The last time I saw Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame baseball player and longtime Mets announcer, was at the memorial service for another desert icon, Ernie Dunlevie. That was in November over at the Annenberg Theater at Eisenhower Medical Center, not far from where Ralph had lived for more than 60 years in Rancho Mirage.
Accompanied by his son Scott, Ralph was more than alert that day. I joked with him that the Mets ought to put Ralph in a uniform, even though he was just one month past his 91st birthday. Ralph laughed and said, “We don’t have anyone who can play.” And then he laughed again.
Scott was quick to point out that Ralph was the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, 67 years after he debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946. Kiner was married to tennis star Nancy Chaffee, and the famous sport duo bought a house at Thunderbird Country Club in 1951, the year the club opened and the year Kiner hit 42 home runs for the Pirates. It was the last of five consecutive years Kiner hit at least 40 home runs for the Bucs and part of a string of seven years in a row where Kiner either led the National League or shared the lead in home runs.
And Scott pointed out that Ralph and the Mets were still talking seriously about having Ralph come in a do a little work on some broadcasts. Certainly not an entire game, but a nod to the fact that Kiner had become an iconic voice of the game in the New York area after a Hall of Fame playing career.
Kiner was maybe the last of the original group of members at Thunderbird Country Club. That club had attracted famous names like Kiner and Chaffee, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Hoagy Carmichael and others to buy homes and play golf. And Ralph was still in the desert 63 years later, dying at his Rancho Mirage home.
An entire generation of baseball fans, like my dad, knew Kiner as one of the great players in the game. Kiner was my father’s favorite player, both being from New Mexico. When I gave my dad a signed ball from Kiner several years ago, there was a big smile.
At least two other generations of fans know Kiner as an announcer famous for his malaprops (“”All of the Mets road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.” “”Solo homers usually come with no one on base.”). But Met fans wouldn’t have had it any other way, and they loved Kiner.
During the off-season Kiner would return to the desert, and he would even work at times, doing radio reports for local stations from the Bob Hope Classic when he wasn’t playing in the event. His roots were in the desert even if he lived in Connecticut and Florida, with Kiner’s children born in the area and Scott still working in the area with his Kiner Communications marketing and public relations firm.
Mostly people will remember Kiner in the area as a great guy, down to earth, quick with a laugh and a quip and happy with his life. And he will be remembered as someone who called the desert home for more than six decades. And he will be missed.