By In Baseball, RIP

Ralph Kiner

SOCHI — 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 this 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 father’s 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 throughly 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, 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 a live 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.

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55 Responses to Ralph Kiner

  1. TS says:

    When I saw the headline that Kiner had passed away, I knew that Pos would write a tribute both touching and informative. No one does these better than you.

  2. […] about Ralph Kiner than I do and they can write about him way better than me (like here, here or here). I’ll give it a shot […]

  3. Mike says:

    Mets fan since 1972 here. As Ralphie grew older, always knew this day was coming, but doesn’t change how sad it is. We’ll miss him.

    I have two distinct sets of memories of Kiner. The first is ~1972-77, when I was little, the Mets were generally good and fairly exciting (Seaver, Koos, Rusty, Millan, Kingman, etc), at least to my young eyes. Lindsay Nelson, with his crazy jackets. Bob Murphy, always a bit better suited to radio with his detailed, but matter of fact reporting. And Ralph . . . in Kiner’s Korner.

    Then of course, a decade later, when the team truly was great, there were McCarver, a rotating collection of Zabriski/Healy/Rusty and who knows who else . . . and a seasoned, confident, comfortable Kiner. In his 60s, 20+ years of broadcasting experience behind him. And with McCarver in his pre-NBC heyday, those two were a formidable broadcasting team.

    It’s become cliche for Mets fan of my age to say they “learned about baseball” from McCarver. And with good reason; he was GREAT then. For any who missed him at that time, you missed something special. But part of it was the presence of Kiner. Tim demonstrated a deep respect for Kiner. For his intelligence, for his baseball intelligence, for his obvious success as a ballplayer due to that intelligence. When those two talked about hitting, you listened. Kiner shared Joe Morgan’s (ironic) lack of appreciation for the very same walks he used to such great effect in bis own day, but unlike Little Joe, Big Ralph explained hitting in details, not cliches. I can’t tell you how many times he’d allude to Hank Greenberg’s advice to him early in the 1947 season: get close to the plate; move back in the box; wait on pitches; HAMMER them when they’re in the strike zone. And, as Joe Poz suggests, the fact that this advice led to 51 and 54 homer seasons was always implied, never expressed.

    I also recall — and he’s the only guy I ever saw explain this — his obvious disappointment (even “anger”) when a dead-red fastball hitter would pull a fat pitch foul. “That’s just awful,” he’d say, when pre-1989 HoJo would pull a grooved, 90 MPH fastball into the seats alongside the 1st base line. “You need to take advantage of a pitch like that, and that foul is just a strike.” Interesting perspective, and I remember it.

    And, of course, I’ll remember his home run call (“that ball is going, going, gone, goodbye”), his malapropisms, his yarns about Greenburg, and just those endless summer nights when I was in my late teens. Good memories.

    Farewell, Ralphie. RIP.

    • Mike says:

      By the way, during his years as Mets broadcaster, Rusty Staub always addressed Kiner as “Ralphie,” which I liked and found appropriate. Rusty wasn’t a very good announcer, but that little affectation stayed with me.

      To me, personally, he was Ralphie.

    • Paul Zummo says:

      I started watching a little later than you – 1984 – but my memories and feelings of Kiner and McCarver were exactly the same. My dad and I would sort of poke fun at Kiner’s malapropisms and McCarver’s need to overexplain everything, but it was such a joy to watch, not the least because the team itself was a joy to watch. Great memories.

    • jroth95 says:

      Count me as another Mets fan educated by McCarver and Kiner. Then I moved to Pittsburgh and found out what kind of player he was. Boy, howdy.

      A stat offered by Alan Robinson, AP beat writer for the Bucs: “Ralph Kiner hit 175 home runs at Forbes Field. Nobody else hit even 90. Second most, 85 by Roberto Clemente.” That’s over about 61 full seasons, 48 in the post-Deadball era.

    • Bob Lince says:

      Thanks Mike. Enjoyed your comment much.

  4. Anon says:

    The Garry Maddox quote is the most underrated sports quote – just a brilliant little bit of word play

  5. The Choo Choo Coleman quote works better if you write “and what’s she like” not the more proper “what is she like” – the whole point is the misinterpretation of the “what’s” as either “what is” or “what does”.

    • Carl says:

      The other funny part is that the reason Kiner asked the question is that Choo Choo e kept giving poor 1 word, yes/no ansers to the standard – “were you confident the Mets would come back”, “were you looking for a particular pitch?” type of questions. To get him talking, Kiner tried the question asking him about his wife.

      You can tell from the response that Choo Choo was a tough interview.

  6. rct11 says:

    Thank you so much for this, Joe. There’s been very little written about Kiner in the press, and I was worried that perhaps you wouldn’t have had a personal enough connection with Kiner to be able to write about him. But then, there you go with a great and deep connection.

