To grow up a fan of the New York Mets was to discover the multitudes of Ralph Kiner slowly. Being a Kiner fan was like having a grandfather who, upon further examination, turned out to belong to the whole world. A regular announcer and host of Kiner's Korner to us, but gradually, a man who revealed his improbable supply of baseball knowledge. But the miracle of Ralph Kiner was that he stuck around, every bit himself to the end, and gave us all time to catch up.
His staying power gave him decades of interacting with nearly every important baseball figure of the 20th century (plus a good chunk of the 21st), but he also had the intelligence to glean what mattered in the lives of those people, the significance of major events in those lives. He did all that while simultaneously serving as an epic figure in baseball himself, and also (let's not forget) dating Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor in her prime, Ava Gardner. He was as comfortable among Hollywood stars as he was in a baseball clubhouse, or on the air, and trust me, these are very different worlds.
Kiner is gone, having died Thursday at the age of 91. He is rightly lionized. Here's how I found out about him.
First, Kiner was a voice on WWOR for me, broadcasting Mets games with Tim McCarver. You don't know, as a child, that it's not normal for the color guy on a baseball broadcast to have stories going back to the dawn of the franchise. There's no means for comparison. Kiner seemed to know everything and everyone associated with the Mets, a history that may have seemed short to those who were, like my father, around for their birth in 1962. To a child, though, and significantly to a Mets child, Kiner and his radio counterpart Bob Murphy seemed like permanent fixtures on the team's landscape.
Incredibly, they really were. Slowly, as time and place became less fixed within the present, I'd hear Ralph Kiner stories that stretched decades back into the past, into places like Ebbets and Forbes Field, to players who came of age not with the expansion Mets, but as far back as the dead ball era. Kiner had an astonishing memory, both for stories lived and for stories told to him. More to the point, he had an ability to connect whatever was happening in the moment, live on the field, to something vital from the past.
I loved reading the Kinerisms that Jayson Stark, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer, collected and included in his columns. Every Father's Day, I am sure to wish my dad a happy birthday. There was the slow realization that, sure, Ralph Kiner said unintentionally funny things. But most of the time, Ralph Kiner said intentionally witty things or poignant, relevant things. I can't help but note that Kiner's famous comment about Garry Maddox -- "Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox." -- was an observation about a visiting player who never suited up for the Mets.
Then came a child's curiosity about Kiner's playing days, and a Baseball Encyclopedia as a gift, so at some point, I checked out just what kind of player Kiner had been. Let's get a little context for this guy I hear on television in the living room all the time, let's just see … Good Lord. Kiner's home run numbers were simply absurd: 51, 40, 54, 47, 42, 37 and 35 in consecutive seasons. Once I became more aware of on-base percentage, his .398 career mark wowed me, not to mention that .452 mark in 1951.
(It's commonly pointed out that he had the advantage of Hank Greenberg with him in Pittsburgh during his second season, but Greenberg happily talked hitting with many people over his decades in baseball as well. The only player who ever talked to Greenberg and then managed to duplicate Greenberg's peak, essentially, was Kiner.)
As the years went on, Kiner's visits became more infrequent. The more my generation realized what we had in Kiner -- a gracious, charismatic link to the past -- the less we'd get to see him on television. But even the Mets were smart enough to know what they had in Kiner, kept him coming on SNY broadcasts, as health permitted, right through the 2013 season. No one begrudged the Mets, or Kiner, for failing to put a man in his early 90s on television more. We'd have liked it, though.
Even among the writers at Citi Field, there'd be a little extra buzz when Kiner was in the building. I'd make a point to say hello when I saw him, not that he knew who I was. If you've read anything else on Kiner, ever, you won't be surprised to know how gracious he was in response each time.
Like any Mets fan, we treasured what moments, what stories we got. Always, Kiner could link the present with the past with his words, with his ability to put aside both nostalgia and worship of the future, elevating greatness instead. It makes sense, I guess. Look at his Baseball-Reference.com page. He managed to be that link from the start of the Mets to before the Mets, in ways beyond his merely being there.
Think about what Kiner's longevity meant. We'd lost Murph, back in 2004. Mr. Met may seem like he was born with the franchise, but he started later than Kiner did. Kiner was the Mets before Shea Stadium was a modern marvel, and he's still the Mets after Shea was found wanting and replaced.
Kiner was never found wanting. We were all happier after we got to spend time with him. There's a reason he was never phased out, like so many institutions are. Everybody wanted to be around Ralph Kiner, from Ava Gardner to Gary Cohen.
The Mets never built a statue of Ralph Kiner. They didn't have to. They had Ralph. Now that he's gone, and we all got to enjoy him for this long, I wonder if even a statue will feel like enough of a tribute. It's as incomplete as this piece, or as anything can be, to pay tribute properly to a man who lived this kindly and this well.