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.
Apr 27, 2015, 4:25 PM EDT
Pro tip: when you’re trying to sell something, don’t tell all of your potential customers how crappy the thing is and how desperate you are to be rid of it.
Apr 27, 2015, 4:04 PM EDT
This trade rids the Angels of Josh Hamilton, Josh Hamilton of the Angels and give the Rangers a pretty big bargain. Win-win-win?
Apr 27, 2015, 3:31 PM EDT
Saltalamacchia is owed $7 million this season and $8 million next season.
Apr 27, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
As usual, the Phillies are why we can’t have nice things.
Apr 27, 2015, 2:35 PM EDT
Jaso injured his wrist sliding into third base on Opening Day.
Apr 27, 2015, 1:22 PM EDT
He was traded from the Nationals to the Dodgers just last week.
Apr 27, 2015, 1:08 PM EDT
Powerful words from the Orioles’ executive in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.
Apr 27, 2015, 12:32 PM EDT
Some people are really committed. Others are so committed, maybe they should be committed.
Apr 27, 2015, 11:19 AM EDT
Perez posted a 9.39 ERA in six appearances for Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Apr 27, 2015, 11:03 AM EDT
“Outdoor baseball is stupid, and domes should be universal. My column:”
Apr 27, 2015, 10:47 AM EDT
Gonzalez insists he’s healthy.
Apr 27, 2015, 10:15 AM EDT
He hasn’t thrown since cutting short a bullpen session 10 days ago.
Apr 27, 2015, 9:24 AM EDT
The Marlins lose: rumors of the manager being on the hot seat. They win: he’s safe. That’s the sort of reaction that stable teams run by wise men pursue, right?
Apr 27, 2015, 8:34 AM EDT
And no, I don’t say that just because Adam Wainwright has been lost for the season due to an injury sustained while hitting.
Apr 27, 2015, 7:09 AM EDT
“Can you pitch, Dustin? Like, every fifth day? I’m serious.”
Apr 26, 2015, 11:05 PM EDT
Jose Abreu, one might say, is good at hitting baseballs.
Apr 26, 2015, 10:15 PM EDT
Max Scherzer made an argument for bringing the DH to the National League.
Apr 26, 2015, 9:25 PM EDT
Perhaps Phillies GM Ruben Amaro was right to hold onto Cole Hamels.
Apr 26, 2015, 8:39 PM EDT
Alex Rodriguez hit his 659th career home run on Sunday night against the Mets, leaving him one shy of tying Willie Mays.
Apr 26, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT
Alex Gordon made an exceptional catch to help Edinson Volquez in Sunday’s game against the White Sox.
- Deal done: Josh Hamilton traded to the Texas Rangers for cash considerations 9
- Pitchers batting is dumb and the DH should be universal 345
- And That Happened: Sunday’s scores and highlights 79
- Alex Rodriguez hits 659th career home run, now one shy of tying Willie Mays 52
- Max Scherzer doubtful for next start due to thumb injury 5
- Protesters converge on Oriole Park at Camden Yards 149
- It sure sounds like Adam Wainwright suffered a torn Achilles tendon on Saturday night 44
- Settling the Score: Saturday’s results 33
- Pitchers batting is dumb and the DH should be universal (345)
- Comment of the Day: do not underestimate the seriousness of the anti-DH crowd (171)
- The early leaders in MLB’s “Franchise Four” thing have been announced (166)
- The Royals and White Sox had a benches-clearing fracas, five players ejected (161)
- Protesters converge on Oriole Park at Camden Yards (149)