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.
Mar 11, 2014, 4:32 PM EDT
I saw Mark Prior at the Winter Meetings in Orlando. Indeed, he and I were staying on the same floor, so I saw him a lot. Walking up and down the hallway pretty frequently, always with a cell phone to his ear and a notebook in his hand. At various points I saw him in…
Mar 11, 2014, 4:16 PM EDT
Barry Bonds is back in a Giants uniform as a spring training instructor and Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com writes that “his every word was met with rapt attention” from players. For instance, outfielder Michael Morse got some tutoring on his swing and afterward told Baggarly: Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? The guy’s amazing.…
Mar 11, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
I love when old stories like this surface. A few years ago Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre and manager Ron Washington were tossed out of a spring training game by an umpire and then … well, I’ll let Stefan Stevenson of the Forth Worth Star Telegram take it from here: However, after the ejection Washington…
Mar 11, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
A little sigh of relief from Nationals camp, where right-hander Doug Fister was able to play catch this morning without any issues after previously being sidelined by elbow soreness. Fister first complained of soreness in early February and James Wagner of the Washington Post reports that he’s “been treated with anti-inflammatory medicine, ice and rest.”…
Mar 11, 2014, 2:04 PM EDT
This is odd. And potentially distracting: The Red Sox tried to spice things up in spring training Tuesday. After each pitch, it was mandated that the JetBlue Park public address announcer would announce the ball or strike call, and the count. Rob Bradford of WEEI talks to the guy whose idea it was, how it will work and…
Mar 11, 2014, 1:48 PM EDT
Oscar Taveras‘ ankle problems have lingered following last season’s surgery and now the stud outfield prospect is having hamstring issues in the same leg, so it sounds like the Cardinals have all but ruled out his making the team. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch that Taveras “needed…
Mar 11, 2014, 1:13 PM EDT
New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus accidentally gave a steal sign in a spring training game, so old Tigers manager Jim Leyland talked to Chris Iott of MLive.com about a time he once did that same thing while with the Pirates in 1992: “Tom Prince was on first,” Leyland said. “He was a slow catcher. We…
Mar 11, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT
ESPN shows us what a renaissance man Barry Bonds truly was: Impressive! RT @AviMillerBSR: According to @ESPN, Barry Bonds holds the record for most home runs in @NBA history. pic.twitter.com/6UHpTVS8QV — Bob Harkins (@Bharks) March 11, 2014 Also: he scored more goals than Muhammed Ali and was the last horse to win the Triple…
Mar 11, 2014, 12:03 PM EDT
People love to use baseball analogies because baseball is a pretty common and relatable frame of reference. But one thing you can be sure of: nearly 100% of the time someone is using a baseball analogy in politics, they are either mangling the baseball or mangling the politics. To wit, a senator using it to…
Mar 11, 2014, 11:49 AM EDT
Mark Mulder, whose comeback attempt ended before it even really began thanks to a torn Achilles’ tendon, has been released by the Angels. Mulder has said that he’s not ruling out attempting another comeback next year, but he’ll miss the entire season recovering from the injury and at age 37 the odds of him succeeding…
Mar 11, 2014, 11:14 AM EDT
Braves right-hander Kris Medlen will seek a second opinion after an MRI exam on his sore elbow showed “some involvement of the ligament.” In other words: Not good. Medlen exited Sunday’s game after grabbing his elbow following one pitch and then short-hopping his next pitch to the plate, making his way into the Braves’ dugout.…
Mar 11, 2014, 10:47 AM EDT
This time last year Brandon League had just signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract to become the Dodgers’ closer and now he’s in danger of not even making the team out of spring training. League was awful last season, losing the closer gig and being demoted to a mop-up role while posting a 5.30 ERA…
Mar 11, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
Signed largely for his career-long durability, 37-year-old Bronson Arroyo has been sidelined with a bulging disk in his back for almost all of Diamondbacks camp and the injury hasn’t shown much improvement. He’s able to play catch, but Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reports that Arroyo was sore and stiff after doing so Monday and could…
Mar 11, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
Say what you want about Ryan Braun but now, as opposed to in the past, he is realistic. He talks to Bob Nightengale of USA Today about what it’ll be like to be Public Enemy Number One when he goes on the road this year: “I’m sure it will be a bit adventuresome at times…
Mar 11, 2014, 9:03 AM EDT
In December I ranked the managers from most handsome to least handsome. Last week, this photo was taken: I’d like to think that AP photographer Gene J. Puskar took this specifically for my benefit. Also, if you’re in to this sort of thing, #1 and #2 posed together yesterday. My girlfriend is the one who…
Mar 11, 2014, 8:25 AM EDT
In the wake of yesterday’s Barry Bonds press conference, Ken Rosenthal talks about Bonds’ Hall of Fame case. Rosenthal opposes Bonds’ induction. He says this about those who do not: I hate when some in favor of Bonds’ and Clemens’ candidacies disdainfully describe voters like myself as “gatekeepers of morality.” Guilty as charged, I guess, but…
Mar 11, 2014, 12:03 AM EDT
Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Chicago Cubs. The Big Question: Is the wait almost over? It has been 105 long years since the north…
Mar 10, 2014, 10:41 PM EDT
George A. King III of the New York Post heard last month that the Yankees might look to deal a catcher before they head back north for Opening Day. That catcher could be Francisco Cervelli. According to Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish, the 28-year-old Cervelli is drawing “lots of trade interest” from front offices around…
Mar 10, 2014, 9:35 PM EDT
The Orioles signed Manny Machado to a one-year, $519,000 contract renewal on Monday — standard operating procedure for a pre-arbitration player. The salary is $19,000 more than the major league minimum and Machado also gets a $100,000 bonus for winning the 2013 Platinum Glove Award in the American League. But he is not celebrating. According…
Mar 10, 2014, 8:28 PM EDT
Good news out of Dodgers camp Monday from MLB.com beat reporter Ken Gurnick … Greinke threw a bullpen session Monday and apparently felt no discomfort in his right calf muscle. He then went through some fielding drills and could pitch in an exhibition game this week, perhaps as early as Wednesday, although club officials are…
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