Feb 7, 2014, 7:00 AM EST
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.
Nov 22, 2014, 10:35 PM EST
The Dodgers added some pitching depth, picking up Mike Bolsinger from the Diamondbacks on Saturday.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:30 PM EST
Wily Mo Pena could be back in the major leagues if the Twins are willing to play ball.
Nov 22, 2014, 8:25 PM EST
Are they looking to hire a caddie?
Nov 22, 2014, 7:20 PM EST
The Rockies added a bit of pitching depth, signing John Lannan to a minor league deal.
Nov 22, 2014, 6:15 PM EST
The Giants have a Plan B if they can’t bring back Pablo Sandoval.
Nov 22, 2014, 5:25 PM EST
And the Giants are still in the mix, too.
Nov 22, 2014, 1:13 PM EST
Satin spent parts of the past four seasons in the majors with the Mets.
Nov 22, 2014, 12:12 PM EST
Blanco played for the Cubs from 2005-2008.
Nov 22, 2014, 11:14 AM EST
Yang won the Korean equivalent of the Cy Young award this season and the 26-year-old tops out at 92-95 miles per hour.
Nov 22, 2014, 10:15 AM EST
He figures to get a look as a backup outfielder for the Angels.
Nov 22, 2014, 9:10 AM EST
Boston is competing with San Francisco and San Diego for Sandoval.
Nov 21, 2014, 10:55 PM EST
The Mariners get an extra year to do whatever they want with Danny Hultzen.
Nov 21, 2014, 9:45 PM EST
If the Yankees can’t bring back David Robertson, Jason Grilli could be one option the club could look at.
Nov 21, 2014, 8:40 PM EST
The Orioles bolstered their organizational depth by signing Paul Janish on Friday.
Nov 21, 2014, 7:35 PM EST
The White Sox have signed first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year, $25 million deal.
Nov 21, 2014, 7:05 PM EST
The interest in free agent outfielder Torii Hunter has been lukewarm, but he represents a decent Plan B or C for a handful of teams.
Nov 21, 2014, 6:15 PM EST
Andrew Miller is drawing significant interest in the free agent market, and he could even fetch a four-year deal.
Nov 21, 2014, 5:21 PM EST
Wakamatsu, Cash and Ibanez are the finalists.
Nov 21, 2014, 3:45 PM EST
Can you see that happening? I have a hard time seeing that happen.
Nov 21, 2014, 3:10 PM EST
Joyce has been a productive regular for the Rays since 2010.
- Report: Red Sox make $95 million offer to Pablo Sandoval 72
- White Sox sign Adam LaRoche to two-year, $25 million deal 34
- Report: Red Sox offer Jon Lester six years, $110-120 million 72
- Report: “There is a 90 percent chance that Pablo Sandoval will sign with the Red Sox” 130
- A’s sign Billy Butler to three-year, $30 million contract 84
- Cardinals reportedly joining pursuit of Jon Lester 65
- Giancarlo Stanton’s contract is backloaded. REALLY backloaded. 148
- Braves and Cardinals swap Jason Heyward and Shelby Miller in blockbuster deal 157
- Braves and Cardinals swap Jason Heyward and Shelby Miller in blockbuster deal (157)
- Giancarlo Stanton’s contract is backloaded. REALLY backloaded. (148)
- Blue Jays sign Russell Martin to five-year, $82 million deal (135)
- Report: “There is a 90 percent chance that Pablo Sandoval will sign with the Red Sox” (130)
- Sexual assualt charges reinstated against Tigers pitcher Evan Reed (128)