Ralph Kiner, 91, hit 369 home runs

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. -- Ralph Kiner, who slugged his way into the baseball Hall of Fame and enjoyed a half-century career as a popular broadcaster, died Thursday. He was 91.

Kiner, who died with his family at his side at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., hit 369 home runs during his 10-year career, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who retired his No. 4 in 1987.

"Ralph Kiner was one of the greatest sluggers in National League history, leading the Senior Circuit in home runs in each of the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career," commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "His consistent power and patience in the heart of the Pirates lineup made him a member of our All-Century Team and, in many respects, a player ahead of his time.

"I am grateful that I recently had the opportunity to visit with Ralph, whose lifetime of service to Baseball will always be treasured by the fans of Pittsburgh, New York and beyond. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to his five children, his 12 grandchildren, his friends throughout our game and his admirers everywhere."

Kiner made his debut in 1946, and his power quickly became the talk of baseball -- he won or tied for the NL lead in homers in each of his first seven seasons and was a six-time selection to the All-Star Game.

Kiner also hit three home runs in a game four times, tied for seventh-most since 1916.

He still ranks sixth all time with a home run every 14.1 at-bats. He averaged more than 100 RBIs per season and hit .279 with the Pirates, Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975 with just one vote to spare in his 15th and final year on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot.

"All of us at the Pittsburgh Pirates have heavy hearts upon learning of Ralph Kiner's passing," the team said in a statement. "Ralph was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Pirates uniform and was a tireless ambassador for the game of baseball. He was a treasured member of the Pittsburgh community during his seven years with the Pirates."

When he retired as a player because of back problems, Kiner was sixth on the career home run list. Several years later, he joined the broadcast crew of the New York Mets for their expansion season in 1962 and became a permanent fixture -- the home TV booth at Shea Stadium was named in his honor.

"Kiner's Korner" was a delight for players and fans alike, where stars would join Kiner for postgame chats. Kiner was known for his malaprops and took them in stride, often laughing about his own comments. He once famously said: "If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."

Kiner had a stroke about a decade ago that slowed his speech, but remained an occasional part of the Mets' announcing crew. He worked a handful of games last season at Citi Field, his 52nd year of calling their games.

"Ralph Kiner was one of the most beloved people in Mets history -- an original Met and extraordinary gentleman," New York Mets CEO Fred Wilpon said in a statement. "After a Hall of Fame playing career, Ralph became a treasured broadcasting icon for more than half a century. His knowledge of the game, wit, and charm entertained generations of Mets fans.

"Like his stories, he was one of a kind. We send our deepest condolences to Ralph's five children and 12 grandchildren. Our sport and society today lost one of the all-time greats."

Fellow announcers such as Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling always brightened when Kiner was alongside them. Younger fans who were born long after Kiner retired also reveled in his folksy tales.

"As one of baseball's most prolific power hitters for a decade, Ralph struck fear into the hearts of the best pitchers of baseball's Golden Era despite his easygoing nature, disarming humility and movie-star smile," Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson said in a statement.

"His engaging personality and profound knowledge of the game turned him into a living room companion for millions of New York Mets fans who adored his game broadcasts and later 'Kiner's Korner' for more than half a century. He was as comfortable hanging out in Palm Springs with his friend Bob Hope as he was hitting in front of Hank Greenberg at Forbes Field."

As a teen, hanging around the Hollywood Stars in the Pacific Coast League, Kiner shook hands with Babe Ruth and talked ball with Ty Cobb. In high school, he hit a home run off Satchel Paige during a barnstorming tour.

When he got older, Kiner got to play with real Hollywood stars. His pals included Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, and he squired Liz Taylor and Janet Leigh. He also played himself in the 1951 film "Angels in the Outfield."

After serving as a Navy pilot in World War II, Kiner had a strong rookie year and won the NL homer title with 23, beating Johnny Mize by one. He really broke loose the next year, hitting 51 home runs with 127 RBIs while batting .313.

Stuck on poor teams, Kiner never made it to the postseason. He made his mark in All-Star games, homering in three straight.

Kiner connected in the 1950 showcase at Comiskey Park, but made more noise with another ball he hit in the game. He hit a long drive to the base of the scoreboard in left-center field and Ted Williams broke his left elbow making the catch, causing him to miss two months.

"Williams always said I ruined his batting stroke, that he could never hit after that," Kiner said. "Yeah, sure. He only hit .388 in '57."

Ralph McPherran Kiner was born on Oct. 27, 1922.

He first married tennis star Nancy Chaffee in 1951. Following their divorce, he married Barbara George, and following another divorce, he married DiAnn Shugart, who died in 2004.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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