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 5, 2015, 10:32 AM EDT
Check out this wrap-around style montage of all the July 4 action in Major League Baseball …
Jul 5, 2015, 9:40 AM EDT
Josh Hamilton has a .954 OPS in 10 games with the Rangers. The problem is he’s only played in 10 games.
Jul 5, 2015, 8:53 AM EDT
The best fireworks on July 4 came from the Angels.
Jul 4, 2015, 11:55 PM EDT
Chi Chi Gonzalez posted good results in his first seven major league starts, but he’ll cede his rotation spot to Matt Harrison and head back to Triple-A.
Jul 4, 2015, 11:20 PM EDT
But not even science could master the knuckleball.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:45 PM EDT
Kris Bryant had a monster night at the plate on Saturday against the Marlins.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:26 PM EDT
Jarred Cosart had a rough outing on Saturday and will try to straighten things out at Triple-A.
Jul 4, 2015, 10:15 PM EDT
The Orioles got Jonathan Schoop back after nearly three months. They sent Ryan Flaherty to Triple-A to make room for him.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:25 PM EDT
The Braves are trying to shop an expensive, ineffective Chris Johnson.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:07 PM EDT
The Twins added some bullpen depth in signing Scott Atchison to a minor league deal.
Jul 4, 2015, 8:35 PM EDT
The Giants tried to get creative to catch Bryce Harper napping off of second base.
Jul 4, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
John Axford is back with the Rockies, ready to continue closing out games.
Jul 4, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT
Ervin Santana is back. Trevor May’s rotation spot has been freed up to make room for him.
Jul 4, 2015, 6:05 PM EDT
Avisail Garcia robbed Chris Davis of a home run. It was as glorious as it sounds.
Jul 4, 2015, 5:28 PM EDT
Ross, 38, is batting .189/.302/.284 over 87 plate appearances this season.
Jul 4, 2015, 4:25 PM EDT
Matt Holliday has been sidelined since June 8 with a Grade 2 strain of his right quadriceps muscle.
Jul 4, 2015, 3:18 PM EDT
Miguel Cabrera is going to be missed while he’s out with a Grade 3 strain of his left calf, but the Tigers are getting by just fine so far this afternoon against the Blue Jays.
Jul 4, 2015, 2:42 PM EDT
Norris has a 6.79 ERA over 11 starts this season.
Jul 4, 2015, 1:45 PM EDT
Beth Fedornak claims to have suffered “permanent or continuing injuries in her neck and back” as a result of the mascot’s actions.
Jul 4, 2015, 12:39 PM EDT
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg exited today’s start against the Giants in the top of the fourth inning due to an apparent injury to his left side.
- Settling the Score: Saturday’s results 4
- Video: Kris Bryant hits a grand slam as part of a two-homer, six-RBI night 8
- Stephen Strasburg exits start with tightness in left side 10
- In the wake of the Miguel Cabrera injury the Tigers have few good options 19
- Mets general manager Sandy Alderson says Terry Collins’ job is safe 11
- Calf injury sends Miguel Cabrera to the disabled list for the first time in his career 7
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 27
- Rangers designate Neftali Feliz for assignment, activate Matt Harrison 9
- Settling the Scores: Sunday’s results (99)
- Mike Scioscia says Josh Hamilton should apologize to Angels owner Arte Moreno (90)
- What Yasiel Puig being a pain in the butt means. And what it doesn’t mean. (78)
- Report: Jerry Dipoto “definitely out” as Angels GM (77)
- Brian Dozier is the best second baseman in baseball (72)