Friday, February 7, 2014

Ralph Kiner, 1922-2014


Quick trivia question: Who is the all-time home run leader among living players born in the State of New Mexico?

If you said Ralph Kiner, you would have been right, up until today. He hit 369 home runs. Next is Vern Stephens, who hit 247. Next is the still-living, still-active Cody Ross, who currently has 130. Next is Billy McMillon, with 16.

There is a lot to be said in favor of New Mexico, but producing baseball talent is not part of it. Even the best player ever to come from there, by far, grew up elsewhere.

*

Ralph McPherran Kiner was born on October 27, 1922, in Santa Rita, New Mexico. He was 4 years old when his father died, and his mother moved him to the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, California, and he grew up there.

As his contemporary Duke Snider pointed out, the Southern California weather enabled kids to play baseball all year long, which led to the Pacific Coast League (including the less-weather-friendly Oregon and Washington State) producing a seemingly endless stream of baseball talent, which continues to this day. It's why the College World Series is dominated by the Sun Belt: California teams, Arizona teams, Texas teams, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Florida teams.

Ralph was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, played in the low minors in 1941 and '42, and in 1943 was a member of the first sports team to be named the Toronto Maple Leafs, then the Pirates' top farm team. But World War II was raging, and his country called.

When he came back from serving as a pilot in the U.S. Navy, he was 23 years old and ready to make the big club. On April 16, 1946, he made his major league debut for the Pirates, against the St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman's Park. Batting 3rd and playing center field, he had a single and a walk in 5 trips to the plate. The Pirates won, 6-4, a bump in the road for the Cardinals, as they went on to win their 4th Pennant and 3rd World Series in a 5-year stretch. He hit his 1st major league home run 2 days later, on April 18, in the top of the 8th off the Cardinals' Howie Pollet. But the Cards won that game, 6-2, as Stan Musial also homered.

After that, he was mainly a left fielder. He wore Number 43 in his rookie season, the last year in which the Pirates wore red, white & blue uniforms. In 1947, he was given Number 4, and the Pirates wore blue & white. In 1948, they switched to black & gold, the same colors as the football team that had been named for them but was now called the Steelers, and they have worn those colors ever since.

That first season, 1946, he led the National League by hitting 23 home runs, a pretty good total for a man whose home games were in Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. "The Old Lady of Schenley Park," home to the Buccos from 1909 to 1970, had dimensions very close to those of the pre-renovation, 1923-73 version of Yankee Stadium: Close in the right-field corner, but pretty distant everywhere else. Left field was 360 feet away, its furthest point was 462 to left-center, and straightaway center was 442. Terrible for a righthanded hitter, which Ralph was.

But in '46, Ralph was just getting warmed up. In 1947, the Pirates brought in Hank Greenberg, the great slugger of the Detroit Tigers, making him baseball's first $100,000 a year player. (That's about $1.05 million in today's money, meaning, compared to today's players, even the highest-paid player in the game's history to that point was underpaid.) To help him out, the Pirates put an inner fence in left field, in front of Forbes' familiar scoreboard, reducing the left-field pole from 360 to 335. The area between the fences was called Greenberg Gardens. After playing in '47, Greenberg retired, and the area was renamed Kiner's Korner. The inner fence was removed after he was traded.

Kiner always credited Greenberg with making him a better hitter, and the results speak for themselves: 23, 51, 40, 54, 47, 42, 37, 35. Those were his seasonal home run totals from 1946 to 1953, making him easily the best slugger in the National League in the Truman Administration. Those 54 homers in 1949 were the most by a National Leaguer between Hack Wilson's 56 in 1930 and Mark McGwire's 70* in 1998. It's a total that was never reached by Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Reggie Jackson or Mike Schmidt -- and only once by Mickey Mantle. Indeed, from 1938, when Greenberg hit 58, until 1997, when steroids allowed McGwire and others to rewrite the record book, the only player who hit more than that in a season was Roger Maris, his "61 in '61" breaking Babe Ruth's 1927 record of 60.

As Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn said, "Ralph Kiner could wipe out your lead with one swing."

The Pirates' broadcasters at the time were Bob Prince, a.k.a. "The Gunner," and Albert "Rosey" Rowswell, the man who nicknamed the Pirates "the Buccos." These men were homers to the extent that they made Yankee mikemen Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto and John Sterling sound objective by comparison. Rosey, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, claimed not to have missed a Pirates home game since 1909, the year Forbes Field opened and Honus Wagner led them to win the World Series for the first time.