    As I was looking at Kiner’s stats, two things jumped out at me (well, three if you want to count that Johnny Mize was almost completely neck-and-neck with Kiner’s HR from 1946-1948). First, how odd the homerun totals from 1946 and 1947 are. In 1946, Kiner lead the league with 23 (Mize had 22). In 1947, Kiner lead the league with 51 (as did Mize). Why the huge jump in homers? Is it mostly due to WWII?

    The second thing was Kiner’s 1949 season, when he lead the NL with 54 homeruns. The next highest total was Musial at 36. That’s 18 (18!) homeruns higher than 2nd place. Has there ever been that much of a HR disparity between one player and the rest of his league, post-WWII?

    • invitro says:

      “Has there ever been that much of a HR disparity between one player and the rest of his league, post-WWII?”

      A fun puzzle! It looks like yes, there has, but only once, and the difference was 20 HRs. But I’m not going to tell you who. I’ll say that one player will be in Joe’s top 50 players, and the other is not a HoFer. I can’t see a quick way to find it on baseball-reference… the yearly top tens have AL and NL results mixed.

      • rct11 says:

        Well, you got me sufficiently curious, so I went ahead and bulled my way through the numbers. You are correct in that it’s only been once, so here are all the post-WWII seasons in which a player lead his league in HR by more than a 12 HR margin (it’s been done by 10 or 11 by Killebrew, Robinson, Foster, Mitchell, Belle, and Ortiz):

        1949 – Kiner – 18 HR
        1958 – Banks – 12
        1964 – Mays – 14
        1965 – Mays 13
        1980 – Schmidt – 13
        1981* – Schmidt – 13
        *strike year

        1956 – Mantle – 20
        1978 – Rice – 12
        1990 – Fielder – 12
        1997 – Griffey – 12
        2010 – Bautista – 15

        Not that these numbers mean much, I just find it interesting that even in this era you can have someone hit homeruns so well that he pretty much laps the field.

    • steveb says:

      The Original Kiner’s Korner-

      Forbes Field had a huge outfield. But in 1947 the Pirates acquired Hank Greenberg and they already had Kiner, so they put up a short fence in LF to make an easier target for the two sluggers. It was originally dubbed Greenberg Gardens, and after Greenberg was gone it was called Kiner’s Korner. The fence came down when Branch Rickey got rid of Kiner.

      Also, I think that in 1946 they may have been using up the last of the wartime baseballs. In any event, the baseballs didn’t return to pre-war standards until 1947.

      • rct11 says:

        Thanks, steveb. The first part of your response is interesting and fun to know, but I think the second part is probably the answer. The HR jump is league-wide and pretty substantial.

        • steveb says:

          Yes, the increase in HRs was league-wide. But the increase in Pittsburgh was enormous. Here are the NL homerun totals by ballpark in 1946-1947:

          Forbes Field up from 47 to 182, +135
          Polo Grounds up from 151 to 206, +55
          Ebbets Field up from 42 to 94, +52
          Wrigley Field up from 54 to 80, +26
          Braves Field up from 45 to 68, +23
          Crosley Field up from 76 to 95, +19
          Sportsman’s Park up from 75 to 94, +19
          Shibe Park down from 72 to 67, -5

          Forbes accounted for 135 more HRs, while all the other parks combined were up 189. The other seven parks were up by an average of 27 HRs each. That was the baseballs and, perhaps, the talent level relative to 1946. The new fence at Forbes Field added maybe 100 HRs on top of that. And when the fence came down the park HR totals dropped by 77.

      • Now this is extremely interesting. Could the putting up of the short fence be one of the reasons the Pirates had an ERA half a run higher than the rest of the league? And one of the reasons Kiner hit so many homeruns that propelled him towards the Hall? And perhaps one of the reasons those Pirates teams were so bad?

    • Mark says:

      1956 … The Mick led the AL with 52 homers in his triple crown campaign, with Vic Wertz the HR runner-up at 32.

  7. rct11 says:

    I also want to add that Ralph reminds me of another NY broadcaster: Walt Frazier. Like Kiner, Frazier is such a joy to listen to, is honest about any player, gives amazing advice about the sport, rarely mentions how good he was, and brings his own flair and style to calling games. Both men are treasures, and I’m glad Walt is still calling games.

  8. Owen says:

    Lifelong Mets fan who grew up on the West Coast and unfortunately missed hearing Kiner much, but I loved it when I did. He and McCarver were fun together before McCarver turned into a national punchline.

  9. tombando says:

    Rickey’s barbs @ Kiner aren’t much removed from Bill James garbage about Mssrs Hornsby, Dick Allen, etc. Sometimes you just shouldn’t write about guys you don’t like *Cough*JackMorrisJimRice*hack* sorry…

    Kiner. Great homer run hitter. Played for crap teams. Legit Hall of Famer. Never heard him broadcast much. Wally Berger anyone?

