he was elected to the Hall of Fame by actually one vote about 15 years later.
GREENE: By just one vote? I mean, it's amazing that such a slugger with more home runs than almost anyone and you don't always think of him as one of baseball's great sluggers.
PESCA: Well, you don't because you think of him as a great broadcaster. And that is where people got to know him and as a Mets broadcaster, and with this signature post-game show, "Kiner's Korner" he really became beloved.
GREENE: Well, what were his strengths as a broadcaster that you feel made him special?
PESCA: Oh, he was giving and generous and he had a good wit. He was known for misstatements and malaprops: It's Fathers Day out there so we want to say to all the fathers Happy Birthday.
PESCA: And the like. But, you know, also if you watched a lot of Met games, as I did, the mechanics of hitting he was a master at. He'd talk about where the hands should be on the bat and the wrists - because he was so good at it and these were the things he talked about. He was a loquacious and giving guy and he also - you know, if you were a Mets fan you learned a lot about hitting from Ralph Kiner.
It was clear that the other greats who would always join him in the booth had enormous respect for Ralph Kiner.
GREENE: He was talking from experience.
GREENE: You know, I caught a couple of the "Kiner's Korner," the post-game interview show that you're talking about. I mean, especially in this day and age of just, you know, crazy fast paced media there was just something to simple and authentic about it.
PESCA: Well, "Kiner's Korner," it should be noted, both those words were spelled with a K and that tells you a little something.
PESCA: And it was just seen as such a big deal by the players. Back when he started, media was really small. There were only a few stations and this was a studio in the ballpark in New York. So players really wanted to get on that. And, you know, as late as the late '90s there was a Cardinals pitcher, Ricky Horton, who just kept saying his dream was to be on "Kiner's Korner" and he was never invited because you had to be the Player of the Game.
And Horton never really did it.
GREENE: Well, what - I mean, you live in New York. You're a sports fan, as I'm well aware of. I mean, do you remember Kiner as a broadcaster, as a player? I mean, what are the memories you have?
PESCA: Well, you knew that he was a great player and clips exist, but yes, he was - see, broadcasters are of course so important with the Mets, and starting from 1962 - way before my time - until a couple of years ago, he was almost fulltime. And then they would always bring him back. So the important thing about Kiner was sort of the important thing about baseball: it's the game without a clock.
It's the timeless game and it was his link to the past. So Ralph would talk about Hank Greenberg, the great slugger who was brought in to be his mentor with the Pirates. And Greenberg played on Detroit teams with Hall of Famers like Charlie Gehringer. Gehringer was a teammate of Ty Cobb. So in a couple steps you go from a guy talking about well, my mentor's teammate was Ty Cobb. So that was Ralph Kiner and that was baseball.
GREENE: All right. We've been talking to NPR's Mike Pesca about Baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner who died at the age of 91 years old. Mike, thanks so much for talking to us, as always.
PESCA: You're welcome.
GREENE: And you are listening to that conversation here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.