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The unforgettable two lives of Ralph Kiner

Feb 7, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

140207-ralph-kiner AP

There are countless Mets fans who probably have no idea just how good a hitter Ralph Kiner was in his prime. In a way, there can be no greater tribute. Ralph Kiner died on Thursday. He was 91 years old. He was a broadcaster for the New York Mets for 53 years. And he rarely let on that there was a time when he was one of the great sluggers in the history of baseball.

Kiner lived two lives, which is one more than most of us get to live. He got to be the great ballplayer who drove Cadillacs because, as he is often quoted saying, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs; singles hitters drive Fords.” And he got to be a broadcaster who was so beloved that these malapropisms were not only endured but celebrated.

“On Father’s Day,” he said, “we wish you all a happy birthday!”

Funny, I remember listening that day and I recall him saying, “It’s Father’s Day, so to you all you fathers out there, happy birthday!” The point’s the same. Ralph Kiner’s mistakes as a broadcaster made him more delightful, not less.

“That’s the great thing about baseball,” he said. “You never know what’s going on.”

He was a contentious baseball player, one of the most argued about of his time. Branch Rickey was probably the big reason. Rickey became the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager in 1950 and thoroughly despised Kiner. He would always say it was because of Kiner’s multiple flaws as a player — he couldn’t run, he had no arm, he couldn’t field and so on. Still, Rickey’s enmity toward Kiner had to be based on things more personal, because he was unrelenting.

“Kiner has so many other weaknesses,” Rickey once said, “that if you had eight Ralph Kiners on an American Association team, it would finish last.”

This is even nastier than Rickey’s more famous “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you*” barb when Kiner dared ask for a raise after leading the league in home runs again. Rickey was saying that a team of Ralph Kiners would finish last in the minor leagues. The minor leagues! This is the Ralph Kiner, understand, who from 1946 to 1952 hit 100 more home runs than any other player in baseball and drove in more runs as well, the list of trailers obviously including Ted William and Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio and other Hall of Famers.

*During his stretch with Pittsburgh, the Pirates finished last twice. Both years, Kiner led the league in home runs and walked at least 110 times. In both seasons, the Pirates’ pitching staff had an ERA a half-run worse than any other team in the league.

Kiner’s insistence on getting paid probably has something to do with Rickey’s spitefulness — Rickey never did look too kindly on ballplayers who wanted to get paid for their services — and it’s likely that Kiner was also a scapegoat for Rickey’s inability to turn around Pittsburgh’s fortunes. Still, it was a nasty little fight, and it seeped into other places. As Bill James has written, “a lot of people didn’t like Kiner.” He led the league in home run seven straight years, something even Babe Ruth never did. He was utterly brilliant at getting on base — his lifetime .398 on-base percentage is the same as Joe DiMaggio’s. Still, it took Kiner 15 years to get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So that was his first life.

His second was as the New York Mets’ announcer. He began when the team began in 1962 — he would always say that the Mets hired him because they looked at his resume and saw that he had plenty of losing experience. The Mets lost 120 that first year and Kiner was part of the broadcast team that brought home the news. As an announcer, he was funny and charming and a little bit befuddled and every now and again he would say something beautiful.

“Two thirds of the earth is covered in water,” he once said after a great catch by Phillies center fielder Garry Maddox. “The other third is covered by (Garry) Maddox.”

We spend a lot of time with the baseball announcers of our favorite baseball teams. We check in with them daily to find out the score, to learn the news, to check out the weather. My best friend in high school was a huge Mets fan, and he had the first satellite dish I’d ever seen, and nightly we’d find Mets games and Ralph Kiner. We heard more Ralph Kiner than we heard any teacher. We’d always stick around for his postgame show, Kiner’s Korner, (both with Ks) because it could be priceless television. You probably have heard the famous Kiner’s Korner interview with the Mets’ catcher, Choo Choo Coleman.

“What’s your wife’s name, and what is she like?” Kiner asked.

“Mrs Coleman,” Choo Choo growled. “And she likes me, bub.”

We would watch Kiner’s Korner nightly in the hope of seeing something equally hilarious. Often we did. In my mind, I heard the Father’s Day line, and I recall Kiner saying, “If Casey Stengel was alive today he’d be spinning in his grave,” and I even seem to remember him advising us that “solo home runs usually come with no men on base.” Maybe I did hear those calls. Maybe my memory just wants me to think I did. I remember falling back on that carpet in front of my buddy’s television and laughing so hard I literally was rolling on the floor laughing.

What I don’t remember was Kiner even hinting that he once hit the longest home runs in baseball, that he was Killebrew before Killebrew, McGwire before McGwire, Thome before Thome. He would call New York Mets’ home runs like they were amazing to him, like he could not even believe that someone had the power to do such a thing.

You might know, the year Pittsburgh traded Ralph Kiner in 1953, they did indeed finish last without him. What you might not know is that Pittsburgh fans organized a boycott in protest. Ralph Kiner never did talk about how much they loved him.

  1. louhudson23 - Feb 7, 2014 at 7:25 AM

    One of a kind. And sadly,when they are gone,there are no replacements….

