Let's be honest: when I first became a Mets fan, I was not necessarily a Ralph Kiner fan. Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy were trained broadcasters who could excel at what Murph would call "painting the word picture." But Ralph? First, he was a member of what Howard Cosell would call the Jockacracy -- a guy who got his job because of his name, not his skill. Second, the Mets broadcasters in those days would shuttle back and forth between TV and radio. Ralph would typically do color with either Nelson or Murphy for the first two innings, but did play by play solo on both TV and radio. (All three of them worked without a partner on radio.) And play by play wasn't Ralph's strength -- it was a little like asking Ralph to home run hitter to bunt someone over. Never mind the malapropisms; he just wasn't able to come up with names quickly ("and it's popped up...and caught by...the shortstop"). Even his color innings didn't seem to work so well because Nelson and Murphy were used to working without a partner and Ralph seemed to have to interrupt whenever he was saying something.
This all changed after the 1981 season, when Ralph was given TV duties only. The Mets brought in the unmemorable Lorn Brown as his partner. After one season in which Brown seemed to have an obsession with shut-in fans, he would be replaced by Steve Zabriskie and Tim McCarver. And the addition of another former player seemed to revitalize Ralph. When Ralph and Tim worked together, you could hardly tell who was doing play by play and who was doing color -- it was more like listening in on a conversation while watching a game with them. And for the first time, I got to appreciate what Ralph was like. My favorite moment was the night Tim asked Ralph about Ralph's first home run. Ralph remembered everything: the date, the pitcher, the count, the inning, the pitch. He probably remembered what he had for breakfast that morning. Then Tim asked Ralph about his last home run. And Ralph couldn't remember anything about it because, as he said it, "I didn't know it was going to be the last one."
If you're looking for malaprops here, I will simply refer you to this. Something that wasn't talked about as much was how smart and funny Ralph could be without making a mistake. Here are some of my personal favorites.
When the Mets played in San Francisco, at least once a series Ralph would quote Mark Twain:
The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
At least once a season, when the conversation turned to old time players, Ralph would recite Franklin P. Adams' poem Baseball's Sad Lexicon. Flawlessly. It always made me wonder if the malaprop act was just an act.
When Bill Lee was with the Expos, they also had a pitcher named Charlie Lea, who was born in France. One they were warming up in the bullpen together, prompting Ralph to say this:
The Expos have two pitchers warming up -- Lee and Lea. One is from another country and the other is from another planet.
On grission challenged Kevin McReynolds:
You don't have to worry about his attitude, because he doesn't have one.
On gangly outfielder George Theodore:
He looked like he was put together by a committee.
On a player being sold for cash:
Cash can't play, unless it's Norm or Dave.
The quote by Branch Rickey about finishing last without Ralph is well known. Less well known is Ralph's line about Rickey:
He had all the players. And he had all the money. And he made sure the two never got together.
Ralph's 1952 Pirates were almost as bad as the 1962 Mets. Ralph described them at his Hall of Fame induction speech:
We were so bad, Joe Garagiola was our catcher.
But, in my opinion, Ralph's greatest moment in the booth was September 4, 1986, and there wasn't even a game going on -- not a real one, anyway. After the Mayor's Trophy Game was discontinued, the Mets signed a two year agreement to play exhibitions against the Red Sox. And so it was that barely a month before the World Series, the Mets were playing in Fenway Park. Around the third inning, Ralph announced that he had just heard "the most terrible news -- Hank Greenberg died." At that point, Ralph stopped pretending there was even a pretend game going on. He spent the rest of the evening telling Hank Greenberg stories and explaining how Greenberg had mentored him on and off the field. And Greenberg has a role with Ralph's broadcasting career: in 1961, Ralph called games for the White Sox, where Greenberg was a team executive. Based on that experience, the Mets hired him a year later. So we can thank Hank Greenberg for the joy of listening to Ralph Kiner broadcast Mets games for 52 season. But most of all, we have to thank Ralph for being Ralph Kiner -- Hall of Fame player and great broadcaster.