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.
Jul 30, 2015, 1:12 AM EDT
In a bit of an oddity, two World Series contenders made a trade.
Jul 30, 2015, 12:05 AM EDT
Unique situation Wednesday night at Citi Field.
Jul 29, 2015, 11:31 PM EDT
Houston defeated Anaheim 6-3 to jump back into first place in the American League West.
Jul 29, 2015, 10:46 PM EDT
It’s a massive two-team, eight-player blockbuster deal that will net the Phillies a frontline starter for this year and years to come while injecting more young talent into the Phillies’ under-construction minor league system.
Jul 29, 2015, 9:31 PM EDT
It’s now even more imperative that St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak secures a first baseman before the July 31 trade deadline.
Jul 29, 2015, 9:01 PM EDT
What a crazy night.
Jul 29, 2015, 8:58 PM EDT
Troy Tulowitzki struck out swinging in his first Blue Jays at-bat Wednesday night against the Phillies, but he unloaded on this Jerome Williams pitch in his second trip to the plate …
Jul 29, 2015, 8:12 PM EDT
There’s been a lot of speculation that these two could be a fit, and now it may be close to happening …
Jul 29, 2015, 7:44 PM EDT
Andrew McCutchen launched a traditional two-run homer in the top of the fifth inning Wednesday in the Pirates’ 10-4 rout of the Twins and then went Little League style in the top of the sixth …
Jul 29, 2015, 7:01 PM EDT
An MRI taken Tuesday ruled out anything serious, but Trout does have a bit of wrist inflammation.
Jul 29, 2015, 6:17 PM EDT
The very latest on the Cole Hamels trade front …
Jul 29, 2015, 5:21 PM EDT
The trade deadline be crazy.
Jul 29, 2015, 5:10 PM EDT
Jul 29, 2015, 3:56 PM EDT
Bradley gets another chance in Boston.
Jul 29, 2015, 3:44 PM EDT
They’re in fourth place and their best player isn’t coming back for a month. Makes all sorts of sense.
Jul 29, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Some real old school mentality being demonstrated there.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:54 PM EDT
It was Verlander’s second straight eight inning, one-run performance.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:15 PM EDT
Capuano failed to make it out of the first inning in Tuesday’s start.
Jul 29, 2015, 1:14 PM EDT
Jul 29, 2015, 12:19 PM EDT
At least to the extent you can have a bidding “war” over a two-month rental.
- Rangers land ace left-hander Cole Hamels from Phillies 75
- Mets, Brewers call off reported Carlos Gomez trade 62
- Dodgers, Marlins, Braves trade involving Mat Latos “simply being held up by paperwork” 66
- The Tigers are going to “reboot;” plan to trade Price and Cespedes 72
- Why do managers wear uniforms anyway? 49
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights 51
- Astros “making a strong effort” for Phillies ace Cole Hamels 32
- Angels acquire outfielders David Murphy and David DeJesus 24
- The MLBPA is considering withholding cooperation with ESPN, Fox over Colin Cowherd’s comments (157)
- The Cubs are in discussions with the Phillies on Cole Hamels (146)
- Colin Cowherd wonders how baseball can be considered “complicated” if Dominicans can understand it (129)
- Major League Baseball rips Colin Cowherd in an official statement (123)
- Settling the Scores: Wednesday’s results (106)