The unforgettable two lives of Ralph Kiner

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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.

Everyone has to scrape themselves up off the mat for another night of LCS action

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The way I see it, the Red Sox are the only team who should be feeling super chipper today.

The Astros got pasted last night, and it didn’t help that they also found themselves in an off-the-field controversy. Like, a few feet off the field, where maybe they shouldn’t have been controversy. That has to be deflating as all get-out.

The Brewers have to feel like garbage, not only because they lost, but because it took 13 innings to do it, stretching their already patchwork pitching approach, made all the more depressing by the loss of Gio Gonzalez to injury. No, he wouldn’t have pitched tonight anyway, and yes, they get a fresh arm to replace him on the roster, but (a) no one wants a teammate injured; and (b) the arm is, by definition, one Craig Counsell didn’t want to pitch in the LCS in the first place.

The Dodgers are in a much happier state given that that they won, but they gotta be pretty exhausted too given the length and intensity of last night’s game. Plus everyone is now going to have to walk into the clubhouse today and answer questions about their dirty-playing superstar, and if ballplayers hate anything, they hate having to answer questions about their teammates’ missteps.

Still, I suppose it all beats being at home with the other 26 baseball teams, so their misery is relative.

Your viewing guide:

NLCS Game 5

Brewers vs. Dodgers
Ballpark: Dodger Stadium
Time: 5:09 PM Eastern
TV: FS1
Pitchers: Wade Miley vs. Clayton Kershaw
Breakdown:

Wake up, guys. Not only did you play until the wee hours last night, but you have a day game today, starting just after 2PM local time. I suppose we’ll have plenty of time to shoot the schedule maker later — really, why would you give a west coast content a day-game-after-a-night-game treatment? — but for now you gotta pound some java and suck it up.

Clayton Kershaw is gonna have to suck it up, that’s for sure. He had a rough outing in Game 1 at Miller Park, allowing five runs — four earned — on six hits and two walks while striking out just two. Dave Roberts had to use eight relievers last night, including Kenley Jansen for two innings, so Kershaw cannot afford to be sitting at 50 some laboring pitches three innings into this bad boy. He’s gonna have to put on his 2009-17 big boy pants and be an ace.

For Milwaukee it’s Miley, who was excellent in Game 2 but who goes on three days rest here. Craig Counsell used six relievers last night, including Josh Hader, who I would guess is not available today. He does, however, have Brandon Woodruff, who has been excellent thus far.

Mostly, though both of these offenses need to wake up. The Brewers went scoreless over the final eight innings last night. The Dodgers have scored only three runs the 22 innings of play at Dodger Stadium thus far.

 

ALCS Game 4

Red Sox vs. Astros
Ballpark: Minute Maid Park
Time: 8:39 PM Eastern
TV: TBS
Pitchers: Rick Porcello vs. Charlie Morton
Breakdown:

Charlie Morton will make his first start of the postseason. Indeed, it will be his first action of any kind since September 30, when he went only three innings in a game-162 tuneup against the Orioles. That’s a long dang time to be off the field, but given that he only tossed 15 innings in four starts in the entire final month of the season due right shoulder discomfort, maybe the layoff did him well. We’ll see tonight how he responds to it. Porcello, meanwhile, has been pretty busy, both starting and coming out of Alex Cora’s bullpen. The pattern worked for him nicely in the ALDS, so why not continue it.

Not that anyone cares about this sort of thing other than we story writers, but it’ll definitely be a thing of the Astros can’t get up off the mat after last night’s loss. If those two hit batsmen followed by the grand slam surrendered by Roberto Osuna turns out to have been the turning point of the postseason and the moment when the Astros year, effectively, ended. Baseball is a team effort of course, and there is still much of it to be played here, but if that broke the Astros for 2018 — if Roberto Osuna’s shortcomings prove to have been too much to overcome — it’ll be hard to escape the takes.