Ralph Kiner’s decade-long Hall of Fame playing career began with a lightning strike as he smacked an NL-leading 23 home runs in his 1946 rookie season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. World War II Navy pilot Kiner would hit 51 the following year and 54 in 1949, becoming the first National League player with multiple 50-plus home run seasons, in the midst of a stretch that saw him lead the league in homers for seven consecutive years. Simultaneously among the game’s most feared and beloved Golden Age sluggers (often seen hanging with Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra when not joking around in the clubhouse with Hank Greenberg), the first half of Kiner’s baseball life was cut short due to chronic sciatica. Amazingly, it would be his second act, as a broadcaster for the New York Mets, that would bring Kiner the lasting adoration of three generations of baseball fans.
With a voice like seared gravel and a propensity for hilarious “Kinerisms” that had him announce Gary Cooper coming to bat (he meant Gary Carter) and even once misspeaking his own name (Ralph Korner?), Kiner called games the way you wished your campfire grandfather could have, conveying the love he had for the National Pastime with every eyebrow-raising syllable.
Starting with the Mets’ inaugural 1962 season and continuing in the broadcast booth full-time until 2006, Kiner’s active career with a single team (53 years) is the third-longest in history, behind only Vin Scully and Jaime Jarrin (64 and 55 years, respectively) of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Kiner’s Korner,” a postgame interview show named after the section of short left-center stands in Forbes Field where Kiner once planted wood-burnt white balls with ferocious regularity, became something of a cultural phenomenon in New York.
News of his passing was met with an outpouring of love and kind words from around the MLB family.
“Ralph was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Pirates uniform,” said Pirates President Frank Coonelly, “And was a tireless ambassador for the game of baseball. He was a treasured member of the Pittsburgh community during his seven years with the Pirates.”
Mets Chairman Fred Wilpon added, “Ralph Kiner was one of the most beloved people in Mets history — an original Met and extraordinary gentleman. After a Hall of Fame playing career, Ralph became a treasured broadcasting icon for more than half a century. His knowledge of the game, wit, and charm entertained generations of Mets fans. Like his stories, he was one of a kind.”
In a press statement, Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson noted, “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. 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.”
For all the amusing verbal miscues – “All of his saves have come in relief appearances” – perhaps the most poignant and simply elegant words on Kiner’s career came from the man himself. Telling Newsday columnist Joe Gergen, with whom Kiner wrote “Kiner’s Korner,” his 1987 autobiography, “I’ve been a very fortunate man. My earliest desires to be a major league ballplayer were satisfied and the second half of my life has been even more thrilling than the first.”
If we were all just half as fortunate in life as Mr. Kiner, there would be little demand for heroes, on the diamond or off.