  2. dondada10 - Feb 7, 2014 at 7:29 AM

    Thank you, Joe. You’ve been a great contribution to HBT. I’m a life-long Mets fan and Kiner was beloved. I remember going on a baseball road trip and taking a photo with Kiner’s bronze hands at PNC. You did him justice with this beautiful piece.

  3. vallewho - Feb 7, 2014 at 7:47 AM

    I learned a lot of what I know about baseball by listening to Ralph Kiner (and Tim McCarver) doing Met’s broadcasts from the mid 80’s. RIP.

  4. nbjays - Feb 7, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    Thank you, Joe. A great morning read to go with my coffee. Kiner was one of a kind and he’ll definitely be missed, because of both of his lives.

  5. 1historian - Feb 7, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    Joe – you’re the best. Great piece.

    Thanks

  6. tfbuckfutter - Feb 7, 2014 at 8:47 AM

    I couldn’t believe his career was over at 32 and he made the Hall of Fame.

    It makes me feel like my chances at making the MLB HOF are starting to slip away.

    Does anyone know how to find out who made the Hall of Fame with the shortest career and/or earliest retirement age?

    • lazlosother - Feb 7, 2014 at 9:01 AM

      Addie Joss and Sandy Koufax both played their last game at 30. Koufax pitched for 12 years, Joss for 9. The 10 year rule was waived for Joss and he was elected by the veteran’s comittee. Those are the two I can think of.

    • dlf9 - Feb 7, 2014 at 9:06 AM

      Not counting some of the very early pioneers (e.g. Candy Cummings played 6 years and retired at age 28, Addie Joss played 9 seasons, etc.) the youngest since the end of deadball is Sandy Koufax who retired at age 30. I believe that Kiner had the shortest career of any post-deadball player as 10, but was two years older than Koufax, who posted 12 full and partial seasons by age 30.

    • tfbuckfutter - Feb 7, 2014 at 10:54 AM

      Thanks guys.

      I was kind of surprised that wasn’t easy to find info.

      All I could come up with was that Sandy Koufax was the youngest to be elected, but not specifically that he retired at the youngest age of any hall of famer.

  7. sdelmonte - Feb 7, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    Oh how lucky we have been in Metsland. The team we love, it’s never that great for that long. But the men who call the games? We started with Kiner and Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson in his loud jackets. Nelson moved on relatively early, but Murph was on the radio every night till 2003, paired with Gary Thorne for a few amazing years in the 80s – the radio call of game six of the ’86 Series still gives me chills. And Ralph worked with such men as McCarver in his prime, and Tom Seaver, and Thorne, and the current amazing trio of Darling, Hernandez and Cone. Add in Howie Rose, who no doubt benefited from having Ralph around, and it’s hard not to feel lucky that from day one till today, my team has such voices, has such knowledge of the game.

    But Ralph and Murph WERE the Mets. Players and managers and GMs came and went. Hopes were raised, hopes were dashed. And through it all, we could count on Murph looking for the happy recap and Ralph finding the right story. I have long missed Murph. I will now also miss Ralph. But they will be with us as long as there are Mets games and baseball.

    • Old Gator - Feb 7, 2014 at 9:29 AM

      And reruns of Bowling for Dollars. I always wondered how Murphy felt about hosting that show – coming from the Mutts broadcasting booth to one of the prototype sets of The Big Lebowski and trying to stay awake, then looking at his paycheck twice a month and muttering to himself, “Well, at least there’s that.”

  8. honkerdawg - Feb 7, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    louhudson23 is right the great ones can’t be replaced. Kiner was great to listen too he made the game fun which unfortunately they don’t today with all the shouting and no knowledge

  9. Old Gator - Feb 7, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    Consider this: Ralph Kiner and Yogi Berra were together at Shea for several years. Can you even imagine some of those conversations? Owww, my ribs.

    • nbjays - Feb 7, 2014 at 10:45 AM

      How about Kiner and Casey Stengel?

      • Old Gator - Feb 7, 2014 at 11:44 AM

        Well yeah, that too – ‘course my favorite Stengel story is the one about his testimony before the Kefauver antitrust congressional committee. He went on and on and on in Stengelese and the committee members were completely baffled. When Stengel was finished, the next witness was a very young Mickey Mantle. Someone – I think it might have been Margaret Chase Smith – asked Mantle, hesitatingly (apparently afraid that all baseball people talked like Casey did), what he thought of Stengel’s testimony. Mantle, still an Okie boy somewhat overawed by testifying before Congress, replied, “Well, I agree with everything that Casey said.” There was a protracted moment of silence from the committee. “Mr. Mantle,” Kefauver asked, rubbing his forehead a bit, “uh, so, what did Mr. Stengel say?”

        All that notwithstanding, Casey’s semiosis was of a different order than Kiner’s and of Berra’s – though of the latter, nobody’s semiosis was anything like it. They were just all three hilarious on the surface but their hilarity was subsumed by great profound truths.

