Friday, February 7, 2014
NEW YORK (AP) — Ralph Kiner was a smash as a slugger, launching so many home runs over the left-field wall at old Forbes Field that fans nicknamed it his corner.
Years later, as one of baseball's most beloved broadcasters, he became a big hit in a new "Kiner's Korner."
Kiner, the Hall of Famer whose frequent malaprops endeared him to New York Mets listeners for more than a half-century, died Thursday. He was 91.
The Hall of Fame said Kiner died at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with his family at his side.
"He was a jewel," Mets Hall of Famer Tom Seaver said.
Kiner hit 369 home runs during a 10-year career cut short by back problems. He debuted with Pittsburgh in 1946 and won or tied for the National League lead in homers in each of his first seven seasons.
He was popular off the field, too. His Hollywood pals included Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, he squired Liz Taylor and Janet Leigh, and he played himself in the 1951 film "Angels in the Outfield."
Kiner became a Mets announcer in their expansion season of 1962, working 17 years as a trio with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson. Kiner called their games for 52 years in all, including a handful of them last season.
Kiner was already a fixture on the Mets' airwaves when he was inducted into the Hall in 1975. He was elected with just one vote to spare in his 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot.
The six-time All-Star outfielder still ranks sixth all-time with a home run every 14.1 at-bats. He averaged more than 100 RBIs per season and hit .279 with the Pirates, the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland.
When he retired, Kiner was sixth on the career home run list.
To generations of TV viewers and radio listeners, his postcareer acclaim was as great as the honors he earned on the field.
"Kiner's Korner" was a delight for players and fans alike, where stars would join Kiner for postgame chats.
"I loved going on 'Kiner's Korner.' I enjoyed talking baseball with Ralph, especially learning about players from his era," former Mets star Dwight Gooden said. "But what really made it special was every time you went on, you got a $100. For a rookie like me in 1984, a $100 was a big deal."
Kiner was known for tripping over his own words, and often laughed about his own comments.
"If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave," he once commented after a misplay.
"On Father's Day, we again wish you all a happy birthday," he also said.
Then there was the time Gary Carter hit a winning home run in the 10th inning of his Mets' debut in 1985 and Kiner introduced him as Gary Cooper, the famed actor.
"Gary was a great sport about it," Kiner remembered. "He came on 'Kiner's Korner' afterward and introduced himself to me as Gary Cooper and even signed a picture to me, 'Gary Cooper Carter.'"
His observations were pretty astute, too.
Talking about a former Gold Glove outfielder, Kiner remarked: "Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox."
Kiner had a stroke about a decade ago that slowed his speech, but remained an occasional part of the Mets' announcing crew.
Fellow announcers such as Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling always brightened when Kiner was alongside them. Younger fans who were born long after Kiner retired also reveled in his folksy tales.
"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 easygoing nature, disarming humility and movie-star smile," Hall President Jeff Idelson said in a statement.
"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 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."
As a teen, hanging around the Hollywood Stars in the Pacific Coast League, Kiner shook hands with Babe Ruth and talked ball with Ty Cobb. In high school, he hit a home run off Satchel Paige during a barnstorming tour.
After serving as a Navy pilot in World War II, Kiner had a strong rookie year and won the NL homer title with 23, beating Johnny Mize by one. He really broke loose the next year, hitting 51 home runs with 127 RBIs while batting .313.
Stuck on poor teams, Kiner never made it to the postseason. He made his mark in All-Star games, homering in three straight.
Kiner connected in the 1950 showcase at Comiskey Park, but made more noise with another ball he hit in the game. He hit a long drive to the base of the scoreboard in left-center field and Ted Williams broke his left elbow making the catch, causing him to miss two months.
"Williams always said I ruined his batting stroke, that he could never hit after that," Kiner said. "Yeah, sure. He only hit .388 in '57."
Mets owner Fred Wilpon remembered Kiner as "one of the most beloved people in Mets history — an original Met and extraordinary gentleman."
"His knowledge of the game, wit, and charm entertained generations of Mets fans. Like his stories, he was one of a kind," he said. "Our sport and society today lost one of the all-time greats."
The Mets named the home TV booth at Shea Stadium in his honor. The Pirates retired Kiner's No. 4.
"All of us at the Pittsburgh Pirates have heavy hearts upon learning of Ralph Kiner's passing," the team said in a statement.
Ralph McPherran Kiner was born on Oct. 27, 1922.
He was first married to tennis star Nancy Chaffee. Following their divorce he married Barbara George, and following another divorce he married DiAnn Shugart, who died in 2004.