    • RPMcSweeney says:

      Well, I’d say they’re pretty frakking far removed, considering Bill James wasn’t motivated by personal enmity to interfere with Hornsby and Allen’s careers. And that’s not only because, unlike Rickey, James wasn’t their boss—it’s also because when James made his comments, Hornsby was dead and Allen retired. So, you know, removed.

    • gogiggs says:

      Not thinking someone is a Hall of Famer is hardly the same as not liking them and attributing someone’s opinion to personal enmity when they have repeatedly and in detail explained their purely baseball related reasons is cheap bs.

    • Karyn says:

      I think we just all need to ignore tombando’s attention-seeking behaviors.

  10. Mark Daniel says:

    I thought it took Kiner so long to get into the HoF because his career was so short. He only played 10 years in total, only amassed 1451 hits, etc.
    I think he’s a strong HoFer, but it’s not a mystery why it took so long for him to get in considering the benchmarks people used back in the 60s and 70s.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      I don’t think that’s a 60s and 70s thing. Career longevity matters. His career WAR is one of the lowest among all LFs in the hall, and well below average for HOFs in the position. Granted, most of this is due to Kiner’s lack of a decline phase, but still.

  11. Carl says:

    Some other Kinersms to share:

    The Hall of Fame ceremonies this year will be held on the 31st and 32nd of July.

    Tony Gwynn was named Player of the Year for April.

    Kevin McReynolds stops at third. And he scores.

    The Mets have gotten their lead-off batter on only once this inning.

    Darryl Strawberry has been voted to the Hall of Fame five years in a row.

    Mazzilli goes back, goes back, his head hits the wall. And it’s rolling toward left field.

    Good afternoon. Thanks for tuning in to Kiner’s Korner. I’m Ralph Korner.

  12. MCD says:

    I’ve heard a couple of those attributed to Jerry Coleman, specifically the head rolling one I have always heard this way:

    “Winfield goes back to the wall, he hits his head on the wall and it rolls off! It’s rolling all the way back to second base. This is a terrible thing for the Padres.”

  13. Steve N says:

    Ruth led the league in homers in 1920 by 35 over Sisler. (54-19)

  14. Wilbur says:

    I recommend his autobiography to those who can find it. An interesting read.

  15. Michael Green says:

    I got to hear Kiner and McCarver on WOR on cable out in Las Vegas, and they were just what the others have said here: a great team. Kiner once did an inning with McCarver on Fox and it was just a different McCarver from the one we heard and who grated on us all.

    Kiner said he came close to leaving the Mets in the mid-1970s when the Dodgers decided to add an announcer as Vin Scully spent more time with CBS, but that the job went to Ross Porter, who became a good friend of his.

    I got to NYC long after the great trio had broken up, but I got to hear Kiner on TV and Murphy on radio, and I knew New Yorkers were well served. I also got to hear Kiner in the 1970s when he did three NLCS’s on CBS Radio with Jerry Coleman. No malaprops: just good, informative baseball reporting. And interesting: they died within weeks of each other.

  16. Matt Janik says:

    Thank you, sir.

    The brilliant thing to me about Ralph Kiner is what Mr. Posnanski started to touch on at the end: he never played the “Back in my day, ballplayers were BALLPLAYERS!” card. Not only was he freely willing to admit today’s players were bigger/faster/etc. than in his days, he seemed as awestruck by what they did as us, the viewers. There’s something beautiful about that. Current Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez could learn something from him about not turning every conversation back to his playing days.

    Just a couple years ago, in his late-80s, Kiner discussed the virtues of OPS during a Mets broadcast. There are guys 30 years younger than him who refuse to wrap their heads around such stuff. The man is/was/shall be a national treasure, but so much of the nation probably knows so little about him.

    I feel the same way I did when Bob Murphy passed. Summer will continue, but man, it just got a bit less fun.

    • rct11 says:

      I enjoyed that Ralph didn’t feel the need to say his era was better, either. I used to love, however, in his most recent years, when Gary Cohen would coax a story out of Ralph about the substandard conditions he played in and how he’d make extra money. IIRC, one year, Ralph had a contract with POST cereal that paid him like $100 for every HR he’d hit. So Ralph said he’d swing for the fences all the time to try to make some extra money.

      There was another time when they were talking about players being tired on the back end of a day-night doubleheader and Ralph went on about how he’d have to play double-headers all the time, sometimes back-to-back and usually after a long train ride rather than flying and getting to nap.

  17. the early 70s were an odd time to be a ny baseball fan. the mets had seaver and that’s about it,
    the yankees had munson and murcer but a losing culture.

    the announcers, though, really made it a pleasure. i was a yankees fan and my older sister was a mets fan- so we pretty much saw 2 games a day during the summer. rizzuto and kiner knew so much baseball, and were both nice guys, seemingly. this really stirs up some nice memories. RIP.

