By Danny Peary
Like many of you, I was deeply sadden by the death this month of baseball’s legendary Ralph Kiner (pictured, left with Danny Peary; photo by Carol Summers), a Hall of Fame player with the Pittsburgh Pirates (and Cubs and Indians) and broadcaster for the New York Mets from their inception in 1962 to the present. A baseball treasure, New York City icon, and an all-around great guy. Ralph was one of the first ballplayers I was aware of as a kid. I loved his 1953 Topps trading card with his handsome face on the front and the impressive stats and bio info on the back that confirmed he was the postwar era’s preeminent slugger. Forty years later he autographed that very card for me when I interviewed him for one of my baseball books and we became friends. In 2004, I had the privilege of collaborating with him on his autobiography, Baseball Forever: Reflections on 60 Years in the Game.
Last Saturday, as I was eating a pricey smoked salmon omelet that, annoyingly, had almost no smoked salmon in it, at the Dockside Bar & Grill in Sag Harbor, I thought about the memorial being held that day for Ralph in California, near where he lived for years in Rancho Mirage. I was unable to go but got reports from those who did that it was special. I was glad to hear that our book was mentioned. Surely, someone rehashed a funny story or two we included about his beloved post-game talk show, Kiner’s Korner. I hope someone also recalled his famous date with Elizabeth Taylor, as arranged by Bing Crosby, then a minority owner of the Pirates.
People forget that when Ralph was leading the NL in homers for a record seven consecutive years between 1946 and 1952, he was one of the game’s superstars and gate-attractions, up there with Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Bob Feller. He made $90,000 a year, drove a Cadillac, dined at every famous night club in New York when the Pirates came to town, and hobnobbed with movie stars in Hollywood when he returned to California in the offseasons. Strong, good-looking, and classy, he got to know and even date a number of actresses during his man-about-town years. He would unabashedly relate stories about them on the air, particularly when the Mets were losing. The story of his date with Elizabeth Taylor was always in demand. You probably heard it a few times yourself. But a good story is worth repeating and so here it is again, as Ralph told it to me for our book:
After the 1949 season, I went back to Alhambra and stayed with my mother in the house she’d had built when I was in high school. One day, I paid a visit to Crosby in his office on the Paramount lot, and my timing was impeccable because he asked me if I’d be interested in having a date with Elizabeth Taylor. He explained that she needed someone to accompany her to the premiere of the Gregory Peck war film Twelve O’Clock High at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Of course, he didn’t have to ask twice.
By then, I had dated several women in the entertainment industry, though only one had any degree of celebrity. Her name was Monica Lewis, and her big claim to fame was that she sang the Chiquita Bananas ditty “Don’t Ever Put Bananas in a Refrigerator.” She was being interviewed, and when asked to name her favorite baseball player, she said,“Ralph Kiner.” So I called her up at the theater where she was performing and introduced myself. After that we saw each other for awhile.
However, nobody I dated had remotely the fame of Elizabeth Taylor, and I was nervous about meeting her. She was 17 and being touted as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood. After being a child star, she was on the verge of making the transition to romantic leading lady in Father of the Bride, as the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. Life would imitate art, because before she turned 18, she’d leave home and marry wealthy hotelier Nicky Hilton. However, at the time we went out—I believe she also dated Howard Hughes that year—she still lived with her parents in a small suburban home, and that’s where I picked her up in my Cadillac convertible. I mention the car because it would play a major role in our evening together.
The premiere of Twelve O’Clock High was a star-studded gala affair with searchlights along Hollywood Boulevard and makeshift bleachers there for fans to watch the movie stars arrive and leave on the red carpet. Of course, when we pulled up and got out of the car all the fans went wild for Elizabeth and hadn’t any idea who I was. I’d hit all those home runs, but major league baseball wasn’t played west of St. Louis yet. We arrived late, so I let a parking attendant take my car and thought no more of it. We were the last of the invited guests to enter the theater.
When the movie ended, everyone filed out of Grauman’s and lined up for their cars. One by one, the big stars were announced and their cars were brought up to them immediately. They’d wave to the crowd and depart. I moved to the front of the line and said to the attendant, “I would like my car paged, please; my name is Ralph Kiner.” So the attendant paged “Ralph Kiner’s car.” And Elizabeth and I stood there waiting. Ten minutes later I inquired about my car. Ralph Kiner’s car was paged again, but it never arrived. Now I was really hot and marched up to the attendant and snapped, “Dammit, my car isn’t here and I’m waiting with Elizabeth Taylor!” And he said, “Well, your chauffeur must have fallen asleep.” And I said, “I don’t have a chauffeur, I’m driving myself.” And he said, “In that case, your car is there…” and he pointed with a very long finger in the general direction of a huge unattended parking lot a block or two away. So after hearing the bad news, Elizabeth, in her fur, gown, and heels, and I, in my tuxedo, trekked all the way to the parking lot. Then for a long time Elizabeth Taylor and I ran around this parking lot looking for my car. Of course, I was embarrassed, but thankfully she was a great sport and didn’t put on any Hollywood airs.
Finally we found the car and drove over to Romanoff’s, where there was an after-movie party with a lot of celebrities in attendance. I was sitting with Elizabeth when Louella Parsons, the Hearst gossip columnist who could make or break an actor with a few strokes of her poison pen, came over to us. She said hello to Elizabeth and…she had no idea who I was. We told her I played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and she nodded. It so happened that the Pittsburgh Steelers were in town to play the Rams at the Coliseum that Sunday, so she told me, “I hope your team wins tomorrow.” I thanked her.
I managed to drop Elizabeth at her home without further incident. And that was it. I have vivid memories of that night, but if I ever need real proof I had a date with Elizabeth Taylor I can look it up quite easily, because it was written up in all the newspapers. It’s too bad that night was such a mess because I never had the courage to ask her out on a second date. In fact, I never saw her again except in the movies.