Rosey had a trick: When a Pirate hitter, more often Kiner than anyone else, would hit a ball that looked like it would be a home run, he imagined an old lady whose house faced Forbes Field, and he would yell, "Open the window, Aunt Minnie, here it comes!" Then Prince, or whoever was handy at the moment, would drop a box full of items to make it sound like glass was breaking, and say, "Too late!" (I've also heard that Rosey would smash a light bulb there in the broadcast booth, but that sounds a little too dangerous.)

On Opening Day of the 1948 season, the year after Kiner hit 51 to set a club record (which he would break in '49), entertainer Bing Crosby, a minority owner of the Pirates, was in the booth with Rosey, but he kept talking through a Kiner swing, and Rosey had to interrupt him: "Open the window, Aunt Minnie!... There it goes, clean clear over the scoreboard! Home run for Ralph Kiner, his first of the 1948 season! Let's hope it's the first of 61!"

Rosey died on the eve of the 1955 season, by which point his Aunt Minnie routine could be seen as just an act, because television was beginning to take over, and fans watching at home could see that there was nothing but parkland for a few blocks beyond the left and center field fence, until the Carnegie Museum, which can be seen behind that scoreboard in the famous photo of Bill Mazeroski's home run that won the 1960 World Series.

In spite of Ralph's home run heroics, the Pirates were a bad team. In 1952, they lost 112 games, the most of any NL team between the 115 of the 1935 Boston Braves and the 120 of the 1962 Mets. In The Road to Bali, one of the "Road Pictures" he made with his pal Bob Hope (himself a minority owner of the Cleveland Indians at the time), Dorothy Lamour asked Bing, "Do you still have pirates in America?" And Der Bingle said, "Yes, but they're in the basement."

And on June 4, 1953, Branch Rickey, the man who built championship teams in St. Louis and Brooklyn, and was now the general manager in Pittsburgh, but about whom it was said he had money and players and didn't like to see them meet, traded Ralph to the Chicago Cubs, along with fellow future broadcaster Joe Garagiola, George "Catfish" Metkovich, and, ironically, the man who had given up Ralph's first homer, Howie Pollet; for 6 players (the only one who might be familiar to a New York fan was the former Brooklyn outfielder Gene Hermanski, by then washed up) and $150,000. Rickey wanted Hermanski to take over in left field, but he really wanted the money, and Cubs owner Phil Wrigley, he of the chewing-gum fortune, was one of the few among the 16 team owner who was willing to spend it (not that it did him much good after 1945).

Ralph didn't want to go. He liked Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh fans loved him. But he made $90,000 in 1952 -- the highest in the game at that point, as Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio, the 2nd $100,000 man, had retired; and Ted Williams, the 3rd, only got about $25,000 of his scheduled $125,000 that year before the Marines called him to Korea. Ralph's 1952 $90,000 works out to about $800,000 today. Looking to not have to pay him a similarly huge sum, or more, in the future, Rickey told him, keeping in mind that 8th place was last in the League at the time, "We finished 8th with you, and we can finish 8th without you."

Of course, putting a power hitter in Chicago's Wrigley Field, with its close power alleys and its wind frequently blowing out, should have helped Ralph a lot. It did, at first. And, like Greenberg did for him, he was able to help out a young player just coming up: Ernie Banks, who would go on to become one of the best sluggers in baseball in the late 1950s and all through the 1960s.

But a back injury made it hard for him to swing. After the 1954 season, the Cubs sent Ralph to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Sam Jones. A rare good move for the Cubs, as Jones, that next season, became the first black pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the major leagues.

But the Indians' GM at this point was his mentor, Greenberg, and he thought Ralph could help the Tribe, who had won the American League Pennant, but were under no illusions about the Yankees trying to reclaim it (which they did). Ralph wore Number 9 for the Indians, but his back injury limited him to 390 plate appearances. That, and the distant fences at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, limited him to a .243 average, 18 homers and 54 RBIs. In other words, when he could play at all, he could still hit the ball a long way. But, like Greenberg, a bad back led him to call it a career early. He was just short of 33 years old when he played his last game, on September 25, 1955 -- 3 days before Jackie Robinson stole home in the World Series, and 5 days before James Dean was killed in a car crash.

Years later, I was watching a Mets game, and a player had hit his first major league home run. And Tim McCarver said something shocking: "I don't remember my first major league home run. You'd think I would, since I didn't hit very many of them!" Ralph said, "I remember my first home run. I don't remember my last home run. Because, at the time, I didn't think it would be my last!"

