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Kiner, Hall of Fame slugger, broadcaster, dies at 91

Led Majors in homers for six straight years with Bucs; worked Mets games since 1962

When Frank Cashen approached a gathering of men at Spring Training camp in the 1980s, he routinely addressed them three times. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen," the Mets general manager would say, no matter the number of scoundrels and scallywags in the group. He once explained why he would paint them all with the same benefit-of-the-doubt brush. "Just in case Mr. Kiner is among them," Cashen said. "Any group that includes Ralph would have to be a group of gentlemen."

A tad presumptuous, perhaps, but probably true; the gentle and princely presence of Ralph Kiner could turn a gathering of crooks, rogues and rascals into civil and gracious fellows. Mr. Kiner had that effect, the opposite of one bad apple. "One wonderful man," Tim McCarver once said. "Any group of people is better off if Ralph joins."

On this mournful day, consider the group of mankind worse off; Ralph McPherran Kiner has died. One of baseball's genuine and most charming gentlemen, foremost sluggers and most enduring personalities passed away Thursday at age 91. He died peacefully of natural causes, with his family at his side, at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the National Baseball Hall of Fame said.

"Ralph dominated at the plate for a decade, but his contributions to our national pastime spanned generations," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "For 52 years, Ralph was a one-of-a-kind voice of the Mets, linking baseball's unparalleled history to New York's new National League franchise since its very inception.

"I am grateful that I recently had the opportunity to visit with Ralph, whose lifetime of service to baseball will always be treasured by the fans of Pittsburgh, New York and beyond. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to his five children, his 12 grandchildren, his friends throughout our game and his admirers everywhere."

The game's shoulders are slumping and its eyes are moist. Baseball has had few in its family who were so widely revered, beloved and enjoyed.

"A man impossible to dislike," Kiner's longtime broadcast partner, the late Bob Murphy, said years ago. No one has ever disputed that assessment. Whether he was known as a Pirates slugger, Mets announcer, a Hall of Famer, the Keeper of the Korner, golf partner or the guy next to you on the elevator, Kiner was, above all, a gentleman. He held the door for his fellow men and women, deferred to others, always reached first for the check and considered a request for his autograph a compliment. He traveled on the high road exclusively.

Now Kiner is gone, leaving a legacy of always cordial interaction with folks he did and did not know, exceptional power-hitting, masterful storytelling, vast baseball knowledge, uncommon decency, untold kindnesses and unforgettable slips of the tongue.

"It's always a pleasure to be in Mr. Kiner's company," Cashen, the GM from 1980-91, said the day he joined Kiner and others in the Mets' Hall of Fame. "We could use more Ralph Kiners in our world."

Said Mets chairman and CEO Fred Wilpon: "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. We send our deepest condolences to Ralph's five children and 12 grandchildren. Our sport and society today lost one of the all-time greats."

Through charisma and persona, Kiner became a celebrity who transcended the game. He made Pittsburgh the home run capital for most of a decade, and at times, a suburb of Hollywood. Kiner's companions included Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Esther Williams. He married standout tennis player Nancy Chaffee.

When his back betrayed him and cut short his playing career in the mid-1950s, Kiner developed into a voice for generations of Mets fans. He knew the game, its people and its idiosyncrasies. He could fill a cross-country flight with entertaining anecdotes about Frankie Frisch, his first manager, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Casey Stengel, Marv Throneberry and Liz. And Kiner had more than enough stories for the return flight.

Kiner's institutional memory of the Mets exceeded that of all others. He was there from the first day and had unequaled entry in the organization. He had maps to all the skeletons and firsthand knowledge of so much. Whether the group included Casey and Yogi, Seaver and Koosman, Carter and Hernandez or Wright and Reyes, Kiner was one of them, accepted, appreciated and respected for all he had done and all he could relate.

Those who shared the television booths with Kiner -- the booths at Shea Stadium and Citi Field were named after him -- embraced all he brought to the airwaves. Mostly, folks took pleasure and pride in him. "Being one of the people Ralph knows and talks to is just ... so cool ... great ... unbelievably cool and great," Howie Rose said.

