Sports

Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner dies at 91

Sluggers Ted Williams and Ralph Kiner got together before the 1950 All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Sluggers Ted Williams and Ralph Kiner got together before the 1950 All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.Associated Press

By Bruce Weber

New York Times

NEW YORK — Ralph Kiner — baseball’s vastly undersung slugger, who belted more home runs than anyone else over his 10-year career before becoming one of the game’s most recognizable personalities through his decades in the broadcast booth — died Thursday at home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The Hall of Famer was 91.

Mr. Kiner spent half a century as a New York Mets announcer, enlivening their broadcasts with shrewd analysis, amiable storytelling, and memorable malapropisms beginning with their woeful first season in 1962.

His genial presence accompanied all of Mets history, from the verbal high jinks of Casey Stengel and the fielding high jinks of Marv Throneberry to the arrival of fireballer Tom Seaver and the miraculous World Series championship of 1969, from the thrilling 1986 Series victory over the Red Sox to the dispiriting Subway Series loss to the Yankees in 2000 and the Bernard Madoff-poisoned, injury-riddled ill fortune of recent seasons.

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But long before he declared that “if Casey Stengel were still alive he’d be spinning in his grave” or watched a long ball disappear from the park with the trademark call, “Going, going, gone, goodbye,” Mr. Kiner was one of the game’s great right-handed hitters.

Before his career was cut short by a back injury, Mr. Kiner delivered a concentrated display of power exhibited by few other sluggers. Slow afoot and undistinguished as an outfielder, he was nonetheless among the signature stars of the baseball era immediately after World War II, in the same conversation with Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial.

From 1946 to 1955, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Chicago Cubs, and the Cleveland Indians, he totaled 369 home runs, twice hitting more than 50 in a season, and drove in 1,015 runs, an average of more than 100 a year.

During his first seven seasons, all with Pittsburgh, Mr. Kiner led the National League in home runs every year, still a record streak for either league. (Twice he tied with Johnny Mize, once with Hank Sauer.)

From 1947 to 1951, he had home run totals of 51, 40, 54, 47, and 42, becoming only the second player, Babe Ruth was the first, to hit at least 40 home runs five consecutive seasons.

From 1932, when Hack Wilson hit 56 homers for the Chicago Cubs, to baseball’s steroid era in the 1990s, Mr. Kiner’s 54 homers in 1949 was the highest single-season total for a National Leaguer; Henry Aaron never matched him, nor did Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mike Schmidt, or Willie McCovey, all Hall of Famers with more than 500 career homers.

Mr. Kiner never made it to the World Series; the Pirates of his era were perpetually mediocre (or worse), and so were the Cubs. In 1955, traded to the American League for his last season, he got closest: the Indians finished second to the Yankees.

For a time, Mr. Kiner was among baseball’s highest-paid players. But after Pittsburgh’s dreadful 1952 season, when the team’s record was 42-112 in spite of Mr. Kiner’s league-leading home run performance, Branch Rickey, the Pirates’ general manager, cut his salary, reportedly telling him, “Son, we can finish last without you.”

His short career, along with his longtime residence at the bottom of the standings, perhaps explains Mr. Kiner’s relative lack of recognition. When he was finally elected to the Hall of Fame, in 1975, his 15th and final year of eligibility, he sneaked in with 273 votes out of a possible 362, two more than needed for election.

Ralph McPherran Kiner was born in Santa Rita, N.M. His father, a baker, died when Ralph was 4, and he moved with his mother, Beatrice, a nurse, to Alhambra, Calif., where he grew up playing ball. He signed with the Pirates after graduating from high school, playing two seasons and part of a third in the minor leagues before training as a US Navy pilot during World War II. He served in the Pacific, assigned to search for Japanese submarines, though he acknowledged he did not see combat or much else.

“I was on a few patrols but, gosh, we didn’t even spot a whale,” he said in 1947.

At the start of that year, his second in the big leagues, the Pirates acquired the great slugger Hank Greenberg from the Detroit Tigers, and Greenberg became Mr. Kiner’s roommate and mentor (and later his best man at his wedding to tennis star Nancy Chaffee), advising him on his swing, his preparation, his work ethic.

Greenberg’s acquisition helped Mr. Kiner in more tangible ways, as well. For one thing, Greenberg hit behind him in the batting order, making sure he got better pitches to hit, and Mr. Kiner hit .313, the highest average of his career. What is more, to accommodate Greenberg, the Pirates had modified Forbes Field, moving in the left field fence to bring it in line with other ballparks and installing the bullpens behind it, an area that came to be called Greenberg Gardens for the long balls the new Pirate was expected to plant there.

But Mr. Kiner was the primary beneficiary of the change, hitting 51 home runs. Playing what turned out to be his last season, Greenberg hit 25. Greenberg Gardens was rechristened Kiner’s Korner.

The two men were reunited in 1955, when Greenberg, then the general manager of the Indians, acquired Mr. Kiner from the Cubs, a transaction complicated by Mr. Kiner’s curious decision to sign a contract for $40,000 a year, less than he was offered and far less than he made the previous year in Chicago, reported to be $65,000.

Major League player representatives objected to the contract because it violated the agreement between players and club owners that a player’s salary could not be reduced by more than 25 percent in a season. Baseball’s commissioner, Ford C. Frick, indicated that he would void the contract, and Mr. Kiner and Greenberg, who did not want to pay him so little in the first place, eventually renegotiated it.

“I did not have too good a year with the Cubs, and my salary might have been resented by some players,” explained Mr. Kiner, who was among the players who fought owners for an improved pension plan.

In Cleveland, his back problems worsened. He played only 113 games for the Indians in 1955 and hit a career-low 18 homers, prompting his retirement. For five years afterward he was general manager of the San Diego Padres, then a minor league team, and in 1961 he got his first broadcasting job, calling games on the radio for the Chicago White Sox. The next season the Mets began life in New York, and he was offered a job on their broadcast team, he once said, “because I had a lot of experience with losing.”

Over half a century of Met broadcasts, while sharing the microphone with Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Tim McCarver, whom he once called Tim MacArthur, among many others, Mr. Kiner proved himself especially valuable in explaining the nuances of hitting, and though occasionally criticized for a flat affect and a penchant for phrase-bungling — “On Father’s Day we again wish you all happy birthday!” — he was known as an amusing raconteur who was generally well prepared with both facts and stories, and his intended wit was often as memorable as his unintended humor.

“Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water,” he declared about a fleet outfielder. “The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.” Cutting to a commercial after mistaking McCarver’s name for that of the World War II general, he said: “MacArthur once said, ‘I shall return,’ and we’ll be back after this.”

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