Everybody Has a Story: Birthday surprise rekindles friendship with baseball star Kiner

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I grew up listening to stories of baseball from my father. His years of playing included being captain of his varsity baseball team in 1938 and 1939 at Alhambra High School, Los Angeles County. He would regale us kids over the dinner table with many fun and exciting stories.

He was a U.S. Marine in the South Pacific during World War II, and he told us that when there was no fighting, they played baseball to fill the time. He played with Pee Wee Reese and Mickey Mantle long before they were baseball icons. And in high school, he played with Ralph Kiner, who became a huge star in the late 1940s and 1950s, and an announcer after that. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975.

In September of 1991, my father was turning 70, and I wanted to do something special for him. I thought about getting something signed by Ralph Kiner. Maybe a ball, a card? No, I’ll try and get a hold of Mr. Kiner personally — however, how would one go about that? I knew he was the voice of the New York Mets, so I called Shea Stadium. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to try.

I told a very nice and sympathetic operator what I wanted for my father’s 70th birthday. She was impressed, and wanted very much to help me get ahold of Mr. Kiner. She promised to make sure he got my message. I told her to have him call collect.

For the next week, every time the phone rang, I’d jump, but he didn’t call. I was starting to doubt I’d ever hear back from him. But that Sunday afternoon the phone rang, and when I answered it, the operator asked if I’d accept a collect call form Ralph Kiner! I exclaimed “yes!”

Then I heard Kiner’s voice say: “You know, I had to dig out my old high school yearbook, because I couldn’t remember who the hell Bill Thompson was!” Then he continued with a laugh, “Of course I remember your father. So he’s going to be 70 in September, well, great! What can I do to help?”

We talked for a long time. He remembered my father well and regaled me with a few anecdotes from those days. I asked if I sent him a baseball and maybe a trading card, would he please sign them and send them back to me? He said he’d do one better and send me a signed bat and an autographed book that he had just written, along with the card and baseball. I was thrilled! Getting bolder, I ask him if he’d call my dad on his birthday. Kiner said he’d be out of town with the Mets, but he’d try.

I was so taken aback by his generosity and warmth. He he made me feel great, and I knew that this birthday would be very special for my dad. I had each gift wrapped separately, and as my dad opened each of the things, I could see his glee and surprise. I told him that I had talked with Ralph, who did say he’d try calling, but sadly, that didn’t happen.

However, from then on, whenever the Mets were in San Diego, Ralph would call my father and they would have a dinner or lunch at least once every visit. That was usually twice a year. They even got together for golf a few times. I once asked if I could go with Dad to meet Ralph for lunch, but he smiled: “No, this is my time with an old friend!”

However, he again thanked me for rekindling an old friendship. He was grateful, and that made my day too.


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