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.
May 30, 2015, 4:21 PM EDT
Grandal suffered a concussion when he was hit by the backswing of Padres infielder Yangervis Solarte last Friday.
May 30, 2015, 3:29 PM EDT
Lavarnway opted for free agency this week after being designated for assignment by the Orioles.
May 30, 2015, 3:03 PM EDT
Harper was hit in the back by a 93 mph fastball from Reds left-hander Tony Cingrani on Friday night.
May 30, 2015, 2:46 PM EDT
After making an early exit from last night’s start against the Reds, Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg has been placed on the 15-day disabled list due to neck tightness.
May 30, 2015, 2:20 PM EDT
Hechavarria injured his left shoulder in a collision with teammate Christian Yelich on Friday night.
May 30, 2015, 1:50 PM EDT
MLB’s Playing Rules Committee was expected to keep an eye on the strike zone this season to see if it needs to be changed for 2016. According to Jon Roegele of the Hardball Times, it continues to get bigger and lower.
May 30, 2015, 12:58 PM EDT
Anthony Rendon’s first attempt at a minor league rehab assignment was halted about a month ago due to an oblique strain, but he returned to game action last night with Double-A Harrisburg.
May 30, 2015, 12:01 PM EDT
Abreu initially injured the finger two weeks ago during batting practice.
May 30, 2015, 11:06 AM EDT
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and catcher A.J. Ellis were ejected from Friday’s game against the Cardinals for arguing about the strike zone with home plate umpire Mike Winters.
May 30, 2015, 10:06 AM EDT
Dior designed the “silhouetted batter” logo in 1968, but didn’t receive official credit until 2009.
May 30, 2015, 9:27 AM EDT
Derek Norris struck out in his first four at-bats Friday night against the Pirates, but made up for it with a walk-off grand slam.
May 30, 2015, 8:55 AM EDT
A quick recap of a busy Friday around MLB, including a sterling performance from one of the best bargains in baseball.
May 29, 2015, 11:59 PM EDT
The Brewers designated reliever Brandon Kintzler for assignment on Friday afternoon but rescinded it and put him on the 15-day disabled list instead.
Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base
May 29, 2015, 11:41 PM EDT
Bryce Harper was hit square in the back with a fastball and had the gall not to sprint immediately to first base. What nerve!
May 29, 2015, 11:00 PM EDT
Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez will make his major league debut on Saturday against the Red Sox.
May 29, 2015, 10:10 PM EDT
Rafael Soriano still wants to pitch and has fired agent Scott Boras in an effort to find work.
May 29, 2015, 9:18 PM EDT
Josh Hamilton hit his first home run of the season on Friday night against the Red Sox.
May 29, 2015, 8:52 PM EDT
Rockies starter Chad Bettis is trying to throw a no-hitter against the Phillies.
May 29, 2015, 8:35 PM EDT
The Mets will be without catcher Travis d’Arnaud a little while longer due to a bone bruise in his wrist.
May 29, 2015, 8:08 PM EDT
The Mariners will lose starter James Paxton for a couple of weeks due to strained finger tendon.
- Nationals place Stephen Strasburg on the 15-day disabled list with neck tightness 2
- Jerry Dior, designer of MLB’s iconic logo, has passed away 8
- Settling the Score: Friday’s results 26
- Video: Josh Hamilton hits his first home run of the season 16
- Rockies starter Chad Bettis loses his no-hitter in the eighth inning 2
- Stephen Strasburg exits start in the second inning with an apparent injury 5
- More than half of polled baseball fans prefer having the pitcher hit 77
- Tony Cingrani hits Bryce Harper in the back with a pitch, then complains he was too slow getting to first base (114)
- The Big Unit: Wide Angle Watcher (90)
- And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights (89)
- Chipper Jones will fight you if you insult his “girl” (85)
- More than half of polled baseball fans prefer having the pitcher hit (77)