  10. tcostant - Feb 7, 2014 at 10:11 AM

    I grew up a Mets fan always watched “Kiner’s Korner”. In the 70’s Kiner said all those things reference about, but an interesting thing happened. The Mets hire Tim McCarver for they broadcast team in the early 80’s and something unexpected happened. McCarver drew all these old stories out of Kiner that we never heard before, he had been doing these Mets games for 20 years and we never heard them. And they were wonderful!

    But the “ols” Kiner came out to, I’m smiling as I write what happen at Gary Carter’s first home game as a Met. Carter had a big first day, the Mets won. So Gary Carter was the guest on Kiner’s Corner and Kiner introduced him as “Gary Copper”. I’m sure going the break, the produced was telling him “Carter, Carter, Carter” and he comes back from the break and Kiner says “I’m here talking to Jimmy Carter…” It really happened.

    • Old Gator - Feb 7, 2014 at 11:47 AM

      I had moved to England during the first few years that McCarver came aboard so, tragically, I missed most of that. A friend of mine, with whom I had for years previous shared a field box seat at Shea (in the names, sequentially, of “Consolidated Coprolite” and “Amplexus Corp.”) sent me letters or called me with updates on the new chemistry in the Mutts booth, so I kinda knew what was going on. I still regret missing the real stuff.

  11. Carl Hancock - Feb 7, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    “Still, it took Kiner 15 years to get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.”

    Only because his career was so short relative to contemporaries and most players in the Hall of Fame.

    Think about this…

    Ralph Kiner played 1472 games over 10 years and hit 369 Home Runs, 1015 RBI’s, .279 BA and a .946 OPS.

    Player 2 played 1539 games over 12 years and hit 381 Home Runs, 1239 RBI’s, .295 BA and a .933 OPS.

    Player 2 is not in the Hall of Fame, is not one of the players mentioned when PED’s are discussed and fell off the ballot in his 2nd year of eligibility.

    • tcostant - Feb 7, 2014 at 3:39 PM

      He has some amazing years, check this one out:

      54 HRs, 127 RBIs and 117 walks in 152 games, with only 61 times strike outs.

    • tcostant - Feb 7, 2014 at 3:42 PM

      BTW – I agree that Albert Bell should be in the HoF too (your player #2), he was some hitter and his career also ended earlier due to injury. I think the fact that he played DH and was so globally disliked and was said to be a “me first” guy hurt his chances.

      • Carl Hancock - Feb 7, 2014 at 5:50 PM

        Good eye. And yes, I agree the fact he was disliked completely killed his chances given his career was also cut short due to injuries. Which is ironic considering how many guys in the Hall of Fame were not friendly guys. Far more than just Ty Cobb.

        Another thing about Belle is for a slugger he had a relatively low number of strikeouts. Most of the sluggers during Belle’s time who hit for power also struck out a ton. Belle averaged about 80 K’s per season. Kiner averaged 75 K’s per season.

        You pointed out the great season by Kiner, which is tremendous. Here’s one from Belle…

        52 HRs, 126 RBI. 73 Walks, 143 games, 80 strike outs. .317 AVG to Kiner’s .310 during that 54 HR season.

        None of this is meant to take away from Ralph Kiner. He had a tremendous 10 years in the Major Leagues and went on to have a tremendous career as a broadcaster and by all accounts was a great person.

        I’m not even an Albert Belle fan, nor am I a fan of any of the teams he played in. But his career statistics compare pretty closely with Ralph Kiner’s.

        For those that say Kiner doesn’t get his just due… he’s in the Hall Of Fame. There’s other players that had great short careers that aren’t in the Hall of Fame. But Kiner is. So i’d say he did.

  12. anxovies - Feb 7, 2014 at 3:36 PM

    I am sympathetic with Joe’s uncertainty about whether or not he actually heard some of the Kinerisms. I used to watch Game of the Week when I was a boy and over the years I became convinced that I had actually heard the famous incident in a long, extra-inning game when Dizzy Dean, well-supplied with Falstaff, said “he’s kissing her between the strikes and she’s kissing him between the balls,” as the camera panned a young couple embracing in the bleachers. At a family reunion a few years ago, my cousin, who always watched the games with me, was adamant that we never saw the incident. Then, a few years later we were talking on the phone and he said, “remember when we were watching that game where Dizzy made that remark about the guy and the girl kissing in the seats, was it Buddy Blatner or Pee Wee Reese that was calling the game with him?……………………..

  13. dutchman45 - Feb 7, 2014 at 5:46 PM

    Rest in peace. What a treasure the world has lost.

  14. klingonj - Feb 7, 2014 at 8:12 PM

    just reading the article brought back great memories of listening to the Mets in the 60s. Looking back, the announcers then werent into the schtick and branding themselves like the announcers of the last few years. Lindsey Nelson with the horseblanket jackets, Murph- the eternal optimist and Kiner with great stories.

  15. jlilly67 - Feb 7, 2014 at 8:28 PM

    Thanks guys for your posts…..it brings out all those good memories of watching the Mets. Absolutely true that McCarver brought out the best in Kiner…spot on point. Thank u Ralph for all those years.

  16. jimeejohnson - Feb 7, 2014 at 9:29 PM

    Meet the Mets
    Greet the Mets
    Step right up
    and beat the Mets!

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