Honoring Ralph Kiner

[This piece first appeared on the Flushing University site on March 8, 2007.  To read my latest Thursday column, about what I learned about the popularity of the Mets when researching my book proposal, please check on the Flushing University banner in the column to the right.]

The Mets have announced that they’re going to hold an on-field tribute to Ralph Kiner before the July 14 game against Cincinnati.  I’m glad and I’m looking forward to it.  Ralph has been an important part of the lives of every Mets fan and as the last surviving member of the broadcast team of Nelson, Kiner, and Murphy he’s particularly precious to those of us who have rooted for the team since the 1960s.   Ralph was one of the background voices of my childhood.  I remember how cool it was when I was eight or nine and Ralph, in black-and-white, on our old ‘50s TV, introduced Homer, a Mets cap-wearing beagle, as our team’s first animal mascot. 

“Kiner’s Corner” was a hoot.  It would begin with a piece of music that would get into your head and stay there forever.  It was a march and it sounded partly like something that would be played at a college football game in the 1920s and partly like what the oompah band would play at an Oktoberfest.  It was totally Ralph.  It came from a fascinating and distant past and although it wasn’t like anything else you were familiar with, it was right at home in your living room. When the music faded, you’d see Ralph sitting in a chair.  A ballplayer would be in the other chair and Ralph would proceed to describe something that had happened to the ballplayer in the game.  Once the ballplayer understood that Ralph’s statement was supposed to be treated as if it was some sort of question, the ballplayer would then offer his own version of what Ralph had just said.  Ralph would wait until the ballplayer was finished and then he’d “ask” another question and the ballplayer would “answer” it in the same way.  After they went around like this three or four more times, the show would end and you’d hear that haunting German college music again. 

There was something mesmerizing about this show.  If they had had DVR in the past, I would have been able to watch it over and over again.  It was the earliest example, perhaps, of reality TV.  It didn’t look as if anything was happening on purpose.  It just happened.  It was amazingly authentic and sweet. 
Ralph was famous for doing things like wishing all fathers a Happy Birthday on Father’s Day.  Or saying that all of a pitcher’s saves came in relief appearances.  But when Ralph did this kind of thing, he would remind you of Yogi Berra or Casey Stengel.  None of these men were fools.  They were geniuses.  And one of the things that geniuses understand is that there are advantages to seeming as if you’re a little eccentric.  It throws off your rivals and it mystifies and charms your fans. 

As everyone who’s listened to Ralph Kiner for the past 45 years knows, Ralph knew everyone who ever played, and he has a deep, inner knowledge of the workings of the game.  As an announcer, he was so humble that it was always a bit of a surprise to realize how much you were learning from him as you listened to one of his stories.  What many fans don’t know about Ralph is the fact that, in the chaste lingo of the Associated Press, Ralph, the handsome home run king, “squired” Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Janet Leigh.  Imagining that “squiring” is a challenge.  What are you supposed to make of this man?  How could someone hit all those home runs, know so much about baseball, “squire” so many of the most exciting actresses of the 1950’s and still be as calm, straightforward, and unpretentious as Ralph Kiner?  This is what makes Ralph so wonderful and so unique.  This apparently awkward man is not only brilliant, he’s glamorous!  He’s sexy!  Wouldn’t you have loved to have seen Ava Gardner on Kiner’s Korner?   

Ralph is somebody you couldn’t have made up and you’ve come to love.  To me, he is the soul of old baseball.  He comes from what’s good about baseball’s past.  There was plenty that was bad in the old days.  There was the racism and there were decades when the players were paid a pittance to enrich the selfish owners.   But Ralph gives me a sense that the past was also a time when everyone was a character and everyone, as he told a reporter, “had more fun.”  Maybe they just had fun in a different way.  But Ralph helps me to imagine that lost baseball past.  When he finally retires, I will have lost a great deal.  Ralph helps me to imagine that lost world, and he lets me know that it really existed.  I’ll be there when they honor him.  I’ll clap and I’ll cheer until they make me sit down. 

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