Ralph Kiner, a fixture in the Mets broadcast booth since their debut in 1962, was honored on July 14 with a "night." A mix of baseball celebrities were on hand, including former Mets players (Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Rusty Staub, Jerry Koosman, Ed Charles, and Tom Seaver, who did a fairly shaky job in his remarks, fellow media (former teammate Bob Friend and Keith Hernandez; Marty Noble penned a nice piece on MLB.Com), and stars from Kiner’s generation (Yogi Berra and Bob Feller).
It gives me a chance to rerun a review of his most recent book Baseball Forever: Reflections of 60 Years in the Game, (written with Danny Peary. Triumph Books, 2004), that originally appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of Nine.
Ralph Kiner was smart enough to realize early on that an athletic avocation is usually short-lived and uncertain. Yet he contradicts this notion in Baseball Forever as he reminisces about his sixty-five-year association with the national pastime.
Kiner was the premier slugger of his day. Over his ten-season career, curtailed by back injuries, he led the National League in home runs seven consecutive years. Not even the mighty Babe had enjoyed such a streak. Kiner finished with 369 round-trippers and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
In many ways Kiner was ahead of his time. Considered opinion of his era (1946-55) eschewed swimming, golf, and weightlifting for players, yet Kiner employed these activities as part of his off-season regime. On a more intellectual level he became an integral part of the fledgling players’ movement, fighting for improved conditions and salaries.
Blessed with movie star looks Kiner could have been the poster boy for Nike’s old "Chicks dig the long ball" advertising campaign. When someone pointed out that he didn’t hit for much of an average (.279, a low figure for a superstar), he often quipped, "Singles hitters drive Fords; home run hitters drive Cadillacs."
After retiring as a player Kiner relearned the game from a front office perspective, serving as the general manager for the Minor League San Diego Padres before beginning his apprenticeship as a broadcaster.
Baseball Forever is not a typical autobiography. Kiner juxtaposes his own experiences with the modern game. He uses the same folksy ease in his book as he does on the air, with his chapters on such topics as the athlete-celebrity connection, the mania over home runs, and "The Future, Then and Now." His chapter on baseball’s slow progress at integration is particularly thoughtful. He is also quite candid on the subject of drugs. "People who believe that there were no drugs in baseball at all in my time are misinformed," writes Kiner. "There were. In the forties and fifties, we had Benzedrine and Dexedrine. A large percentage of players took them … because they could keep you awake and alert. I admit I took them."
Kiner was one of the New York Mets’ inaugural announcers. From 1962, when the team debuted, to 1979, he shared both television and radio chores with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson–the longest-running trio of announcers in pro sports. (Murphy retired in 2003, leaving Kiner as the only link to the Mets’ first season.)
Kiner was the prototypical ex-jock, engaged to comment on the game in relationship to his own playing days. Despite the occasional flub or malapropism, he has been one of the constants in Mets fans’ lives. In spite of his membership in the media fraternity, Kiner is empathetic to those athletes who refuse interviews. In his day the press developed relations with athletes and kept their remarks almost exclusively to what happened on the field. Nowadays there is little in the way of celebrity privacy. Everything is fair game for discussion, especially those salacious bits of off-the-field "human interest."
"I think players are less forthcoming … because it’s very hard to say anything ‘off the record’ anymore," Kiner observes. "You can tell a reporter whom you trust something very personal, and he will keep to his promise not to write anything, but he’ll give the information to another reporter who will put it in his column. That’s done a lot, which is why some players decided it’s just easier not to talk to anybody."
Baseball Forever, written in collaboration with Danny Peary, whose previous baseball titles include the brand-new 1001 Reasons to Love Baseball and Cult Baseball Players: The Greats, the Flakes, the Weird and the Wonderful, serves as a reminder that the game is not just what happens today but also the memories, history, and lore of past generations. Kiner and his contemporaries muse about the current state of baseball: "When we have one of those moments when we can’t figure out how today’s game relates to the game we once played, someone will remind us, ‘The pitcher still stands 60’6" from the batter, and there are still 27 outs and no time limit.’… The game hasn’t really changed at all. It’s just different."