Ralph Kiner turns ninety on the 27th of October.
Where have the years gone?
Many Jewish Press readers grew up watching Kiner’s Korner, the post-game television show featuring yesterday’s heroes and the Mets’ one-day wonders.
Tom Seaver may have been on most often as he frequently was the star of the game. Seaver and Kiner, stars from different generations, formed a relationship that would eventually pair them in the Mets broadcast booth.
Kiner originally teamed with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson; from 1962 through 1978 the trio called Mets games from the team’s debut under Casey Stengel in the fabled Polo Grounds through its first 14 years at Shea Stadium.
To those of us outside New York and born a bit earlier, Ralph Kiner holds memories not of the broadcast booth but of great slugging exploits on the baseball field.
In his first seven seasons (1946-1952), Kiner led the National League in home runs while playing for the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates. He was the big Forbes Field drawing card and drew many a Jewish fan from the nearby Murray Hill district.
The Pirates lured Hank Greenberg for the 1947 season after the 36-year-old Jewish superstar was sold by the pennant-contending Tigers to the cellar-dwelling Pirates.
After Kiner’s slow start in 1947, Pirates management wanted to send the slumping outfielder back to the minor leagues. However, Greenberg lobbied the higher-ups to keep the young outfielder and promised to work with and even room with him on the road.
Kiner, a non-Jew from Alhambra, California, responded warmly to Greenberg, a Jew from the Bronx.
“Hank Greenberg was the biggest influence in my life,” Kiner told me years ago on the baseball beat.
“I idolized him when I was growing up in Los Angeles and he was a young star with the Tigers. The Tigers became my favorite team and he was my idol. So when he came to the Pirates I was thrilled and wanted to get to know him and learn some hitting tips from him.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Let’s stay late and take some extra batting practice and extra fielding practice.’
“Hank would spend hours at extra batting practice and extra fielding practice even when we were on the road after games. Most of the time we would be the last ones to take our uniforms off. Hank also taught me how to dress well.
“He took me to a haberdasher and I tried on different clothes. Hank picked out everything that he thought would look good on me. I can still hear him saying, ‘That looks good on you’ and ‘That doesn’t look good.’ ”
Kiner responded to Greenberg’s tutoring by batting .313 with 51 home runs, 28 more than he’d hit the year before. Two years later Kiner hit 54 round-trippers and batted .310.
While Kiner was baseball’s big slugger, Greenberg ascended to the general manager’s position with the Cleveland Indians. Kiner and Greenberg kept in close contact through the years. Greenberg eventually traded for his friend and Kiner spent the last season of his career with the Indians.
A bad back forced Kiner’s retirement in 1955 and Greenberg offered him the GM job with Cleveland’s top minor affiliate – the San Diego Padres, then of the Pacific Coast League. To save some dollars for management, Kiner thought it would make sense for him to double as the radio play-by-play man.
Greenberg joined Bill Veeck in an ownership role with the Chicago White Sox in 1959 and brought Kiner in two years later as a broadcaster. The following season Kiner opted to join the brand new Mets.
“I owe my good fortune to Hank Greenberg,” Kiner acknowledged.
Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years before
moving to a big-league front office position where he earned a World Series ring. The author, columnist, lecturer and president emeritus of one of Detroit’s leading shuls may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com. His column appears the second week of each month.