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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Braves 5, Marlins 2: Braves win, that’s great, but obviously the takeaway from this game was Jose Urena‘s completely classless and idiotic intentional drilling of Ronald Acuña on the game’s first pitch. Bill said just about everything that needs to be said about it last night, but please indulge me as a I express my feelings on the matter.

Baseball needs to make a major example of Urena and the Marlins for this. Not just for basic, perfectly sufficient “it is wrong to throw a ball nearly 100 m.p.h. at someone with the intention of hitting them” reasons. Also for “it is an awful look for the game in general when a pitcher for a losing team that has made a mockery of the notion of entertaining and competitive baseball via its complete disinterest in putting a real roster together because it places more value on debt service and cash flow than it does wining to intentionally injure one of the game’s most exciting young talents and, potentially, alter the course of a pennant race, simply because that exciting young talent is playing very good baseball lately.”

And it’s not just Urena and the Marlins. It’s the entire establishment of baseball which has decided, via its moronic devotion to a mindless chivalric code developed by the same jackasses who, once upon a time, decided that racially segregating the game was right and proper, that sure, there are some times when you must do violence for reasons they can’t even begin to explain because, with all due respect to the talents of baseball players, managers and executives, a great lot of them are frankly stupid and a great many more of them are moral and ethical simpletons. Even the ones we have all decided are lovable for some stupid reason.

Apologies for the run-on sentences and apologies if my feelings on this matter are less than clear.

Cubs 8, Brewers 4: Anthony Rizzo homered, drove in three runs and stole two bases, Jason Heyward had three hits and two RBI and David Bote had two hits, scored twice and flashed nice leather at third as the Cubs bounced back from their ugly shutout loss on Tuesday and extended their division lead back to three games over Milwaukee. Sorry for even more run-on sentences. I’m still rather worked up over the Urena-Acuã thing. I have my annual physical at 8:30 this morning. My doctor is probably gonna hospitalize me when he takes my blood pressure.

Cardinals 4, Nationals 2: Austin Gomber shut Washington out for six innings and Daniel Poncedeleon did it for two more innings before running out of gas while trying to get a three-inning save. Didn’t matter, though, as Bud Norris came in and closed it out before things got out of hand, giving the Cardinals their eighth straight win. Marcell Ozuna homered, Harrison Bader singled in one run and scored another on a wild pitch and Yadier Molina knocked in one as well. The Cardinals are tied in the loss column with the Brewers now for the second Wild Card. Meanwhile, the Nats have been trailing by a lot of games for many weeks but this is the week we’ll look back on and say “Yep, that’s when they broke. That’s when they gave up on the 2018 season.

Mariners 2, Athletics 0: This game was scoreless after nine very, very quick innings thanks to efficient and effective work from Mike Leake (8 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6K) and Brett Anderson (7.2 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2K). You just don’t see a ton of games like that anymore, but I can certainly say it brightened my afternoon to watch such good work. On to extras it went where it remained scoreless for two more innings. In the top of the 12th, Yusmeiro Petit walked Mike Zunino immediately after which Dee Gordon deposited a two-run homer over the right field fence which held up to give Seattle a much-needed win and to avoid the sweep by the A’s. Oakland falls back to two games back of the Astros. The Mariners climb back to two and a half behind Oakland.

Astros 12, Rockies 1: Houston stops the five games of bleeding thanks to Gerrit Cole‘s one run, 12-strikeout performance and thanks to two homers from Evan Gattis, two homers from Tyler White and a dinger from Yuli Gurriel too. The 12 runs were more than Houston had scored in its last four games combined.

Mets 16, Orioles 5Kevin Plawecki hit a grand slam, Brandon Nimmo went 5-for-5 with three RBI and Todd Frazier singled, doubled homered and drove in four. The Mets had a nine-run sixth inning. I have tickets to see the Indians-Orioles game in Cleveland tomorrow. I’m struggling to think why I should be compelled to play full price if I’m only seeing one major league team.

Phillies 7, Red Sox 4: Welcome to the Phillies, Wilson Ramos! The recently-acquired and just-activated catcher went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a triple, drove in three runs and nailed a would-be base-stealer at second as Philly beats the mighty Red Sox. It was only Ramos’ second triple ever and it was, to be completely honest, a fluke thanks to an odd bounce off the wall. Even then, Jackie Bradley Jr. has a cannon for an arm, so once he got to the ball it was still fairly close at third. Fun play all around:

The Phillies used eight pitchers in this one. They should’ve let Ramos be one of them too. He probably would’ve struck out the side.

White Sox 6, Tigers 5: Matt Davidson and Jose Abreu each hit two-run homers in the middle of the game, turing a 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead and later held on as the Tigers plated a couple more. Carlos Rodon worked eight innings here, and those initial three runs would be all he’d allow.

Twins 6, Pirates 4: The Twins’ bullpen tossed 5.1 shutout innings and Logan Forsythe knocked in three runs. Chris Archer allowed four runs in five innings and the Pirates stranded a ton of runners and in dropping their third straight game.

Rays 6, Yankees 1Mallex Smith hit a two-run homer and Kevin Kiermaier had two hits, scored a run and drove in one. The Rays have taken seven of nine from the Yankees.

Indians 4, Reds 3:The Reds jumped out to a 3-0 lead in this one but after plating two to pull close, Melky Cabrera hit a two-run homer in the sixth to put Cleveland up for good. The Indians sweep the Reds in Cincinnati, outscoring them 22-7 in the three-game set and, in the process, taking the Ohio Series 4-2. The Reds, I heard, bet the Indians a year’s supply of Cincinnati chili on the outcome of the Series but the Indians awkwardly declined collecting their winnings. Weird that.

Blue Jays 6, Royals 5: Curtis Granderson hit a grand slam in the Jays’ five-run fourth and Kevin Pillar knocked in the other two Toronto runs via a couple of RBI singles. Granderson has two grand slams this year. Both came against the Royals. He has ten for his career. All ten have come against the Ro– haha, just kidding. That would be silly. But I bet if I wrote it deadpan at least some of you would believe or, at the very least, go check. The power I possess is so great that sometimes even I reel at its possibilities.

Angels 3, Padres 2: Rene Rivera hit a solo homer to break a 2-2 tie in the top of the ninth, giving the Halos the win. He, like Wilson Ramos, was just activated before this game after a stint on the disabled list. Big day for fresh catchers.

Dodgers 4, Giants 3: It looked like another bullpen disaster in the making for the Dodgers as they blew a 3-0 lead in the eighth thanks to an Andrew McCutchen three-run homer, but Dodgers relievers then somehow pulled four scoreless innings out of their butts and Brian Dozier‘s sac fly in the bottom of the 12th gave them a much needed walkoff win. Another bright spot: Hyun-Jin Ryu throwing six scoreless innings in his first start in more than three months.