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.
Aug 30, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT
It will be his first game action since 2012.
Aug 30, 2014, 12:01 PM EDT
The A’s are calling him day-to-day.
Aug 30, 2014, 11:05 AM EDT
And wouldn’t you know it, it worked.
Aug 30, 2014, 11:01 AM EDT
Ellsbury injured his left ankle on a slide into home plate on Friday night.
Aug 30, 2014, 10:36 AM EDT
Pearce owns a surprising .289/.354/.532 batting line with 16 home runs and 37 RBI over 85 games this season.
Aug 30, 2014, 9:35 AM EDT
The two homers traveled a combined 858 feet.
Aug 30, 2014, 8:57 AM EDT
A quick recap of a busy Friday around MLB, including an AL West showdown.
Aug 29, 2014, 11:05 PM EDT
Hyun-Jin Ryu will return to the Dodgers’ rotation on Sunday after recovering from a strained glute.
Aug 29, 2014, 10:30 PM EDT
Eric Campbell stole home against the Phillies, helping the Mets improve to 12-5 against their NL East rival this season.
Aug 29, 2014, 9:42 PM EDT
The injury-ravaged Rangers managed to tie a major league record for all the wrong reasons when they called up Ryan Rua from Triple-A on Friday.
Aug 29, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT
A day after Bruce Chen allowed six runs in the 10th inning of the Royals’ loss to the Twins on Thursday, the Royals designated the lefty for assignment.
Aug 29, 2014, 7:22 PM EDT
The Mariners have ended Jesus Montero’s season so he can address his “non-baseball issues”, a day after he went after a scout who was heckling him.
Aug 29, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
The Mets could be without Daniel Murphy for most or all of the rest of the season, as the second baseman deals with a strained right calf.
Aug 29, 2014, 6:25 PM EDT
Joey Votto hasn’t been progressing as well from his quad injury as the Reds would have liked.
Aug 29, 2014, 5:38 PM EDT
He’s in the lineup tonight, batting sixth against the Cubs.
Aug 29, 2014, 5:17 PM EDT
Whether this will turn into a Michael Young situation or a Derek Jeter situation is an open question.
Aug 29, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
Sad news for a once-great reliever.
Aug 29, 2014, 4:42 PM EDT
No doctor appointments are scheduled as a result, but soreness is not great news.
Aug 29, 2014, 4:17 PM EDT
If you’re going to make the same arguments for him you did the past two years, you may want to re-think things.
Aug 29, 2014, 3:27 PM EDT
There can be only THREE!! True outcomes, that is.
- The Dodgers took the shift to the extreme last night 15
- VIDEO: Jorge Soler hits two long home runs in third major league game 16
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 14
- Mariners end Jesus Montero’s season 36
- Troy Tulowitzki says he’ll retire before he switches positions 30
- Mike Trout is the best MVP choice, but . . . 44
- Baseball is dying, you guys, because no one would recognize Mike Trout in a bar 72
- And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights 75
- Could women play major league baseball? Sure. Right now, though, the deck is stacked against them. (220)
- Forgiveness for Pete Rose? Not in this lifetime (146)
- Albert Pujols plays the “you never played the game!” card (104)
- Great Moments in Drug Testing and Punishment: The NFL Edition (101)
- And That Happened: Thursday’s scores and highlights (75)