The unforgettable two lives of Ralph Kiner


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.

MiLB president Pat O’Conner says teams would contract if minor league players had to be paid more

Minor League Baseball
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As Craig mentioned earlier, a new law is likely to pass as part of a Republican-led spending bill that amends language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The result of that will make minor leaguers exempt from being owed minimum wage and overtime pay, meaning that teams can continue to pay them very little. Minor League Baseball and Major League Baseball lobbied Congress to do this, as MiLB president Pat O’Conner readily admits, as Josh Norris of Baseball America reports.

Why all this effort? In 2014, former minor leaguer Aaron Senne filed a lawsuit along with Michael Liberto and Oliver Odle, alleging that the minor leagues violated state and federal minimum wage laws. In many cases, minor leaguers earn less than $10,000 a year and only a small percentage of players can be buoyed by their signing bonuses.

O’Conner said, “When the lawsuit came out two or three years ago, we started to put a strategy together. We’ve been lobbying Congress since June of 2016. … We had 94 people in Washington in June of 2016 walking the halls, talking to the elected officials.

Here’s what that lobbying effort looks like in graph form, via Maury Brown of Forbes:

O’Conner goes on, as he usually does, making disingenuous arguments to justify paying minor leaguers unlivable wages. He said, “To me, it’s fairly simple. If Major League Baseball experiences a tremendous increase in its cost of labor, it will reduce the number of players it offers to Minor League Baseball, or it will come to Minor League Baseball and expect us to pay a portion of that increase in cost. Either one of those are catastrophic to our business model.”

O’Conner went on, “If the cost of that talent is doubled or tripled, which could happen under an FLSA basis, MLB is not going to pay that much money for the talent. They’re not going to pay. They’re going to do one of two things: They’re going to say, ‘If 160 (minor league) teams is going to cost (this much), we’re just going to cut down on the number of teams. We’re not going to pay for 160. We’ll pay for 80. We’ll pay for 100.’ Then the other 60 or 80 that are left without players, if they want to stay in business, they’re going to have to pay for their own players. … You might lose half of the (league). You don’t know. You might lose leagues. You might lose cities in leagues. Nobody knows, but the fact of the matter is one of two things is very likely to happen: MLB is either going to cut back on the number of teams it provides, or (MiLB) is going to have to start paying salaries.”

Major league teams are responsible for paying the salaries of the players on their minor league affiliates. Minor league teams are only responsible for paying their own employees, including front office personnel as well as ticket-takers, ushers, concession stand workers, and such. But we’ve done the math on this before and giving minor leaguers a livable wage is a drop in the bucket to an industry that saw over $10 billion in revenue last year. The average Major League Baseball team is valued at $1.54 billion, according to Forbes. TV deals and MLB Advanced Media have a lot to do with that.

Let’s go over the math again just so we’re all on the same page. Most teams have six affiliates; some have seven or eight. Players will go up and down through the minors, so the teams are usually dealing with 50 or so players in any given year, sometimes in excess. But generally speaking each team has a 25-man roster. Six minor league teams at 25 players each comes out to 150 players. Guaranteeing them a $30,000 salary comes out to $4.5 million in total for six teams. Obviously, the total is slightly more for teams with more affiliates, and if you want to guarantee them a higher salary. $4.5 million is the cost of a free agent reliever. Fernando Rodney, Craig Stammen, and Jared Hughes signed contracts for exactly that amount this offseason. For the cost of a free agent reliever, every team could guarantee each of its minor league players a livable wage so they could pay the bills. $30,000 in the grand scheme of things still isn’t much, but in many cases, it would represent a pay increase of four or five times what they’re getting now. Teams valued north of $1 billion can easily afford an additional $4.5 million each year.

Furthermore, Matt Winkelman of Crashburn Alley brings up a good point:

As mentioned on, the Tampa Yankees, Springfield Cardinals, and Gwinnett Braves are examples of teams owned by their major league parent team. Which makes O’Conner’s fear-mongering all the more disingenuous.

Major League teams wouldn’t pass on the cost to their minor league affiliates not only because they might already own their affiliates, but also because they would be reaping the benefits of paying their players more. Being able to study film at home instead of working the graveyard shift as an Uber driver would, on the whole, make their players better. Being able to afford gas would allow them to more easily shop for fresh fruit and vegetables instead of constantly walking a block to a pizza shop or McDonald’s. Healthier players are better than unhealthier players, right? Being able to afford a quality mattress, instead of sleeping on a couch, would allow players to sleep better. Better sleep means better production in every industry. Better players means a better hit rate on draft picks, which means more talent making its way to the majors that is cost-controlled for six years. As we’ve seen with the evolution of free agency, teams vastly prefer cultivating their own talent rather than paying a premium for it on the free agent market.

What this comes down to is pure, simple avarice. It’s short-sighted greed on the part of team owners and the people that work for them. Their public justification falls flat and were they capable of feeling shame, that’s what they should be feeling. Beyond their labor, minor league players are the product being marketed to fans. Without them, the owners have nothing.