The Real King of Queens

It’s another dreary season for the New York Mets, and the mood in the Citi Field press canteen—jaded reporters nudging lukewarm scrambled eggs with their forks—reflects the team’s fortunes. Adding to the listless vibe, it’s nearing 100 degrees outside, with a rare noon start for the ballgame.

But when Ralph Kiner, Hall of Fame slugger and a 50-year member of the Mets’ broadcast team, enters, even the most worldweary scribe sparks to life. “Ralph!” go the cries, hands of the well-wishers shooting toward him. Kiner smiles as he makes his way through the room.

“I’m excited every time he comes,” says SNY booth mate Ron Darling. “I can’t wait for him to get here.”

Kiner, who turns 89 next month, brings insight, wit and colorful stories from his eight decades in professional baseball to what is officially named the Ralph Kiner Broadcast Booth. While he has a part-time role these days, working a few innings at home day games, Kiner remains Mets royalty. “I keep coming back because I love baseball,” he says. “I think the majority of people who retire and don’t do anything atrophy. I’m much better off being active.”

It’s hard to imagine for the premier home-run hitter of his era, but Kiner has enjoyed as celebrated a career in the booth as he had on the field. Kiner slugged 369 home runs in ten seasons (1946-55), but back trouble prompted his retirement at 32. Despite his short career, Kiner was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. “If I’d played today, I probably never would’ve quit,” he says with a smile. “I would’ve been making millions of dollars.”

The adage “home-run hitters drive Cadillacs” is often attributed to Kiner, and he indeed has lived a Cadillac life, even taking Elizabeth Taylor out after the pair was set up by mutual friend Bing Crosby. They took in a film premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, but Taylor was not impressed to learn that Kiner drove his own car. “She was very nice,” Kiner demurs.

Current players may not know about Kiner’s glittery past, but it’s not lost on students of baseball history. “This is a man who has lived one of the great lives of the current and last century,” says Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen. “I often say he’s signed more autographs than anyone in the history of the world. He’s been famous since he was 17.”

Kiner joined the Mets broadcast crew for the team’s inaugural season in 1962. The club was famously awful, losing 120 while winning just 40. But Kiner, even from the booth, provided a shot of credibility for a fledgling team that desperately needed star power. He took the miserable first season—and the many Mets heartbreaks that followed—in stride. “I’d lost 112 games one year with the Pirates,” he says. “I was used to it.”

Kiner was also well known for his postgame show, Kiner’s Korner, which was shot in a cramped studio inside the former Shea Stadium. The set was spartan, but players enjoyed the breezy banter with a baseball legend. “When you were tapped on the shoulder and asked, do you wanna do Ralph’s show, you were never more excited,” says Darling, who played for the Mets from 1983–1991 and now is an on-air analyst for the team and for TBS. “You left the show feeling like a better player than you were. That’s how Ralph made you feel.”

Kiner’s demeanor may be avuncular, but he’s not afraid to rip players for their lackluster play, such as when he was critical of Mets star David Wright earlier this season for not being more aggressive in a situation that called for a big hit. Cohen notes Kiner’s “noholds- barred analysis.”

Kiner’s speech is slowed by Bell’s Palsy, but his baseball intelligence remains razor-sharp. He and Keith Hernandez—another former elite hitter—engage in lively on-air debates on the science of slugging, and Kiner has a seemingly bottomless trove of stories to draw from based on the action. With Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey pitching against the Milwaukee Brewers in late August, Kiner brought up a quote from Brewers radio announcer and former catcher Bob Uecker about the best way to catch the dipping and diving pitch: wait for it to stop rolling and pick it up. He mentioned a Depression-era Hall of Fame catcher who caught a rotation that featured four knuckleballers, adding his own insights about how best to hit the pitch, before bringing things back to Dickey.

“Ralph brings a great sense of history to the broadcast, but keen contemporary insights as well,” says Curt Gowdy Jr., SNY senior VP of production. “He follows the game daily; more than ever, he has wonderful stories to tell.”

While some sports broadcasters ramp up the volume to compete with the cacophony of talk radio and cable news, Kiner—who cites Vin Scully as his primary infl uence—prefers a more minimalist style. “There’s too much noise, too many simplifi cations of situations and so much coverage that at times it gets uninteresting,” says Kiner. “The game itself is a great game. You don’t have to add anything to it.”

While the Mets are skidding toward another irrelevant autumn, Kiner—to many, the true Mr. Met—gives fans a reason to hold their heads high. “[Mets majority owner] Fred Wilpon told me I can have a job as long as I can talk,” says Kiner. “I can still talk, so I guess I have a job.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.