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.
Dec 29, 2014, 12:08 AM EST
The Diamondbacks ensured they would have infield versatility in 2015, avoiding arbitration with Cliff Pennington for $3.275 million.
Dec 28, 2014, 8:10 PM EST
The Indians would like to trade Nick Swisher but he’s owed a lot of money over the next two seasons, which complicates things.
Dec 28, 2014, 6:05 PM EST
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will likely bat Jason Heyward second behind Matt Carpenter to begin the 2015 season.
Dec 28, 2014, 3:02 PM EST
There was some talk of this at the Winter Meetings and now Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe says doctors have confirmed it: Dan Uggla played through an undiagnosed concussion during the 2014 season.
Dec 28, 2014, 12:14 PM EST
Jason Motte joined MLB Network’s “Hot Stove” last week to discuss signing with the rival Cubs …
Dec 28, 2014, 9:21 AM EST
Brendan Kennedy of the Toronto Star reports that Japanese infielder Takashi Toritani — a Scott Boras client — is currently “mulling offers” from the Blue Jays and Padres. Toritani is an unrestricted free agent, so it won’t require a posting fee to sign him.
Dec 27, 2014, 8:48 PM EST
Derek Jeter may have helped Penn State squeak out a victory over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday.
Dec 27, 2014, 7:10 PM EST
Heath Bell is looking to hang on with the Nationals in 2015, and he’ll earn at least $1 million.
Dec 27, 2014, 6:05 PM EST
The Brett Anderson signing should become official at some point next week, at long last.
Dec 27, 2014, 5:20 PM EST
Opening Day is 100 days away, but with the unusually mild weather in the New York area, they could really be playing some baseball right now.
Dec 27, 2014, 4:40 PM EST
Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro was reportedly detained for questioning by authorities in the Dominican Republic on Saturday in connection with a nightclub shooting that injured six people.
Dec 27, 2014, 3:45 PM EST
David Ross recently took Rob Bradford of WEEI.com behind the scenes of how he landed a two-year, $5 million contract with the Cubs.
Dec 27, 2014, 11:01 AM EST
The Giants finalized their new two-year, $24 million contract with Jake Peavy this week.
Dec 27, 2014, 8:59 AM EST
Macko worked for the Rangers for over 40 years.
Dec 26, 2014, 10:25 PM EST
The Braves’ one-year deal with catcher A.J. Pierzynski is for $2 million.
Dec 26, 2014, 9:20 PM EST
Rafael Furcal has suffered another injury, this time a torn hamstring which will keep him out of the Dominican Winter League playoffs.
Dec 26, 2014, 8:03 PM EST
If Wandy Rodriguez passes his physical, the Phillies are expected to sign him to a minor league deal.
Dec 26, 2014, 7:10 PM EST
Jeff Manship will begin the spring with the Indians after signing a minor league deal.
Dec 26, 2014, 6:05 PM EST
According to Peter Gammons, some GMs think the Giants will eventually trade for Ben Zobrist.
Dec 26, 2014, 3:49 PM EST
After seven years in the United States, Hiroki Kuroda is heading home.
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