His last home run was on September 10, 1955, off Ellis Kinder of the Red Sox at Fenway, and it was significant, since it was part of a 5-run 7th inning that gave the Wahoos a 10-7 win, their 5th straight win, moving them to a game and a half ahead of the Yankees. But they only went 6-7 the rest of the way, and finished 3 games back. It was the only Pennant race Ralph ever played in. (Ted Williams didn't homer in the game, but he did go 3-for-5 with an RBI.)

Greenberg didn't forget his friend, though, and appointed him as GM of the Indians' top farm team at the time, the San Diego Padres of the PCL. (The major league team with that name replaced them in 1969.) It looked like, again, Ralph was following Hank's path.

But in 1961, the Chicago White Sox -- for whom Greenberg was now the GM -- offered him a broadcasting post. The next year, the expansion New York Mets offered him one.

*

Ralph was a one-dimensional player. He couldn't hit for average. He was one of the slowest players in the game at the time. He didn't embarrass himself in the field, but had he played in the AL after 1973, he would likely have been a designated hitter.

But what a job he did in that one dimension. He led the NL in homers every season from 1946 to 1951, had 7 100+ RBI seasons including a League-leading 127 in 1949, led the NL in on-base percentage once and slugging percentage 3 times.

His career home run total was 369. That may not sound like much, but, keep in mind, he was limited -- by war at the beginning, and by injury at the end -- to just 10 seasons. Now, doubling his career to 20 seasons wouldn't necessarily have doubled his career total to 738 -- more than Babe Ruth had, but less than Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds ended up with -- but 500 certainly wasn't out of the realm of possibility, even if he had played the rest of his career in "Cavernous Cleveland Stadium." Knowing Greenberg, he might have brought Ralph to the White Sox, whose Comiskey Park wasn't exactly conducive to sluggers, although, in 1959, with Ted Kluszewski bopping 'em out, they won the Pennant, and a healthy Ralph Kiner, then approaching his 37th birthday, could have made a difference in the World Series, even if only in a veteran's pinch-hitting role like the Yankees had in that decade with Johnny Mize and Enos Slaughter.

To put those 369 homers in another light: At the time he retired, in 1955, it was 6th all-time, behind Ruth's 714, Jimmie Foxx's 534, Mel Ott's 511, Gehrig's 493, and the still-active Williams' 394 (of the 521 with which he would finish). Among righthanded hitters, only Foxx had more; among NL hitters, only Ott did. DiMaggio had 361, Mize 359. Musial would end up with 475, but, at the time, had only 325. His homer rate was, until the Steroid Era, 2nd only to Ruth's.

Ralph has often been cited as being the player who said, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords." The line actually predates him, but he did add to it, by explaining why he wouldn't choke up on the bat to try to raise his average: "Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat."

Hits: 1,451 -- meaning he should have had about 2,500, which wouldn't have gotten him into the magic circle of 3,000, but would have put him ahead of Mantle's 2,415 and DiMaggio's 2,245. Batting average: .279, nothing special. On-base percentage: .398, which is very good (7 times he walked at least 98 times in a season). Slugging percentage: .548 -- at the time, 10th, trailing only Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, Foxx, Greenberg, DiMaggio, Rogers Hornsby, Mize and Musial. OPS+: 149, meaning he was 49 percent better at hitting than the average player in his time.

Unfortunately, that shortened career, and people by that point knowing him mainly as a broadcaster, nearly kept him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Those 10 seasons in the major leagues meant that he met the minimum requirement for election (which has been waived in a few special cases, such as Negro League players). And by 1971, by which point 11 players had joined the 500 Home Run Club, his 369 no longer seemed like such a big number.

It wasn't until 1975, his 15th and last year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) ballot, that he got the necessary 75 percent of the ballots to be elected -- and, even then, he got 273 votes, 2 more than the 75 percent needed. (Had he missed out that time, he would have had to wait a few years, until he was eligible through the Veterans' Committee.)

Even then, he had to wait 45 minutes to find out. Why? Because Jack Lang, the sportswriter whose job it then was to call the newly-elected to tell them that they had, in fact, been newly elected kept calling him, and calling him, and calling him, but kept getting a busy signal. Why? As Ralph explained when Jack finally got through to him, his mother-in-law had been calling him every 5 minutes to ask if he'd made it on this last try.

