February 9, 2014

VOICE IN THE NIGHT:

The unforgettable two lives of Ralph Kiner (Joe Posnanski Feb 7, 2014, Hardball Talk)

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.

The one time I do recall him mentioning his own feats was when McCarver first joined him in the booth.  McCarver was raving about some active player's accomplishment, maybe leading the league in homeruns for consecutive years or some such and finished with: "Can you imagine that, Ralph?!"  To which the reply was something to the effect of: "Why, yes, I can, Tim."

McCarver went home that nght and read up on his new broadcast partner's records and regaled us with them to start the next broadcast.



MORE:
A baseball staple, Kiner never lost storytelling flair : Hall of Fame player, iconic Mets broadcaster a favorite of those who knew him (Marty Noble, 2/6/2014, MLB.com)

Confession: I used Ralph Kiner. Yes, I did, and I'm not ashamed of it. In fact, I told him how I had used him, and he appreciated it.

The year was 1974; the site was The Vet in Philly. Rain had jeopardized a Mets-Phillies night game. The rules governing clubhouse access for writers were not too stringent in those days, and they were relaxed because of what became a lengthy delay. I knew I had to have a story "in my notebook," as we say, in case the game was called. The demands of newspapers were unaffected by rain. So I sought out "a rainout story" just in case.

I had been around the Mets beginning in 1970. I had covered their home games in the '73 postseason. I had learned Koosman and Harrelson were approachable, good guys; that Tug was a joy, a guy who often behaved like his outpitch (a screwball); that Seaver and Rusty had to be primed a bit; that Cleon could be more insightful than most of us thought; and that Grote, growling catcher Jerry Grote, could be ornery and quite difficult, particularly after a game.

But 5 o'clock had not arrived, and Grote's game face still was in a jar he kept by the door. I needed to get to know him. You can't easily cover a team if you don't have a relationship with the catcher. And on a team as well-armed as the '74 Mets -- Seaver, Koosman, Matlack and Tug -- conversations with the catcher were required.

So after pushing aside some misgivings, I approached the locker of No. 15, said, "Jerry, got a moment?" And as pleasantly as Albert Belle with a thorn in his toe and a migraine, Grote responded: "For what?" He did not bother turning to determine who had interrupted his afternoon.

I thought quickly, "How can I defuse this approaching storm and maintain a modicum of self-respect?"

I said: "I'm doing a piece on Ralph Kiner, and I'd like your input."

There, I was certain Grote would be eating out of my hand in moments and that I would not have to count my fingers when he was finished. He turned, wearing an expression of torment. He pulled his stool out, sat, crossed his legs, folded his arms and, with an unhappy voice, said, "Sure, what do you need?"

Months later, after the growling catcher and I had shared a few more civil conversations and a lunch at a hotel, I confessed to him I never wrote a word he had said about Kiner, that I had used Kiner only as a topical icebreaker. I rightly calculated the mood of any players with Mets tenure would be soothed merely by the mention of Ralph Kiner. And Grote proved me right.

Asking Mets players of that generation about Kiner was akin to asking about their mothers. They softened and willingly shared their thoughts and anecdotes. Kiner was a favored topic in the Mets' clubhouse, in their dugout and on their charter flights. He was a favorite person as well. He became one my favorites, too. [...]

Jack O'Connell noted that Kiner was the tiny figure in the background (lower left) in Norman Rockwell's famous "Bottom of the Sixth" illustration for a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1949. It had to be Ralph. Depicted were three umpires working a Brooklyn Dodgers-Pirates game at Ebbets Field in Pittsburgh, wondering about a rainout; Rockwell was nearly obligated to use Kiner. Ralph was the face of the franchise long before that term became prevalent, the primary muscle in the National League.


Enhanced by Zemanta
Posted by at February 9, 2014 7:21 AM
  
blog comments powered by Disqus
« HISTORY ENDS EVERYWHERE: | Main | LET US, FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT, TAKE CAPITALISM SERIOUSLY FOR A MOMENT...: »