Words hadn't failed Rose, a Mets radio man. Such sentiments were often expressed by others as well.

Because he had been a fixture in the game's largest market for 52 years, Kiner's history sometimes seemed to have begun in 1962, when the expansion Mets were bumbling infants. His star was born 16 years earlier, though. Before he became a link to our past and a valued component of our present, he was a celebrity. Kiner's power hitting, from 1946-55, put him on the outskirts of Cooperstown. He became a permanent resident in 1975, when he received one vote more than was required for induction in his final year of eligibility on the writers' ballot.

Kiner missed only one Hall of Fame induction, in 2012, and never took his own for granted.

"With the passing of Ralph Kiner, the baseball world has lost one of its greatest ambassadors and the Hall of Fame has lost a wonderful friend," said Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark. "Ralph spent eight decades as a player, executive and broadcaster. He was a man who truly loved our national pastime and made it better in every way. His legacy will live forever in Cooperstown."

Kiner touched so many people in his time, most of them through his work as a Mets announcer and the host of "Kiner's Korner," the postgame show that regularly demonstrated his warmth and his appreciation and knowledge of the game. He was a vein rich in baseball lore. His voice was one of experience. And what experience!

Kiner played for Frisch, roomed with Hank Greenberg, played with Bob Feller, and knew -- and occasionally disagreed with -- Branch Rickey. He kibitzed with Stengel, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Willie Mays, tutored Ron Swoboda and called the games of Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw, Dwight Gooden and David Wright.

Whether the topic was Nolan Ryan or Ryan Thompson, Leo's lip or Casey's hip, Mookie or El Duque, Piggy's tomatoes or Strawberry's field, Roger Cedeno or Rogers Hornsby, Gary Cooper or Cooperstown, Mr. Met or Miss Rheingold, Mettle the Mule or the black cat, David Cone or Gary Cohen, the Hammer or Nails, the '62 Mets or the '93 mess, the K Corner or Bobby O, Wagner's heat or Tug's screwball, Liz Taylor's smile or George Foster's scowl, Rusty's ribs or Pedro's shoulder, Mazzilli's pants or Lindsey's jackets, Robert L. Miller or Robert E. Mets, Kiner had a firm grasp of the topic, something to say about it and a willingness to share it with all.

Chances are, though, that we never would have come to know Kiner if not for his ability to hit baseballs over fences, walls and outfielders' heads. He led the NL in home runs or tied for the league lead in each of his first seven seasons, beginning in 1946. He led the big leagues or tied for the leadership from 1947-52; not even Babe Ruth accomplished such a six-year run. Kiner and Johnny Mize hit 51 home runs each in 1947, and Kiner hit 54 two years later. No other NL player had two 50-plus home run seasons until 1965, when Mays, who hit 51 in 1955, hit 52.

The resume Kiner created in the Minor Leagues from 1941 to early in the '43 season -- 27 home runs and a .264 average in 1,136 at-bats -- hardly suggested Kiner would flourish when he reached the big leagues. But when he returned to baseball in 1946, after serving as a Navy pilot in the Pacific, he had gained 20 pounds and matured. He was a Spring Training phenom.

Though Kiner equaled the Pirates' club home run record, 23, as a rookie, his power often was offset by the unkind dimensions of Forbes Field. Only eight of his home runs were hit in Pittsburgh.

The Pirates acquired Greenberg from the Tigers in 1947, and the future Hall of Fame slugger became "the single biggest influence of my adult life," according to Kiner. The two sluggers -- Kiner was 24, Greenberg 36 -- became close friends and developed a student-teacher relationship. Kiner became more of a pull hitter because of Greenberg and changes in the dimensions of Forbes Field. And Greenberg taught him other valuable lessons, among them that a tuxedo requires black, not brown, shoes.

The acquisition of Greenberg had more tangible impact. The Pirates reduced the respective distances to the walls in left and left-center field from 365 and 406 feet to 335 and 376. That created what newspaper men identified as "Greenberg's Garden" and what later became "Kiner's Korner."