Nevertheless, the Pirates would eventually retire his Number 4, The Sporting News listed him at Number 90 on their end-of-the-century list of the 100 Greatest Players, and he was a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. In 1995, in his book Ted Williams' Hit List, Ted named him one of the Top 20 Hitters of all time. He has been honored with a statue in his hometown of Alhambra.

He was introduced, along with many of the All-Century Team finalists, before the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park, and with 48 of the other 60 living Hall-of-Famers before the 2008 All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.

*

Bing, knowing Ralph was both a Southern Californian and a highly-paid, highly-eligible bachelor, set him up with some of Hollywood's finest. In 1949, he accompanied 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to the premiere of Twelve O'Clock High. He dated Ava Gardner, before she married Frank Sinatra. You may remember the 1994 film Angels In the Outfield, which used the California Angels as the team that needed divine intervention. It was a remake of a 1951 film, which used the then-downtrodden Pirates, and Ralph was in it. It starred Janet Leigh -- before she married and divorced Tony Curtis, became the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, and got hacked to death by in Psycho by Anthony Perkins, who played ballplayer and eventual broadcaster Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out -- and Ralph was her date for the premiere.

Shortly after that premiere, Ralph got married for the first of 3 times, to tennis player Nancy Chaffee.
Greenberg was his best man. That year, Nancy was ranked Number 4 in the world among female players, and she and Patricia Todd reached the Finals in the U.S. Open ladies' doubles. The year before, she'd reached the Semifinals of ladies' singles at the U.S. Open and the Quarterfinals at Wimbledon. But that was as close as she ever got to winning a major, since, by her own admission, she now liked Ralph more than she liked tennis.

Together, she and Ralph had 3 children. But, possibly encouraged by Greenberg, who was good at the game, he took up tennis as well. In a memoir, Baseball Forever, Ralph mentioned that he once beat her in tennis. "Of course," he added, "she was 8 months pregnant at the time." They eventually divorced, and she married another sportscaster, Jack Whitaker. She even became an announcer herself.

Ralph later married a woman named Barbara George, which also ended in divorce. A third marriage, to DiAnn Shugart, lasted for the rest of her life. He would eventually have 5 children, who, between them, presented him with 12 grandchildren.

*

Like Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, Herb Score, and some other players, it could be said that the demarcation line between whether you're old yet or not could be if you remember Ralph as a player, or only as a broadcaster. If you remember him as a player, you're probably at least 65 years old.


But 2 generations of New York sports fans got to know him only as a broadcaster -- although, unlike those other men, not for any of the teams for which he played. He joined the original Mets broadcast team, with Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy. As those 2 men were eventually honored with the Hall of Fame's recognition for broadcasters, the Ford Frick Award, it could be said that the Mets had an all-Hall of Fame broadcast team from 1962 to 1979.

Ralph broadcast with Lindsey and Murph on WOR-Channel 9, which had been the Dodgers' station from 1950 until they left Brooklyn after the 1957 season. That triad took Met fans through the awful beginnings of the team at the Polo Grounds, the early days when the biggest draw at the brand-new Shea Stadium was the stadium itself, the "miracle" World Championship season of 1969, the Pennant year of 1973, and the collapse of 1977, caused by team president M. Donald Grant's salary dumps, by which point attendance dropped so much, Shea began to be called "Grant's Tomb."

In 1980, Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon bought the team, and brought in Frank Cashen as GM, and the Mets began to climb out of the hole. With Nelson retiring, and Murphy now mainly doing radio, there was a new team of Kiner, former major league catcher Tim McCarver, and Steve Zabriskie. Upon his retirement as a player, Rusty Staub joined them on Channel 9, which became WWOR in 1987. This was the Mets' greatest period, where they finished 1st or 2nd in the NL Eastern Division every year from 1984 to 1990, including the 1986 World Championship, which remains the franchise's last. In fact, a one-day's delay due to rain meant that they won it on October 27, which was his 64th birthday.

Starting in 1963, Channel 9 began airing Kiner's Korner, hosted by Ralph, usually as a postgame show or between games of doubleheaders. The show ran until 1995, and old episodes can now be seen on SNY -- something you can't see on the Yankees' YES Network, since they had no equivalent show on WPIX-Channel 11; or, if they did, none of the broadcasts have survived.

Ralph was an expert interviewer, and occasionally a great caller of games. And, showing that greatness always recognizes greatness, he paid tribute to a fine outfielder for an opposing team, by saying, "Two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox."

It's lucky he didn't goof, and call the Philadelphia Phillies' Gold Glove center fielder "Elliott Maddox." It would have been an easy mistake to make, since Elliott played center field for the Mets, and Ralph saw him a lot more.

