Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 27, 2010
BASEBALL: Ralph Kiner: An Appreciation
Before another baseball season goes by, it is time to appreciate Ralph Kiner, baseball announcer, on the occasion of today, his 88th birthday.
Oh, yes, I know the popular perception: Kiner was a Hall of Fame slugger, sure (averaged 37 homers, 102 RBI, 97 Runs, 101 walks and a .279/.398/.548 batting line for a 10-year career marooned among horrible teammates; that batting line holds up well under slightly more advanced analysis) and a World War II veteran (mainly as a stateside Naval aviator trainee), but he's sort of a comic figure as an announcer, notorious for his malapropisms. He spent years calling Curt Ford "Curt Flood," Barry Bonds "Bobby Bonds," referred to Cory Lidle as an ancestor of steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (he was a descendant) and declared, of Benito Santiago, "Santiago is Spanish for San Francisco." And he'd start stories and stop them abruptly, like when he announced without ever finishing the tale that "Biff Pocoroba's father was a spy." And those are just the ones I heard with my own ears. He was a member of the original Mets broadcasting crew in 1962, and for their first seventeen seasons the Mets' only announcers were Kiner, Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson; Murphy and Nelson, now both deceased, are in the Hall of Fame's broadcasters wing, Kiner is unlikely to join them there. These days, he shows up maybe once a week for an inning or three.
All that's true; I'm not here to tell you that Ralph Kiner should be considered the equal of Bob Murphy, a professional announcer and incurable optimist who was truly the voice of Mets fandom for more than four decades of Happy Recaps. But I am here to tell you that Ralph has given Mets fans a lot over his 49 seasons in the booth, and we should appreciate that for what it is before he's gone.
The first thing that's valuable about Ralph is simply how much the man has seen. He's been a part of every major event in Mets history until the past few years, and that's not easily replaced, not even by live-and-breathe-Mets diehards like Howie Rose. But it goes deeper: Ralph has seen an enormous amount of baseball history. He could do things like break down Eric Davis' swing in comparison to the swings of Jimmie Foxx and Rogers Hornsby. He learned the craft of hitting from Hank Greenberg, his mentor his second season in Pittsburgh, and knew the swings and approaches of the great hitters of the Thirties and Forties and everybody since. He'd break into a broadcast with a discussion of how he'd asked the greatest hitters alive, at a Hall of Fame event, what pitch was the toughest for them to hit, and recount in detail their answers. He also spent years talking about the nightmares he got from facing Ewell Blackwell, the fireballing sidearmer who took the NL by storm in 1947. Ralph didn't tell you how much he knew about the game, he just let it seep out.
For a while in the late 80s, the Mets had a feature, mainly focused on trivia questions, called "Ask Tim & Ralph." Questions would come in from viewers that would be posed to Kiner and broadcast partnerTim McCarver. It was generally assumed that McCarver, the author of "Baseball for Brain Surgeons" and the know-it-all's know-it-all, would rack up a humiliating margin of victory over Kiner, and a running tally was kept. But a funny thing happened: McCarver was terrible, to the point where I once saw him miss a question to which the answer was Tim McCarver. Whereas Ralph wasn't any sort of trivia whiz, but he remembered the things he'd seen happen or remembered from when they happened, and after so many decades in the game that was quite a lot of stuff, enough to give him a much more respectable showing. Eventually, the feature was discontinued.
Kiner's perspective is also somewhat unique. He was a union activist as a player; along with Robin Roberts and others, he was one of the prime movers in the early 50s for getting the players a pension plan. But he was also management, having worked as a GM in the Pacific Coast League in the late 50s (the team was the San Diego Padres, then a minor league affiliate of the Indians; Greenberg was the Indians GM at the time). He's stayed active in the Hall of Fame, and thus stayed in touch with his connections among the game's immortals.
The one thing Ralph has always cared about, and on which he has strong opinions, is hitting a baseball. Before the sabermetric revolution, Kiner was - perhaps in part out of partisanship for his own kind of hitter - an advocate for the school of thought that an offense is built around power hitters who wait for their pitch and drive it. He hated seeing home run hitters asked to bunt, consistent with his mantra from the 50s that "home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords," or "the Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat." (This is probably his most famous line, although Kiner is sometimes credited with the line that "two thirds of the earth's surface is covered by water and the other third is covered by Gary Maddox"; I'm not sure who coined that one but he did love to use it). Probably nothing in several decades of broadcasting upset him as much as the Walt Hriniak school of hitting; Ralph would go on and on about how Hriniak's approach, in which the hitter's hand flies off the bat during the follow-through, was death to power hitting. (Frank Thomas ultimately proved it was possible to be a great power hitter with a sort of modified Hriniak stance, but Thomas was the exception; many other of his disciples fell apart after a year or two). At least in his prime as an announcer, Ralph rarely missed a home run call, having hit so many himself.
Ralph's other longstanding job - I believe this is what won him an Emmy some years ago - was Kiner's Korner, the post-game interview show. You can catch up on some clips and interviews with SNY's Ted Berg here, here and here; in the last clip he talks about how Bing Crosby, a part-time owner of the Pirates when Ralph played there, once fixed him up on a date with a young Liz Taylor. Kiner's Korner had its rough moments in the early years, like his famous interview with an uncommunicative Clarence "Choo Choo" Coleman:
Perhaps most famous was an interview on Kiner's Korner, the Mets post-game show. Host Ralph Kiner asked Choo Choo "What's your wife's name and what's she like?" Choo Choo replied "My wife's name is Mrs. Coleman and she likes me, bub." Another time Kiner asked Clarence how he had gotten the name Choo Choo. "I don't know, Ralph." was the answer.
But for the most part, the show was easygoing, conventional interviews, and of course in my childhood in the 70s it had a fantastically cheesy set. (You can read more viewer reminisces here). Most everybody in the game was comfortable around Ralph. Here's Howie Rose (I transcribed this from a broadcast in 2008):
The closest I have ever seen Ralph come to getting angry in the years I have sat beside him in the booth - he smokes these cigars, and let me tell you, you can tell from the smell they are not cheap - was when somebody came into the booth in San Diego, and said, "Mr. Kiner, I'm sorry, it's a state ordinance that you have to put out that cigar." And Ralph turned around and said, "you know, this used to be a great state."
Happy Birthday, Ralph.