  18. Joe Zwilling says:

    I’ve been a Mets fan since 1967 (my first game at Shea versus the Atlanta Braves — I was 8) so I’ve spent almost my entire life listening to Ralph. Even the last year or two, when he would only broadcast a few games per year, I always looked forward to hearing Ralph, who was not only a link to my childhood, but who also clearly still loved the game and kept himself engaged with the team and the sport in general.

    Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me, but I seem to remember that in those early years of the team, Lindsey, Murph, and Ralph would broadcast for both radio and TV, and would rotate throughout the game. Does anyone else remember this? Was this common with other teams?

    One thing I have found is that, no matter how dreadful the on-the-field team might have been, that the broadcast team was almost always first rate. Even today, I would put the Mets broadcasters up against any other clubs. Ralph, Lindsey, and Murphy certainly helped set the standard for that.

    RIP Ralph. You will be missed.

    • Michael Green says:

      You are right. The breakdown, I read, was this. Kiner always did color on TV for 1-2, radio pbp 3-4, and TV pbp 5-6. One day, Nelson would open on TV 1-4 and do radio 7-9, and Murphy would do radio 1-2 and 5-6 and TV 7-9; the next day, the two of them would switch. As one of them–I think Murphy–once put it, “Lindsey preferred the monologue.” Bless him and bless Vin for STILL preferring it.

    • Kuz says:

      I remember the Yankee announcers rotating from TV to radio back in the day (to use a cliche). I think it was three inning shifts.

  19. James says:

    My opinion of Ralph changed as I got older. When I was a kid, I used to think he was just an old player with all the malapropisms. As I got older, I realized how smart he was, especially how baseball smart her was. Others have mentioned his work with Tim McCarver, but they really were great. He was an interesting man, who told great stories.

    It reminds me of the old Mark Twain joke. When I was twenty, I was shocked by how ignorant my father was. It is amazing how much he learned over the next ten years.

  20. Wilbur says:

    This life-long Cub fan moved to South Florida in 1986. The only daily baseball in the market was Mets radio, and the Mets and Yankees on local TV once or twice a week.

    I quickly developed a fondness and appreciation for Murphy, Kiner and McCarver, and for Rizzuto, too. I could never root for their teams, but still enjoyed the games, mostly due to them.

  21. Ok, a Kiner story. Watching the Mets one day, Kiner calling the game. I just looked it up it was September 4, 1986– so it was their big year.
    He says something like “that’s strike one…. I just was informed that Hank Greenberg has died. He was the best man at my wedding and my best friend in the world, outside, low, ball two”. Didn’t miss a beat. A pro

  22. Bob Lince says:

    The OP reports Kiner as saying:
    “That’s the great thing about baseball, you never know what’s going on.”

    Does anybody know what particular or happenstance he would have been responding or refering to?

    Or was it another malapropism, and he meant you always know what’s going on?

  23. TWolf says:

    It’s interesting that in just a few weeks we have lost two baseball broadcasters, Kiner and Jerry Coleman, who were decent or very good players but may have achieved more fame as long time broadcasters for a single team.They were both known for their many
    malapropisms. A professionally trained broadcaster could not survive these mistakes for long.

    • Michael Green says:

      TWolf, they did come up with some malaprops, although not all of the ones they are credited with (Coleman had some resentment over his bloopers always being brought up, but there was one in which he intended to refer to flags and a gay slur came out, and he said no, no way.). But I got to listen to both of them, and they were also good play-by-play broadcasters. Kiner probably suffered a bit in comparison with his partners in his earlier years; Nelson and Murphy were Hall of Famers in their field.

  24. berkowit28 says:

    Joe doesn’t seem to have an internet connection in Sochi.

  25. CDR says:

    As an avid Mets fan, truly will miss Ralph Kiner visiting the Mets’ booth on some of the games of the season. Ralphy had a knack for breaking down the game.

  26. Kiner did not originate the remark about Garry Maddox. Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas did, Kiner was just quoting Kalas.

  27. […] In essence, I’m reminded of a story about Ralph Kiner. After leading the league in home runs for several straight years, and being far and away the best player on a poor Pittsburgh Pirates team that finished dead last, Kiner had the audacity to ask for a raise. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Pirates, sent a contract back to Kiner asking him to take a pay cut, telling him, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.” […]

  28. Ray says:

    Showing my age here. My first Met game was in 1962 at the Polo Grounds as a three year old(my dad was a Dodger fan until they fled to LA).

    Anyway, my favorite Ralphism
    The Mets had a relief pitcher named Doug Sisk that stunk. He was sent to the minors and recalled, in his first appearance back, Ralph said, Doug Risk has just returned from the minors were he learned a new pitch. It’s called a strike.

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