Going, Going, Gone.
When the baseball world lost Ralph Kiner at 91 this past February, it unquestionably lost one of its legendary figures.
However, for the man who once said, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, and singles hitters drive Fords,” Kiner’s legacy may differ depending on one’s age.
For a generation of older Pittsburghers, Kiner will be remembered as the Hall of Fame slugger who clubbed most of his 369 career home runs as a Pirate; perhaps the organization’s only true transcendent superstar.
For members of subsequent generations, he’ll be remembered as the charmingly tongue-twisted color commentator who sat in the New York Mets’ booth in 1962 and never left.
But, as ESPN columnist and “Kinerisms” connoisseur Jayson Stark explains, the two sides of the legend are largely inseparable.
“I don’t know if you can separate one from the other,” Stark said. “It’s just part of the legend. It all just weaves together.”
“[Kiner] was one of the greatest home run hitters of all time,” New York Mets announcer Gary Cohen said. “He was a legitimate Hall of Famer with his playing career alone, but Ralph went so far beyond that.”
While the late-1940s Pirates teams ranged from mediocre to downright miserable, they were drawing record crowds who gathered to watch Kiner whack home runs.
“People just waited there until he came up in the ninth inning,” Frank Thomas, Kiner’s former teammate with the Pirates, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “When they knew he was coming to bat they made it a point to stay.”
Kiner led the National League in home runs for seven straight seasons from 1946 to 1952. He hit 54 in 1949, which nearly eclipsed Hack Wilson’s then-single season record 56. No National Leaguer surpassed Kiner’s mark until Mark McGwire in 1998.
Away from the diamond, Kiner was known to gallivant around town with Bing Crosby. He escorted Elizabeth Taylor to a movie premiere and dated Hollywood starlet Janet Leigh.
The coverage of his marriage to American tennis star Nancy Chaffee turned Pittsburgh newspapers into Hollywood gossip rags.
Kiner was the highest paid player in baseball, making $100,000 for the Pirates in 1952, which prompted general manager Branch Rickey to trade Kiner to the Cubs after famously stating, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.”
Back injuries forced Kiner into early retirement soon after he left Pittsburgh. He joined the Mets television and radio broadcasts in 1961.
“Kiner was one of those people who made everyone around him feel special,” Cohen said. “He treated everyone around him the way they wanted to be treated and he became an essential part of New York sports as soon as he sat in the booth.”
Kiner’s baseball knowledge was apparent during broadcasts, but his frequent malapropisms are what permanently endeared him to fans.
During Mets broadcasts, Kiner frequently mispronounced names: Gary Carter became “Gary Cooper,” Vince Coleman became “Gary Coleman,” and his broadcast partner Tim McCarver became “Tim MacArthur.”
He’d even mispronounce his own name—“Ralph Korner” or “Ron Kiner”—on occasion.
When sending out a special greeting to fathers, Kiner said, “On Father’s Day, we again would like to wish you a happy birthday.”
Cohen said that Kiner’s greatest legacy might be his post-game show, “Kiner’s Korner,” which was adopted from the nickname Pirates fans gave to the shortened left field fence in Forbes Field.
“Nobody turned off Mets games if Ralph was doing the post-game show,” Cohen said.
“I’ve never met a single New Yorker who didn’t love Ralph Kiner,” said Stark, who described one of his favorite “Kinerisms” in a column:
When Kiner invited three New York Mets wives – Edna Stengel, the late wife of former Mets manager Casey Stengel, and two other women whose names have long disappeared – onto an episode of “Kiner’s Korner” in the 1960s, he began by exchanging pleasantries.
Kiner turned to the first wife and said, “You look very nice today. Did you have your hair done?”
He said to the second wife, “You look very nice today. Is that a new dress you’re wearing?”
Kiner then turned toward Edna Stengel and, although he was seemingly out of compliments, he bored onward.
“You look very nice today, Mrs. Stengel,” Kiner stated. “What happened?”
“People of an older generation will recall him as a player. To people my age and to New Yorkers, he’s an announcer,” Cohen said. “But, most of all, he’ll be remembered as a great guy.”