Playing, home run prowess, not broadcasting, should define late Kiner

Thursday February 6th, 2014

Baseball Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner, right, (with Willie Mays) died at his home in California on Thursday. He was 91.
Harry Harris/AP

An athletic afterlife can last so long that it becomes hard to remember, impossible even, just what was all that athletic about it in the first place. Take Ralph Kiner. Generations of Mets fans know him mostly, and maybe only, as the franchise's original and longest-lasting mascot, the genial proprietor of Kiner's Korner. When you endure for half a century, as Kiner did, broadcasting a single team's games, well, you're not expected to have endured at anything else.

In fact, for a decade-long span after WWII, Kiner was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. You know him now by his malapropisms, non sequitors and general nonsense ("If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave"), but there was a postwar generation who knew him for his bat and, to the extent that it was a big deal back then, his tremendous salary.

Kiner, who died Thursday at the age of 91, was a Ruthian slugger in his day and might be celebrated more for it if his day had just been longer. Coming out of the Navy Air Force, where he flew antisubmarine missions in the Pacific, Kiner was already 22 by his first season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946. And, by the time he retired with chronic back problems in 1955, he was only 32. Yet in that brief career, he hit 369 home runs, leading the National League his first seven seasons, averaging 42 homers those years. Twice he hit more than 50 (51, 54).

It is interesting to wonder what numbers he might have reached if he'd enjoyed a longer career. Hank Aaron hit another 360 homers after he turned 32; for that matter, Babe Ruth was just getting started, adding 358. Certainly Kiner wouldn't have been a Hall of Fame afterthought (he was voted in his last year of eligibility), or even just a postwar phenomenon. All these years later Kiner's Korner would be properly remembered for the real estate it originally represented, the short leftfield porch in Forbes Field where he pulled so many balls, and not a broadcaster's perch where the likes of Tom Seaver and even Jackie Mason loitered.

But if it was an absurdly short career, it was also a wildly exciting one. He never quite made the Pirates a contender, but playing for a mid-market team that never got to a World Series, he nevertheless reached a level of fame and wealth that foreshadowed the rewards of stars to follow. Acknowledging that Kiner was responsible for incredible bumps in attendance — the club nearly doubled its crowd for the 1947 season after he hit 51 homers in 1946 — the Pirates became paying him accordingly, making him the best paid player in the National League with a $65,000 contract in 1950 (only Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller earned more). In 1952 he was bumped to $90,000 and, moreover, cut in on some of the owner's business deals.

It was no wonder that Kiner eventually inspired the phrase, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords."

Kiner had appeared in Pittsburgh as a kind of a rube; the story goes that the great Hank Greenberg, who taught him to pull the ball (Kiner's Korner had originally been Greenberg's Garden — the deed was transferred Kiner's first season), also taught him not to wear brown shoes with a tuxedo. But just as Kiner had adapted quickly to big league pitching, so did he adjust to the limelight. In no time at all, thanks to the influence of minority owner Bing Crosby, Kiner became a fixture on the Hollywood/Palm Springs circuit. Home run hitters drive Cadillacs? They also escort a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor to movie premieres.

But neither Kiner's salary nor his productivity could be sustained. Branch Rickey had become Pittsburgh's general manager and he had long chafed at the sums he'd been forced to pay his slugger. In 1952 Rickey cut his salary back to $75,000, even after he hit another 47 home runs. When Kiner balked at the pay cut, Rickey warned him the Pirates could just as easily finish last without him as with. In another year he was traded to Chicago, his bat losing its sting as his back hobbled him. And Pittsburgh did indeed finish last.

Perhaps Kiner was too financially comfortable by then to play hurt, or to play badly (his fielding skills were subpar and would not support any deficits at the plate) and he retired soon thereafter.

And then his real career started.

He liked to say he was the Mets' original choice as announcer because he had so much familiarity with losing. Also, he was cheap. Apparently broadcasters drive Fords, too; he was given $50 a game, some Mamma Leone coupons, unless it rained, in which case he got nothing. But just as he had with the Pirates, he soon became a force to be reckoned with. His Kiner's Korner, a kind of variety show he put on after Mets games (comedians Buddy Hackett and Phil Foster were the first guests on his post-game show) and quickly became a pleasure onto itself.

He oversaw the club's whipsaw fortunes over that half a century, salting his expert analysis with head scratchers that would become every bit as memorable as his home run blasts. "It's Father's Day today at Shea, so to all you fathers out there, happy birthday." Another time he appraised manager Bud Harrelson's personality: "Some quiet guys are inwardly outgoing." Or, this to then-promising Daryl Boston: "You have really solidified the Mets' center field problem." Time for one more? "All the Mets' road wins against Los Angeles this year have been at Dodger Stadium."

Aficionados were always alert to Kiner's conflation of common names as well. Thus broadcast partner Tim McCarver became Tim MacArthur, and ultimately even Ralph Kiner himself was a victim, the night he introduced himself as Ralph Korner. That was so inevitable.

But for every time he apprised listeners with such foolishness as, "Solo homers usually come with no one on base," he'd deliver a true gem. "Two thirds of the earth is covered by water," he once said. "The other third is covered by Garry Maddox." So there was that.

Still, it seems a shame to remember Kiner for anything he said, whether it was silly or incisive, when his actual body of work was so much more impressive, more genuine. Not to discount the charms of a Mets' broadcaster, which were considerable enough to keep him at it for 50 years, but there was the matter of those home runs, during one of the more astonishing stretches in baseball. Surely, if Ralph Kiner were alive today, hearing his life reduced to a radio man, well, we imagine he'd be spinning in his grave.

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