Ralph Kiner made the Hall of Fame with his powerful swing, then really made his mark with insightful, down-to-earth charm as a Mets broadcaster for more than a half-century. The man whose words made him a beloved New York icon and turned Kiner’s Korner into a baseball landmark died Thursday at 91.
He was a star slugger for the Pirates, hitting dozens of home runs into a section of Forbes Field that became known as Kiner’s Korner. He once was asked why he always gripped the bat at the handle, and he replied, “Cadillacs are down near the end of the bat.’’
That pithy comment, which became famous, was just a prelude to his long, legendary second career that featured a new Kiner’s Korner, a wood-paneled studio for postgame interviews. His grasp of the game and unique gift for expression appealed to generations of Mets fans, and others, with a canon of “Kinerisms’’ — a blend of blunt wisdom and malapropisms. He gained a hold on managers, players and viewers with descriptions such as this, of a centerfielder: “Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.’’
His death was announced Thursday afternoon by the Baseball Hall of Fame, which reported he died of natural causes with his family at his side at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Kiner’s was a rounded, accomplished life. He served as a U.S. Navy pilot in World War II, dated movie stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh), married a tennis champion (Nancy Chaffee), was a successful baseball executive and played an excellent game of golf.
Gary Cohen, a youthful fan who grew up to become a broadcasting successor and colleague, said when the Mets honored Kiner in 2007, “He’s as comfortable in his own skin as anyone you’ll ever meet.’’
But Kiner is perhaps best known for having been one of the Mets’ original voices who remained with the club, at least in a limited role, for more than 50 years.
Even the malapropisms became classics. He once called Gary Carter “Gary Cooper’’ and went to a commercial with the words, “We’ll be right back after this word from Manufacturers Hangover.’’
Still, what endeared him to his audience was his ability to capture the essence of the sport in a concise, entertaining way. Observing Phil Niekro’s knuckleball, he once said, “It’s like watching Mario Andretti park a car.’’
“Ralph Kiner was one of the most beloved people in Mets history — an original Met and extraordinary gentleman,’’ Mets chairman and CEO Fred Wilpon said in a statement.
“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.’’
David Wright, the current Mets captain and marquee player who grew up a fan of the team, met Kiner during his earliest days with the organization.
“When I signed with the Mets as an 18-year-old, I remember riding down the elevator with him one of my first times at Shea,’’ Wright said, recalling he worked up the nerve to introduce himself. “We had a great talk. He was always very nice to me.
“Through the years, we talked so much baseball,’’ Wright said Thursday. “I always enjoyed being around him. He was just a nice, nice, nice man.’’
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who recently spent time with Kiner, said in a statement: “Ralph Kiner was one of the greatest sluggers in National League history, leading the Senior Circuit in home runs in each of the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career. His consistent power and patience in the heart of the Pirates’ lineup made him a member of our All-Century Team and, in many respects, a player ahead of his time.
“Ralph dominated at the plate for a decade, but his contributions to our national pastime spanned generations. 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.”
Ralph McPherran Kiner was born on Oct. 27, 1922, in the copper mining town of Santa Rita, N.M. His father died when Ralph was 4 and his mother, a nurse, moved for a better job to Alhambra, Calif. There he took up baseball with the help of friendly neighbor kids, whose father had been a semipro pitcher.
He signed with the lowly Pirates in 1940, then interrupted his career by enlisting in the Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Strengthened by his military service and tutored by his mentor and Pirates teammate Hank Greenberg, Kiner led the National League in home runs in his first seven seasons. His 51 homers in 1947 set a league record. He became the highest-paid player in the NL with a $90,000 salary, but held out when general manager Branch Rickey cut him to $70,000 in 1953.
In his 1987 biography, “Kiner’s Korner,’’ written with Newsday’s Joe Gergen, he recalled Rickey’s stentorian voice saying, “Son, we could have finished last without you.’’
Kiner’s career was cut short by a back injury that limited him to 10 seasons and 369 home runs. Still, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, 20 years after he retired and in his final year on the writers’ ballot.
After five years as general manager of the San Diego Padres, then in the Pacific Coast League, he broadcast in 1961 for the White Sox (a job arranged by Greenberg). He joined the expansion Mets a year later, along with Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, forming an announcing team that stayed together for 17 years.
“Kiner’s Korner’’ instantly became a quirky institution on Channel 9. The very first show, with Mets manager Casey Stengel, went well until Stengel walked off without unhooking the microphone and brought down the set with him. Kiner liked to recall his exchange with laconic Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman in which the host asked the player, “What’s your wife like?’’ and Coleman responded, “She likes me, bub.’’
The announcer kept his stride even after the postgame show was discontinued. Tim McCarver, upon entering the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, cited the years he spent in the Mets’ booth with Kiner, calling the time “a privilege and an honor’’ — even when Kiner mistakenly called him “Tim MacArthur.’’
McCarver defused the error, saying that Kiner must have been thinking of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who once said that chance favors a prepared man. To which Kiner added, “Douglas MacArthur also said, ‘I shall return,’ and we’ll be right back after this.’’