NEW YORK — Ralph Kiner, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger who was one of the most productive home-run hitters of his era and later became an original broadcast voice of the New York Mets, has died. He was 91.
He died Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the National Baseball Hall of Fame said on its website.
Kiner won seven consecutive National League home-run titles for the Pirates during a 10-year Major League Baseball career that was shortened due to a back injury. He retired in 1955 with 369 career homers and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, his final year of eligibility.
Few players have produced such a sustained burst of power hitting. Kiner remains the only player to win or share his league’s home-run title for seven straight seasons, a distinction he earned from 1946 through 1952. He was the first National League player to hit 50 home runs in two different seasons — 51 in 1947, 54 in 1949 — and just the third in major-league history, along with Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx.
After seven years in Pittsburgh, Kiner closed his career with the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. At the time of his trade to the Cubs in 1953, he was earning $75,000, the second-highest salary in baseball, behind only Stan Musial.
With Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson, Kiner was the voice of the Mets from their inception in 1962 through years of futility brightened by World Series titles in 1969 and 1986. Nelson died in 1995, Murphy in 2004.
The three men rotated between radio and television during games for 17 years. Murphy moved full-time to radio, and Kiner stayed on WWOR-TV, later moving to other stations that carried Mets games.
“Ralph Kiner was one of the most beloved people in Mets history — an original Met and extraordinary gentleman,” team co-owner Fred Wilpon said in a statement. “His knowledge of the game, wit and charm entertained generations of Mets fans. Like his stories, he was one of a kind.”
Famous for malaprops and gaffes, Kiner also provided viewers a seemingly bottomless supply of first-hand memories of great players, plays and games.
“I prefer the old style of broadcasting in which you talk to the guy sitting next to you as if you were sitting together in the stands,” Kiner wrote in “Baseball Forever: Reflections on Sixty Years in the Game,” his 2004 book with Danny Preary.
Kiner took time off in 1998 after suffering Bell’s palsy, a form of temporary facial paralysis, which affected his speech. He returned to the booth, though no longer on a daily basis. He made about a dozen appearances during games in 2007, his 45th year of broadcasting. The Mets honored him before a game to mark that milestone.
Ralph McPherran Kiner was born on Oct. 27, 1922, in Santa Rita, N.M. His father, a baker, died when Ralph was four years old, and he moved with his mother, a nurse, to the Los Angeles area.
He joined baseball’s minor leagues in 1941 and was inducted into the Navy Air Corps in 1943. He flew antisubmarine missions in the Pacific during World War II. He began his major-league career with the Pirates in 1946.
The Pirates acquired slugger Hank Greenberg before Kiner’s second season with the club and, in an attempt to boost Greenberg’s home-run production, brought in the left-field fence at Forbes Field to 335 feet, from 365.
Greenberg retired after just one season in Pittsburgh, but the shortened left-field fence remained. That area of the ballpark, originally called “Greenberg Gardens,” became known as “Kiner’s Korner,” and years later that became the name of Kiner’s interview program following telecasts of Mets games.
Although Pittsburgh had one winning record and never finished better than fourth place during Kiner’s seven years with the club, he helped the team draw more than 1 million fans during five of those seasons. The Pirates retired his number 4 in 1987.
Kiner was traded to the Chicago Cubs midway through the 1953 season, having been told by team general manager Branch Rickey, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.”
Kiner played two seasons with the Cubs and one with the Cleveland Indians. His back problem — strained ligaments and a tender nerve near his spinal column — slowed his production, and he retired in 1955 at age 33.
He worked briefly as general manager of the then-minor league San Diego Padres before starting his career as a broadcaster.
On television, Kiner gained a following with his verbal miscues. He called once called Gary Carter, then the Mets’ catcher, Gary Cooper. (Carter came on Kiner’s Korner after the game and gave Kiner a photograph signed, “Gary Cooper Carter.”) One June day, he told his audience, “On Father’s Day, we again wish you all happy birthday.”
Kiner acknowledged his propensity for verbal gaffes but said he was proud of one oft-repeated ad lib, about a speedy Philadelphia Phillies center-fielder: “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox.”
Kiner’s wife of 26 years, DiAnn, died in 2004.