Just a few years before Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner donned a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform and belted his way into the Major League Baseball record books — leading the National League in home runs his first seven seasons in the majors — he flew PBM Mariner patrol bombers over the Pacific during World War II.
Kiner, who was elected to the Hall in 1975 and has been a radio and television broadcaster for the New York Mets since the team’s inception in 1962, recently returned to the desert after living for the past eight years in Florida.
Kiner grew up in Alhambra, and was playing in a semipro baseball game in Pasadena the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The news spread quickly, and Kiner, who was 19, joined the hundreds of thousands of other young men who lined up to fight for their country.
“We couldn’t believe we were at war,” he said. “The next day was Monday and I went down and signed up for the cadet program for Navy flying.”
Although he’d enlisted, he wasn’t called to duty until June of 1943 while he was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the International League.
The outfielder’s first stop on his wartime journey was Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he began his pre-flight training in the Naval aviation program. He continued his training at Saint Mary’s College near San Francisco.
During this time, Kiner obtained his pilot’s license after making his solo with only eight hours of flying-time experience.
“Then we went to Livermore (Naval Air Station) where we flew bigger and faster planes,” he said.
One of Kiner’s last stateside stops was to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, in Texas, where he learned to fly the PBY Catalina flying boat. He was awarded his wings on Dec. 6, 1944 and commissioned an ensign.
He was briefly stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda on San Francisco Bay before being sent overseas to Naval Air Station Kaneohe, in Hawaii.
He flew anti-submarine missions in the Pacific, near the Johnson Islands, in the PBM Mariner, a patrol bomber flying boat.
“I was a navigator in the beginning,” he said. “The hardest part was celestial navigation. You got up in the hatch with a sextant and you identify stars … we had no landmarks — there was only water.”
“You’d check the waves, which gave you the wind actions … You draw a fix, and if you were within 10 miles of where you were supposed to be, you were doing a good job,” he said, laughing.
“Radar was just starting to come in. We didn’t have it on our plane.”
The aircraft was always on the water, he said.
“All take offs and landing were on the sea. As you started down the runway of water you got on the hull and that got your tail off the water. We got on the step of the water and then we got going fast enough to take off.”
Although he spent many months away from the game of baseball, he said the military life and physical conditioning — the men had to be able to swim in the pool for 45 minutes at a time — kept him in good shape, which he hoped would make for an easy transition back to the field.
“I didn’t really get a chance to play any baseball for 2 1/2 years,” he said.
“It was a tough life. You had to continue to abide by the schedule, get up in the middle of the night and stand guard duty. It was work. It was an education. It was a different way of living.”
Kiner was in San Francisco when the war ended, in August, 1945, then was transferred back to Hawaii.
“We figured we’d be in Hawaii for a long time — a year or more — when I got orders to go to Singapore. We were all set to go, then they changed my orders and I came back to San Francisco.
“Amazingly, most of the guys I played with re-enlisted to get air pay (about $75 a month). I wanted to play baseball. I wanted to get out right then.”
Kiner was honorably discharged on Dec. 5, 1945.
“The guys that stayed in the reserves got called back during Korea. That’s what happened to Ted Williams.
“Williams was called back. He had to serve time in the Marine Corps. He was one of the greatest hitters, if not the greatest hitter. He was more proud of being a Marine than being in the Hall of Fame.”
After Kiner got out of the service, he got back to work on the ball field.
“I played, I worked out a lot. I went to spring training with the Pirates and I had a tremendous spring. Thirteen home runs in about 28 games, and I made the team.
“I played center field for the Pirates in St. Louis. I got a hit in my first game.”
In the third game of the series, Kiner smashed the first home run of his major league career.
The first time Kiner arrived in Pittsburgh, it was 10 a.m., but it looked like it was nighttime.
He’d never experienced life in a steel-mill town.
“It was so smoky, you couldn’t believe it. Soot was almost like fog, all over the city. Coming from Southern California where there was no smog, it was harder to breathe. You’d wear a white shirt and an hour and a half later it would be dirty.
Kiner wore jersey number 43 his first year with the Pirates, in 1946.
“Back then, the higher number you had, the less chance you had of making the ball club. The good numbers were always low.”
“So the next year came around, and the player who had No. 4 was traded to the Boston Braves. I went into the clubhouse and I asked for No. 4 — that was a prestige number — and I got it.”
Kiner, a six-time All- Star who also played for the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians, wore No. 4 for all but his first and last years in the big leagues. The Pirates retired his No. 4 uniform jersey in 1987.
Kiner dated actress Janet Leigh, of “Psycho” fame, while she was in Pittsburgh in 1951 filming some scenes for the movie “Angels in the Outfield.”
Years later, Kiner was in the press box at Shea Stadium in New York, when he noticed Jamie Lee Curtis and her husband were in the room.
He asked his then-wife if he should go over to Curtis and tell her he dated her mom, and his wife told him he should do it.
Kiner started telling Curtis he used to play for the Pirates and, “With that, she jumped up threw her arms around me, and said, ‘Daddy! I’ve been searching for you all my life!’ ”
Curtis was only kidding around, but her quick response impressed Kiner.
“I thought the reaction was so fast, it was just stunning!” he said.
Kiner had an earlier encounter with another starlet from the silver screen.
In 1949, “I had one date with Elizabeth Taylor. She was 17 years old.”
Kiner was about 27.
“Bing Crosby fixed me up — he was one of the owners of the Pirates — and he said, ‘How would you like to go out with Elizabeth Taylor?’ ”
“He set it up with her agent. She was just starting out. I think she had just made ‘National Velvet.’”
The two went to see the movie “Twelve O’Clock High,” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, then joined another couple for dinner at Romanoff’’s in Beverly Hills.
He said Louella Parsons — the movie/gossip columnist — stopped by the table for some chit chat.
There was no second date.
“She wouldn’t go out with me after that,” Kiner said.
Name: Ralph Kiner
Born: Oct. 27, 1922
Residence: Rancho Mirage
Military branch: U.S. Navy
Years served: Dec. 8, 1941 – Dec. 5, 1945
Family: Three children, Scott Kiner and Michael Kiner of Palm Desert, and Kathryn Kiner of Rancho Mirage; seven grandchildren