It would have been especially easy for Ralph to make that mistake. Like Herb Score of the Indians, Jerry Coleman of the Yankees and Padres, and a few others, he dropped some beauts in his time on the air. A few times, he began a broadcast with, "Hello again, everybody, and welcome to New York Mets baseball. I'm Ralph Korner."

Another time, he opened a broadcast with, "Hello, again, everybody. Welcome to New York Mets baseball. I'm Ralph Kiner,, along with Tim MacArthur." After the game, which the Mets lost, Tim McCarver said, "You know, Ralph, Douglas MacArthur said, 'Chance favors the prepared mind,' and the Mets obviously weren't prepared tonight." Ralph said, "He also said, 'I shall return,' and so shall we, right after these messages."

You know the old baseball broadcast disclaimer? "Any rebroadcast of this game, without the written consent of the New York Mets and Major League Baseball, is similarly prohibited.” (I always heard Yankee announcers Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White say it as "strictly prohibited.") Ralph had trouble with the word "similarly," until he changed it to “likewise prohibited.”

Among the inept early Mets was 1st baseman Marv Throneberry. Among the Mets who didn't make it to the 1986 title was former Cincinnati Reds slugger George Foster. Once, Ralph called Darryl Strawberry "Darryl Throneberry"; another time, "George Strawberry." On another occasion, Ralph got Darryl's name right, but one of his achievements wrong: "Darryl Strawberry has been voted to the Hall of Fame five years in a row." (He meant the All-Star Team. Darryl has not been elected to the Hall of Fame, and probably never will be.)

He once had Hubie Brooks as a guest on Kiner's Korner, but kept calling him "Mookie," as in Wilson. And he also called Hubie "Foster Brooks." (Foster was a comedian who, in spite of being a teetotaler in real life, was known for his drunk act.) Calling Sid Fernandez "Sid Hernandez" was easy enough, since Keith Hernandez was also on the Mets at the time. He also once called Gary Carter "Gary Cooper." (Well, Cooper did play a Hall-of-Famer, Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees.)

When Vince Coleman was on the Mets, Ralph called him "Gary Coleman" a few times. I'm surprised he didn't call him "Ronald Colman" (a contemporary of Gary Cooper's). But he never called him "Choo Choo Coleman," after an early Met catcher. In a mistake that happened to Ralph, rather than because of him, he asked Choo Choo, whose real name was Clarence, "Tell us about your wife: What's her name, and what's she like?" Choo Choo said, "Her name is Mrs. Coleman, and she likes me." (Choo Choo is still alive, 76 years old, and attended the Mets' 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2012. At that time, he denied that he said the famous line. The broadcast is lost, so we can't prove it either way, but it was cited in early accounts of the team.)

He doubled down on one, in a game against the Pirates: Dale Berra, Yogi's son, was coming around to score; rather than make the mistake of calling him "Yogi," he instead confused him with Pirate catcher Ed Ott (I don't see how, they looked nothing alike), and called him Mel Ott. (No relation to Ed.)

Some more choice Kinerisms:

"Tickets to all Mets home games are available in advance from Tricketron." (Admittedly hard to say, Ticketron was bought out by Ticketmaster in 1991.)

"The reason the Mets have played so well at Shea this year is, they have the best home record in baseball."

(on the other side of the coin) "All of the Mets' road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium." (I never heard about that one until today, but I did once hear Bobby Murcer say on a Yankee broadcast, "The Detroit Tigers are very tough at home, especially when they play at Tiger Stadium.")

(on a slump by Dodger pitcher Don Sutton) "Sutton lost 13 games in a row without winning a ballgame."

"The Pirates will be a very competitive team this season because they made some great off-season accusations!" (He meant acquisitions.) 

"The Mets have gotten their leadoff batter on only once this inning." (He meant "this game.")

(seeing Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter get hurt) He's going to be out of action for the rest of his career. (He meant the rest of the season.)

"Solo homers usually come with no one on base." (Can't argue with that one!)

"All of Rick Aguilera's saves have come in relief appearances." (Ditto.)

"Kevin McReynolds stops at 3rd, and he scores." (This is similar to "He slides into 2nd with a standup double." Both Score and Coleman are said to have used that one.)

(discussing a new Hall-of-Famer, who allegedly called himself "the straw that stirs the drink")
"Reggie Jackson called himself the spoon that stirred the cup."

