The last Original Met has passed away.
Ralph Kiner died last Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 91.
When the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club played its first game in 1962, the broadcast crew included three future Hall-of-Famers: Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner.
They stayed together through the 1978 season, when Nelson moved on. Murphy retired in 2003. But Kiner was still doing games last summer, his 52nd season with the Mets. Only Vin Scully of the Dodgers has been with one team longer.
But Scully didn’t wait to begin his broadcast career until his baseball career ended. And Kiner had a tremendous career.
He only played 10 seasons, as a bad back forced his early retirement. From 1946-55 he hit 369 homeruns. He led the National League in homers his first seven seasons, a record that still stands. Kiner also holds the Major League Baseball record for most homeruns hit during his first five seasons, with 215. Albert Pujols is next, with 201.
As a hitter, Kiner never choked up on the bat. He often said, "Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat!"
When Kiner hit 54 homers in 1949, it was the highest National League homerun total between Hack Wilson’s 56 in 1932 and Mark McGwire’s steroid-tainted 70 in 1998. Kiner became the second player, after Babe Ruth, to hit 40 homers in five straight seasons. He became the third, joining Ruth and Jimmie Foxx, to hit a total of 100 homers in consecutive seasons.
With a home run every 14.1 at bats, Kiner still ranks sixth all-time. And he also averaged over 100 runs batted in per year during his career.
And he did all this despite playing for miserable Pirate and Cub teams. Only the 1948 Pirates managed a winning record, and they finished fourth. In his final season, the Indians finished second.
The mediocrity of his surrounding casts probably delayed his election into the Hall of Fame. He was enshrined in 1975.
But those hideous teams also gave him the inside track for the Mets job. "I had a lot of experience with losing!" Kiner often said.
Listening to Kiner call a game can best be described as a pleasant experience. He had an easy-going, low-key manner much like Ernie Johnson, Sr. He also provided insights that only an ex-ballplayer can provide, but never did so to excess. Nor did he ever flaunt his playing career.
His stories were many and amazing. After all, here’s a guy who talked baseball with Ty Cobb, shook hands with Ruth and hit against Satchel Paige.
But occasionally his knowledge of baseball history got him into trouble. On one memorable occasion, Pirates catcher Milt May lumbered home on a base hit. Kiner dutifully reported, "And Mel Ott rounds third and heads for home!"
In a fraction of a second, Kiner had mistaken May for his predecessor as the Pirates catcher, Ed Ott. Then, he misidentified Ed Ott as the former Giants slugger from the 1930s, Mel Ott.
Kiner became famous for his mistakes at the mike, such as calling his broadcast partner Tim McCarver "MacArthur." Kiner covered that one by heading into a commercial break by saying, "MacArthur once said, ‘I shall return’ and we’ll be back after this!"
But he could also fashion a keen insight, such as his observation that "Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other one-third is covered by Garry Maddox." He likened watching Phil Niekro throw his knuckleball to watching Mario Andretti park a car.
"Ralph was one of the most beloved people in Mets history," owner Fred Wilpon said last week. "An original Met and an extraordinary gentleman. His knowledge of the game, wit, and charm entertained generations of Mets fans. Like his stories, he was one of a kind."
No Met telecast was complete without the requisite watching of the post-game show, "Kiner’s Korner." Sometimes the show was no picnic. On September 28, 1974, the Mets and Cardinals played a game that lasted 25 innings and ended at 3:13 am.
"I sat around for five hours working like mad," Kiner told the New York Times. "Every inning we had to change the film strips for the show. We kept getting new heroes."
The show went on, and showed a lot about Kiner’s dedication to his craft. "Ralph was always very serious about his job and never took anything for granted," Mets publicist Jay Horowitz told Ian O’Connor last week. "Ralph kept notebooks on stuff that happened 40 years ago, and he was looking forward to working again this year.
"In 1980, when I was a young kid out of Fairleigh Dickinson, Ralph took me around to meet different managers, made suggestions about my press notes, just helped me any way he could. He never let on that he was a Hall of Famer. I mean, I don’t know anyone who’s ever said a cross word about him."