I wanted to pay quick tribute to recently passed longtime New York Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner, before the wave of media coverage subsides, and his life achievements revert to the memory hole. Only a handful of media personalities of any sort will remain a presence throughout a large chunk of our lives. TV personalities like Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and Joe Franklin come close. Indeed some newscasters from TV and radio have been around in New York for quite a while. But even they go away after 20 years or so.
Since my childhood, I had been watching Mr. Kiner, from when I first tuned in to watch Mets baseball on WOR circa 1977 right up until recent broadcasts this past season. His former broadcast partners Lindsay Nelson and Bob Murphy formed the original broadcast team for the Mets in 1962. In fact, until 1981, they served both as the television and radio broadcast team, as was common at the time. Lindsay Nelson was a colorful character, with his outrageous blazers and occasional stunts (like broadcasting from a gondola hanging from the top of the Astrodome). But Kiner and Murphy were great straight men for him.
They remained intact until the end of the 1978 season, when Nelson departed. Bob Murphy eventually moved permanently to the radio side, where he remained until 2004, the year before his death. Nelson passed in 1995. Through a series of broadcaster changes, Kiner remained throughout, eventually reducing his workload in the final years, partly due to being stricken with Bell’s Palsy, which inhibited his speech. Nonetheless, he was the last notable link to the original Mets of 1962. In many ways, he could be compared to Bob Shepherd, the Yankees public address announcer, in that both men, despite changes, remained a dignified constant for each team, a steady voice. Men like Kiner are bulwarks, verbally guiding us along, without apologizing or being pretentious. Respecting every player, even while sometimes being critical. The strong oak tree standing, even when the scenery and the landscape around them are ever-changing.
Kiner was a throwback to a time when players were happy or honored to be on the postgame show, such as his own “Kiner’s Korner”, rather than just treating it as another postgame photo op, or a quick thing to do via remote. That show turned average or otherwise unknown players into topics of conversation, even if just for a short while. Kiner was the guy who made an organization feel like a family. His memories of different players through the eras from Casey Stengel to Tom Seaver to Dwight Gooden to Mike Piazza, through nostalgia, brought some sense of history and continuity to a franchise which often could really use it.
I got to meet him once ever-so-briefly at Met ticket sales day in 1999 at Shea Stadium. He was going through alongside the lines of fans, greeting some with handshakes on a cold day on which he clearly didn’t have to be there. I regret not taking a picture of him. I could have gotten an autograph, but he seemed like such a kind man, I didn’t want to bother him! I did, however, pester and acquire autographs from Turk Wendell, Bobby Valentine, Rick Reed and others.
I could write a ton about the playing career that preceded his announcing career! After all, he was a Hall of Famer despite only playing 10 ½ seasons for the Pirates, Cubs and Indians. But you can look all that up for yourself. Many of his home runs, including the famous one used as stock footage for the movie “Angels in the Outfield” live on in YouTube-land. I did have the pleasure of seeing him nearly slam a home run at an Old Timers game at Shea in the early 1980’s, well into his 60s!
When I see one of the old-timers go, I am reminded of the dignity and experience that leaves with him. Each of the events of the team’s history, good or bad, seems a bit more distant without one of its “cast members” around anymore. I can now listen to Ralph’s “malapropisms” now fondly, rather than be annoyed. I can remember the Kiner’s Korner shows as a part of Mets history. I can look back at some bad, bad seasons, and at least remember the happy on-air moments. And I can thank God Ralph never got past the first date with Liz Taylor, or who knows what might have become of him!
“Gone goodbye… home run!”