Feb 7, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT
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.
Jul 21, 2014, 11:15 PM EDT
The Rangers had high hopes when they signed outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract over the winter, but a lingering injury to his left ankle is a major reason why his first season with Texas has been a bust.
Jul 21, 2014, 10:29 PM EDT
Plenty of scouts were in attendance tonight for Cliff Lee’s first start in the majors in over two months. They likely didn’t come away impressed.
Jul 21, 2014, 9:58 PM EDT
Royals left-hander Jason Vargas underwent an appendectomy less than two weeks ago, but he could be activated from the disabled list as soon as Sunday against the Indians.
Jul 21, 2014, 9:15 PM EDT
Andrelton Simmons just isn’t fair.
Jul 21, 2014, 8:48 PM EDT
Dodgers right-hander Josh Beckett is dealing with a left hip impingement, but he made it through a bullpen session Saturday with no issues and has been cleared to return Tuesday.
Jul 21, 2014, 8:01 PM EDT
X-rays on the hands of Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig came back negative.
Jul 21, 2014, 7:09 PM EDT
Veteran catcher John Buck was given his release by the Mariners earlier this month, but he didn’t stay out of a job for long.
Jul 21, 2014, 6:24 PM EDT
After a demotion to Triple-A earlier this month, Tommy Milone has asked the Athletics to trade him. He appears unlikely to get his wish.
Jul 21, 2014, 5:28 PM EDT
Jeter has been that for so, so long. Who’s next?
Jul 21, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
Justin Morneau was finally healthy and productive again after three injury wrecked years in Minnesota, to the point that he nearly made the All-Star team as a “Final Vote” candidate and was chosen for the Home Run Derby. But now he’s hurt again.
Jul 21, 2014, 5:03 PM EDT
You could do worse. Like, say, stand pat with the Royals’ offense.
Jul 21, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
Yankees first baseman will be out of the lineup for at least the next 3-4 days with a strained lat muscle, according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News.
Jul 21, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Sergio Santos saved 30 games for the White Sox in 2011 and then that offseason the Blue Jays acquired him to take over as their closer, but he’s been injured and ineffective since then and today Toronto designated him for assignment.
Jul 21, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
He could be throwing pitches in anger in September.
Jul 21, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
After four terrible seasons Kurt Suzuki had to settle for a one-year, $2.75 million deal this offseason, but now he’s having a career-year for the Twins and made his first All-Star team at age 30.
Jul 21, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
Evan Gattis is off the disabled list after missing the past four weeks with a bulging disk in his back and to make room for his return the Braves demoted fill-in catcher Christian Bethancourt to Triple-A.
Jul 21, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT
Some Colby on Colby crime in Toronto on Saturday. And none of it made a lick of sense.
Jul 21, 2014, 2:44 PM EDT
Imagine a story like that happening today (and not involving Miguel Olivo).
Jul 21, 2014, 2:36 PM EDT
The third installment in what I feel is the coolest set of baseball prints ever is now out.
Jul 21, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
The Giants make a low-risk bet on a possibly still high upside veteran.
- Cliff Lee struggles in first start back from disabled list 0
- On the 10th anniversary of his MLB debut, let’s appreciate David Wright 29
- And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights 33
- Odrisamer Despaigne loses his no-hitter with two outs in the eighth inning 8
- Brandon Belt headed to disabled list with concussion 5
- Cardinals are interested in David Price, but “would want a financial commitment” from him 47
- Blue Jays, Giants “taking their best shot” at Chase Utley 19
- Settling the Score: Saturday’s results 27
- Baseball is dying, you guys (148)
- Luke Scott released from Korean team after calling coach a “liar” and a “coward” (108)
- Watch Derek Jeter tell Joe Buck to get the heck out of the clubhouse (91)
- Adam Wainwright follows the rules and pays the price (90)
- The Astros did not sign number one overall pick Brady Aiken. This is a big deal. (90)