There are the great voices of baseball – Vin Scully, Harry Carey, Phil Rizzuto, and Tim McCarver to name a few – who rise above being connected to a specific team and seem to resonate for all baseball fans. Ralph Kiner was indeed one of those voices, and it was not just the fans who loved and appreciated his talents, but the baseball players were the ones who loved him most of all. When I heard that Ralph passed away, I turned yet another page in my life, but remembered fondly all the years that Ralph had been a part of it.
Ralph Kiner played ten years in Major League Baseball (smashing 369 homers and driving in 1,015 runs) and retired at the ripe old age of 32 because of physical problems, including a bad back. If we do the math and think about it (that’s an average of 36 homers and 101 RBI a season!), we can only imagine what would have been if Ralph had been able to play five or more years. We’re talking at least 500 or more homers, but Kiner’s legacy had been sealed as the premier slugger of his time (seven National League home run titles in a row) and he earned his spot in MLB’s Hall of Fame. That might have been enough for some, but Ralph’s second career would prove to be where he became even more famous.
Before serial celebrity dater Derek Jeter, Kiner rivaled Joe DiMaggio in his ability to date Hollywood royalty (Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh). He also knew how to play the public relations game unlike some guys who alienate baseball reporters. Everyone seemed to like Ralph because there was no bad press, and there was none because Ralph was a genuine “nice guy” who endeared himself to fans, fellow players, and just about everyone else.
Growing up watching NY Mets broadcasts I joined many other Mets fans being treated to the Three Musketeers of the broadcast booth – Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson, and Bob Murphy. Each one brought a different aspect of insight, intelligence, and talent to the games we watched. Nelson, in his flamboyant sports jackets, seemed to be the straight man, a sort of Zeppo Marx to his two more humorous “brothers” in the booth. Murphy could always be counted on for a flubbed name or less than insightful comment (such as for Dave Kingman – “You can just call him ‘Sky’”- since Kingman always hit sky-high balls for outs), but it was Ralph who added heft of reputation (he was the only one who actually played the game) and displayed wonderful humor as well.
Many people have noted the “Ralphisms” that we all waited to hear anxiously during each game. Kiner was well known for mixing up sentences to our delight. One of my favorites was in a game when the opposing player had hit a home run and Ralph noted it as soon as it was hit, “A homer – no bout a-dout it!” There were many others including noting what he thought was a homer, “Going, going, gone….” (long silence as the outfielder caught the ball and then not missing a beat) “and into the mitt of centerfielder!” That was classic Ralphism at its best.
But whether he was calling Gary Carter “Gary Cooper” or noting that there would be a commercial for “Manufacturer’s Hangover,” Ralph was universally loved because it all came down to the essence of this – Kiner loved baseball as much and probably more than the fans and the game loved him, and we all knew it and appreciated him even more because of it. Despite all the malaprops and the laughs, Ralph brought genuine insight into each game. He also related so many stories, that to this day I feel like I know everything about all these legendary baseball guys like “Wee” Willie Keeler, Hank Greenberg, and the like whom I never saw play but felt like I did because of Ralph.
They say you can judge a man by the friends he keeps (and also how others speak of him), and there has never been an ill word about Ralph Kiner. Players on other teams couldn’t wait to appear on his after game TV show Kiner’s Korner, and not because they wanted to get on TV ( or the $50 they got for an appearance) but because they wanted to meet Ralph. I have seen big names – legends like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Steve Carlton, Johnny Bench, and many more – gushing when in Ralph’s presence. They were genuinely awed by a guy who not only played the game but one who had mastered it.
Former broadcast partner and Met great Rusty Staub put it best about Kiner, “He was a player’s guy.” So many other former players, current players, teammates, and fans have chimed in since they heard of Ralph’s passing. Not one bad word is said because Ralph lived his life appreciative of everything. He enjoyed baseball, his career as an announcer, and never uttered a bad word about others. They say you get back what you give, and this avalanche of accolades from so many people clearly indicates he gave well.
I only saw Kiner once in person, and it is a weird story. I must have been nine or ten and my father had taken me to a game. I wanted a hotdog and soda, and Dad gave me five dollars and sent me to the concession stand to get the same for him too (five bucks went a long way in those days). It was during an inning and Tom Seaver was pitching, and my father wasn’t going to miss a pitch.
I ran up to the counter but was behind a very tall man who had all the workers laughing. It seemed he was holding court for a long time, and as he turned around with his tray filled with two hotdogs and big cup of soda, I saw that it was Ralph Kiner. I was kind of in shock and he looked down at me and said, “Sorry I took so long, son.” I must have stared at Kiner with my mouth open and staggered to follow him a bit, and after that I was in a kind of trance. Somehow I made it back to my seat and my Dad noticed I still had the money clutched in my hand. “What happened?” he asked.
I finally said, “I just saw him.” My father asked who and I honestly couldn’t think of his name so I said, “I don’t know but I saw him.” We talked about that over the years and always had a good laugh over that.
Now Ralph Kiner is gone, and we have lost another great one. Though he made his mark as a player as a Pittsburgh Pirate, he became the quintessential Met broadcaster and ultimately a fan. He represented not only everything great about baseball but also how a player and announcer could conduct himself with dignity, class, and respect for himself and others. Surely, and I know this has been said before but never applied more than to Ralph Kiner, we shall not see the likes of him again.
There is a sad, empty “Korner” in New York City now, one christened with tears and memories of those who loved Ralph Kiner. As Mike Piazza noted, Ralph was “a true gentleman.” He joins Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy in that broadcast booth on the other side now. I guarantee that heaven is a brighter place with Ralph Kiner there – no bout a-dout it!
Photo credits: ny daily news, AP, ABC news