The Korner seemingly was a factor in Kiner's power production: 28 of his 51 homers in '47 were hit at Forbes. He hit seven home runs in a four-game sequence in August and eight in another four games in September. All eight games were in Pittsburgh. He became the fifth player to hit 50 home runs in a season on Sept. 18.

After his salary was tripled -- to $30,000 -- and his teammate Fritz Ostermueller noted that, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs. Singles hitters drive Fords," words often attributed to Kiner, the Pirates slugger did buy a Cadillac.

The Pirates signed Kiner for $40,000 for 1949, during which he would threaten the single-season home run records of Babe Ruth (60) and Hack Wilson (56 in the NL). On Sept. 11, when he became the first player to hit home runs in four successive at-bats for a second time, he had 48, with 12 in his last 14 games. But he finished with 54.

The Bucs signed Kiner to a two-year contract, unheard of in 1950, for $65,000 per season. He was the highest-paid player in the NL, and only Joe DiMaggio, Feller and Ted Williams had higher annual salaries. Kiner averaged 44 home runs and 115 RBIs per season, and he batted .285 with a .411 on-base average from 1947-53.

Kiner's strikeout total exceeded 90 once, in his rookie season. He placed in the top 10 in MVP Award balloting from 1947-52, though Pittsburgh finished higher than sixth place -- in an eight-team league -- once.

"All of us at the Pittsburgh Pirates have heavy hearts upon learning of Ralph Kiner's passing," the team said in reaction to Kiner's death. "Ralph was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Pirates uniform 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.

"Our heartfelt sympathies, thoughts and prayers go out to his children, grandchildren, other family members and many friends. He will be missed by all of us at the Pirates organization."

The Pirates traded Kiner, who was 30, with Joe Garagiola and two others to the Cubs for six players and $150,000 on June 4, 1953. By the end of the 1954 season, Kiner had hit 50 home runs and driven in 160 runs for Chicago. A move to the Indians -- Greenberg was their GM -- followed, as did more problems with his back. Kiner appeared in 113 games in 1955 for the defending league champions, who placed second to the Yankees, and was forced to retire. His 369 home runs ranked sixth all-time when his career ended.

Kiner served as GM of the San Diego Padres, the Indians' affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. He worked postgame shows in Pittsburgh during the 1960 World Series and White Sox games in 1961. And in '62, he, Murphy and Lindsey Nelson began a 17-year run as the Mets' television and radio announcers. Nelson left, Murphy, who died in 2004, retired in 2003. And Kiner had filled a diminishing role in recent years.

But his time in the booth provided the game with some unforgettable observations and mistakes that prompted the term "Kinerisms."

• He identified Gary Carter as Gary Cooper after the future Hall of Fame catcher hit a walk-off home run in his first game with the Mets, on Opening Day in 1985.

• He introduced announcer Gary Cohen as David Cone, who was to be the Mets' pitcher that night.

• He said, "All of Rick Aguilera's saves have come in relief appearances."

• He credited Darryl Strawberry with decoying baserunner Darryl Strawberry.

• When Jason Isringhausen started opposite Todd Stottlemyre, Kiner said, "This will go down in history as the game where the pitchers have the most initials."

• He said, "Tony Gwynn was named player of the year for April."

But Kiner also was the source of several brilliant lines, including:

• "Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox."

• "Cadillacs (meaning home runs) are down at the end of the bat."

And he participated in one of the enduring exchanges in baseball history. Catcher Choo Choo Coleman was a guest on one of the early "Kiner's Korner" programs. Kiner probed Coleman, asking "What's your wife's name?"

Coleman's response: "Mrs. Coleman."

Kiner's question: "What's she like?"

Coleman's response: "She likes me, Bub."

Kiner's most memorable television remark, however, involved one person:

He said, "Hello everybody, welcome to Kiner's Korner, I'm Ralph Korner."

Marty Noble is a reporter for
Read More: New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Ralph Kiner