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 23, 2014, 9:28 AM EDT
One of baseball’s top analysts advocates for one of the dumber ideas you’ll hear in a long while.
Jul 23, 2014, 9:16 AM EDT
Zimmerman has missed 44 games this year. He’s about to miss more.
Jul 23, 2014, 8:55 AM EDT
Off the plane a half hour before game time, the hero by midnight.
Jul 23, 2014, 8:23 AM EDT
A seven nation army couldn’t cheer him up.
Jul 23, 2014, 7:17 AM EDT
Jonathan Lucory hit two homers last night, including the walkoff.
Jul 22, 2014, 10:24 PM EDT
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter made a little more history on Tuesday night against the Rangers …
Jul 22, 2014, 9:37 PM EDT
Casey McGehee entered play on Tuesday evening with a batting average (.322) that is 54 points above his career mean (.268) and an RBI total (56) that ranks ninth in the National League. The 31-year-old third baseman fits the mold of a sell-high candidate. But it doesn’t sound like he’s going to be moved.
Jul 22, 2014, 8:41 PM EDT
Watch as Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin leaps above the right-center field wall at Yankee Stadium to rob Brian McCann of a home run in the bottom of the second inning Tuesday night …
Jul 22, 2014, 7:53 PM EDT
Mariners right-hander Taijuan Walker will be called back up from Triple-A Tacoma to start Wednesday night against the Mets at Seattle’s Safeco Field.
Jul 22, 2014, 7:08 PM EDT
Oscar Taveras has started just two of the Cardinals’ last seven games and the left-handed-hitting outfield prospect is not in St. Louis’ starting lineup on Tuesday night against Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi. Getting the nod instead is the right-handed-hitting Allen Craig. What’s the deal?
Jul 22, 2014, 6:14 PM EDT
According to Brian Stull of CBS Sports 920, left-handed reliever Kevin Siegrist joined back up with the Cardinals on Tuesday in St. Louis and is expected to be activated from the disabled list on Wednesday.
Jul 22, 2014, 5:27 PM EDT
Troy Tulowitzki exited Saturday’s game with what the Rockies called a “cramp” in his quadriceps, but now the star shortstop is out of the lineup tonight for the third consecutive game and it’s clear the injury is more serious.
Jul 22, 2014, 5:15 PM EDT
Could be cool?
Jul 22, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT
A’s outfielder Josh Reddick is off the disabled list after missing all but one week of the past two months with knee problems.
Jul 22, 2014, 4:31 PM EDT
Apparently, one does not ask Kirk Gibson about the decisions he and his coaching staff make about on-the-field decisions.
Jul 22, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
At this point the Rangers’ injury situation is absurd.
Jul 22, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
After a bit of a dance, it seems like the early favorite to take over for Bud Selig is the favorite when it really matters.
Jul 22, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
Darwin Barney logged 500-plus plate appearances for the Cubs each season from 2011-2013 and was the Opening Day second baseman this year, but today he was designated for assignment to make roster room for Emilio Bonifacio’s return from the disabled list.
Jul 22, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
Justin Masterson tossed five innings in a minor-league rehab start Sunday, but rather than welcoming him back from the disabled list the Indians will have the right-hander make another rehab start.
Jul 22, 2014, 2:05 PM EDT
The softer side of Roy Halladay.
- Verducci: baseball should think about an “illegal defense” rule to combat shifts 0
- Chase Headley plays the hero in his first game in pinstripes 5
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights 15
- Rockies place Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list 18
- Rob Manfred “heavily favored” to be Bud Selig’s replacement 29
- Yankees acquire Chase Headley from Padres 108
- And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights 39
- Cliff Lee struggles in first start back from disabled list 15