(seeing Jesse Jackson, no relation to Reggie but a friend of his, in the stands) "We'd like to give the Reverend Reggie Jackson a warm Shea Stadium welcome."

(seeing the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, visible in the distance from Shea) "It reminds me of the Golden State Bridge." (Okay, the Golden Gate Bridge is in the Golden State, but it's painted flame-red, not battleship-gray like the Whitestone.)

"Tony Gwynn was named Player of the Year for April." (He meant Player of the Month.)
 
"The Mets just had their first .500-or-better April since July of 1992." (I think he meant their first .500-or-better month.)
 
"The Mets are winless in the month of Atlanta."
 
(seeing Jason Isringhausen start against Todd Stottlemyre) "This will go down in history as the game where the pitchers have the most initials."
 
Ralph once blamed his malaprops on having to listen to original Met manager Casey Stengel (1962-65), and also Yogi Berra during his time as Met coach (1965-71) and manager (1972-75). Casey and Yogi, of course, were also known for their mangled syntax, although Yogi is on record as having said some doozies before he ever met Casey. And, indeed, Ralph once said, on the air, "If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave." (He may have gotten that one from President Gerald Ford, who allegedly said it about Abraham Lincoln.)

Ralph's usual home run call was, "It is going, it is going, it is gone, goodbye!" But, like Mel Allen with, "It is going, it is going, it is gone!" and John Sterling with, "It is high, it is far, it is gone!" he would occasionally futz it up: "This one deep to right,and it is way back, going, going, it is gone, no, off of the top of the wall."

The line most often cited as the biggest Kinerism is, "On this Father's Day, we again wish you all Happy Birthday." Along the same lines, he once said of a father-and-son pair of players, "There's a lot of heredity in that family."

But the all-timer came in the late 1970s, when both the Yankees and the Mets had Manufacturers Hanover -- a.k.a. Manny Hanny, later bought out by Chemical Bank and then Chase -- as a broadcast sponsor. Anyway, Ralph ended an inning by saying, "We'll be right back, after this message from Manufacturers Hangover."

(One of Manny Hanny's previous incarnations was the Brooklyn Trust Company, which, due to the Dodgers' financial difficulties in the 1930s, owned a one-quarter share of the team's stock. In 1942, they needed to appoint a new trustee to oversee that share. They chose a 38-year-old lawyer for the company: Walter Francis O'Malley. In 1944, O'Malley bought that quarter-share from his employers, and the rest is history. The other man they considered, among the lawyers working for them, was a 35-year-old former Georgetown basketball player named William Alfred Shea. Yes, the same Bill Shea that Mayor Robert Wagner would turn to in order to help bring National League baseball back to New York, for whom the Mets' stadium was named, and who became a good friend of Kiner's. As Mel Allen would say, "How about that?")

*

Ralph attended every induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame from his own in 1975 until last year. Of course, he even managed to goof on that on the air: "The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the 31st and 32nd of July."

In 1986, my grandmother and I attended the induction ceremony for the first time. (I attended 2 more, but will never go to another, and unless a player you absolutely loved is going in, don't go. By all means, go to Cooperstown, visit the Hall and the area's other attractions. But Induction Weekend is the absolute worst time to go: A town of 1,800 simply can't handle 75,000 visitors.) Ralph was seated next to Ted Williams, and all through the ceremony (at which the inductees were Willie McCovey, Bobby Doerr and Ernie Lombardi), Ted kept talking to Ralph. At one point, Ralph turned to talk to whoever was sitting on his other side... and Ted reached over and, literally, bent his ear, to turn his attention back to him. For the rest of her life, Grandma wondered what Ted was saying to Ralph.

In 1995, Ralph suffered a stroke, and developed Bell's palsy. This affected the muscles in his face, leading to a change in his voice. Other than that, though, he continued to broadcast.

But like a lot of aging broadcasters, he began to cut back, doing only home games, and, in the last few years, going into the booth only on Friday nights or on special occasions. When Citi Field opened in 2009, the TV booth was named in his honor, and the radio booth was named in Murphy's memory.
  
Ralph Kiner died today, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 91 years old. It was a remarkable life, and a career that spanned so much of baseball history.
 
When he played his first professional game in 1941, men like Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove and Mel Ott, who had begun in the 1920s, were still playing. When he broadcast his last game last fall, he was watching players who could still be playing into the mid-2030s. That's a span of over 100 years.
 
Baseball Forever was the title of his memoir. "Baseball Forever," indeed. 

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