This one hurts. Not just the New York Mets and their fans, but all Major League Baseball, lost a legend today with the passing of Ralph Kiner in his California home with his family by his side.
Kiner lived his 91 years to his fullest as a Hall of Fame slugger followed by a 52-year broadcast career with the Mets. This is a man who hung around with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and dated Elizabeth Taylor.
On and off the field, Kiner was a star, one who inspired and drew awe, but of his traits and skills, perhaps his greatest was his humility and ability to connect with his adoring fans on a basic, human level.
“Losing Ralph is like losing a member of the family,’’ said Mets broadcaster Howie Rose, perhaps saying it best. “His warmth, humility and sense of humor will be missed. I’ll always treasure being able to share a broadcast booth with a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word.’’
Numbers are numbers, and Kiner’s were most impressive, beginning with leading the National League in homers in each of his first seven years in the majors. He averaged a homer every 14.1 at-bats and over 100 RBI a season.
However, those are numbers, which don’t accurately measure his impact.
Bud Selig called him “a player ahead of his time.’’
In a statement, the Pirates, for whom he starred, said: “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.’’
Tom Seaver called him “a jewel,’’ while Mets owner Fred Wilpon said: “Ralph Kiner was one of the most beloved people in Mets history – an original Met and extraordinary gentleman. … He was one of a kind.’’
Mets fans grew to know, and love Kiner, as a broadcaster. He, along with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson, were their original broadcast team. Kiner carved out a niche for himself as host of “Kiner’s Korner,’’ the postgame show where players reveled in talking with Kiner and getting gift certificates and $100 checks.
Kiner became known for his stories and malaprops, once saying, “if Casey Stengel were alive today he’d be spinning in his grave.’’
Not just stories, but Kiner loved to talk hitting, often, in the days before specialized hitting coaches, talking with the younger Mets.
“One September afternoon in 1969, I asked him to come and feed balls through the pitching machine,’’ recalled Ron Swoboda. “We talked for about an hour. He gave me tips on holding the bat. That night I had the greatest night of my career.’’
That night, Sept. 15, Swoboda hit a pair of two-run homers off Steve Carlton in a 4-3 victory. That night, Carlton struck out 19 Mets.
I have had several opportunities to talk with Kiner while covering the Mets. Once in spring training, Kiner spoke to a group of reporters for about 15 minutes. I had a couple of extra questions and wanted to grab him for a few more moments.
Forty-five minutes later, Ralph and I were still talking in the Mets’ dugout in Port St. Lucie. He was a joy.
However, that wasn’t the first time Ralph was so generous with his time with me.
As a college intern working for the Houston Astros, I had the opportunity to do stats for the Mets broadcast crew of Ralph, Murphy and Nelson for a weekend series. I don’t remember if he said anything humorous that weekend. What I do remember was he was gracious, warm and friendly. I was a college intern and this man was in the Hall of Fame and dated Liz Taylor.
Still, he was genuine, and as Howie Rose said, treated everyone like they were family. I had a chance that weekend to learn first hand what thousands of New Yorkers already knew: Ralph Kiner was a gem.