Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Lovable Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner dies at 91

Ralph Kiner, baseball's vastly undersung slugger, who belted more home runs than anyone over his 10-year career but whose onfield achievements were obscured by his decades in the broadcast booth, where he was one of the game's most recognizable personalities, died Thursday at home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 91.

The Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1975, announced the death.

Baseball fans who are short of retirement are familiar with Mr. Kiner as an announcer who spent a half-century with the Mets, enlivening broadcasts with shrewd analysis, amiable storytelling and memorable malapropisms.

But long before he watched a long ball disappear with his trademark call, "Going, going, gone, goodbye!," Mr. Kiner, who lived in St. Petersburg in the offseason for a number of years when the team held spring training at Al Lang Field (1962-87), was one of the great right-handed hitters.

Cut short by a back injury, his career on the field was among the most remarkable in baseball, featuring a display of power exhibited by few other sluggers. Slow afoot and undistinguished as an outfielder, he was among the signature stars of the baseball era immediately after World War II.

From 1946 to 1955, playing for the Pirates, Cubs and Indians, he hit 369 home runs and drove in 1,015 runs.

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

He hit dozens of home runs into a leftfield section of Pittsburgh's Forbes Field that became known as Kiner's Korner. When asked why he always gripped the bat at the handle, he replied, "Cadillacs are down near the end of the bat."

"People just waited there until he came up in the ninth inning," said Pirates teammate Frank Thomas, 84. "When they knew he was coming to bat, they made it a point to stay."

Mr. Kiner never made it to the World Series. The Pirates were perpetually mediocre (or worse), and so were the Cubs. In 1955, he played his final season with the second-place Indians.

His short career, along with playing on losing teams, might explain 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 received 273 votes out of a possible 362, two more than needed for election.

But Mr. Kiner was appreciated in other circles. Tall, good-looking and well spoken, he was, in the parlance of the era, a highly eligible bachelor. Introduced to Elizabeth Taylor by Bing Crosby, who was part-owner of the Pirates, he escorted her to the Hollywood premiere of the 1949 war film Twelve O'Clock High. When the movie Angels in the Outfield (1951) was filmed at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, Mr. Kiner dated its star, Janet Leigh.

His courtship of tennis star Nancy Chaffee, winner of three consecutive national indoor titles, was chronicled by gossip columnists. Their engagement was announced on the radio by Walter Winchell before Mr. Kiner actually proposed, and shortly after their marriage in 1951, the bride wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post headlined "Why I Married Ralph Kiner."

They had three children in a 17-year marriage that ended in divorce in 1968. Chaffee later married sportscaster Jack Whitaker. Mr. Kiner's second marriage, to Barbara George, also ended in divorce. A third, to DiAnn Shugart, ended with her death in 2004.

Mr. Kiner was born in Santa Rita, N.M., but moved to Alhambra, Calif., when he was 4. He shook hands with Babe Ruth, talked ball with Ty Cobb and hit a home run in high school off Satchel Paige. He signed with the Pirates after he graduated.

He played two seasons and part of a third in the minors before training as a Navy pilot in World War II. He served in the Pacific, assigned to search for enemy submarines, though he didn't see combat … or much else. "I was on a few patrols but, gosh, we didn't even spot a whale," he told the New York Times in 1947.

Over a half-century of Met broadcasts, sharing the microphone with Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Tim McCarver, among 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, 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.

McCarver tells a story of how he and Mr. Kiner were calling a Mets game in Philadelphia. Walking through the press box were actors Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband, Christopher Guest.

"They're huge Phillies fans, and they came in and were introduced to us," McCarver said. "But Ralph wants a moment with her because he had once dated her mother, Janet Leigh. So he sheepishly approaches her and says, 'Jamie Lee, my name's Ralph Kiner, and you were just introduced to us, and I wanted to tell you that I used to date your mother.' And she throws her arms around his neck and says, 'Daddy!' "

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