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The Glory of Ralph Kiner’s Times

“[A]nd in 1912 I won 26. That’s the year I won 19 straight — I didn’t lose a single game in 1912 until July 8! Actually, I won 20 straight, not 19, but because of the way they scored then I didn’t get credit for one of them. […] Well, at any rate that record has stood up for a long time now. Over fifty years.”
—Rube Marquard to Larry Ritter, The Glory of Their Times [1] (1966)

Late summer, mid-afternoon, Queens. Carlos Torres rents out Harvey Day and keeps up the address nicely. Anthony Recker comes galloping out of the Triple-A shadows to deliver a long home run as well as a diving catch for a foul pop that’s even more impressive — on his 30th birthday, no less. Andrew Brown proves a deep thinker, too. Eric Young has speed to burn the Phillies. And Daniel Murphy…well, Daniel Murphy has gotten Ralph Kiner’s attention.

Ralph Kiner, for those of you just tuning in, played major league baseball for ten years, the last of them 58 years ago. Seven years after a bad back truncated his career at one decade and 369 home runs, he joined a fledgling outfit called the New York Mets as one of its three announcers. For the next 30 or so years, Ralph broadcast nearly every game. Then most of the games. Then some of the games. Nowadays, if you’re lucky, you get Ralph for two, maybe two-and-a-half innings in the middle of an afternoon affair should the Mets’ schedule meet up with his. Sometimes Gary Cohen introduces him as a special analyst. Usually Ralph Kiner needs no introduction whatsoever.

“This is Ralph’s 52nd year of broadcasting Mets games,” his half-page biography in the club’s media guide states without embellishment. Ralph doesn’t show up more than ten times per season, if that many. His cumulative 2013 on-air presence won’t add up to a week’s worth of Kiner’s Korner from when he was full-time. But when he’s there, as he was this late summer mid-afternoon in Queens, you know he’s there. The Mets can beat the Phillies, 11-3 [2], as they did Thursday. The Mets can go in the other direction, as they too often do. For two, maybe two-and-a-half lucky innings, it really doesn’t matter.

For two, maybe two-and-a-half innings, Al Simmons is a bucket hitter again. Philadelphia Athletic left fielder Al Simmons that is. You know: .334 lifetime average, two-time world champion, batting fifth for the American League in the first All-Star Game in 1933 — directly behind Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. You’ve probably heard of Ruth and Gehrig. If you haven’t heard much of Al Simmons, Ralph will casually tell you that Al Simmons was a bucket hitter. That’s not a good thing [3] in baseball, yet Simmons — Bucketfoot Al — made it work for him.

This came up while Carlos Ruiz stood too far back in the batter’s box Thursday for Ralph’s liking. Ralph hasn’t broadcast too many of Ruiz’s games. But he knows batting stances. He knows swings. He knows greatness. He knows from Al Simmons. He seems amazed that Simmons could collect 2,927 hits hitting the way he did. He’s aghast that Keith Hernandez regularly lobbies for a level swing. It’s a good way to ground out to the shortstop, Ralph says. Swing up, he urges one and all.

Ralph pays attention. He’d been watching and listening to Keith advocate level swings. He’d been watching Murphy slump and was now pleased that Daniel was breaking out of it with a 4-for-5 day. He was less pleased when it was pointed out to him that on this date in 1965, Willie Mays broke his National League record for most home runs in a month — Willie topped Ralph at Shea Stadium in a game Ralph was broadcasting. Ralph had to have him on Kiner’s Korner. Oh, the indignity! Ralph made it mischievously clear then as now that his records were not meant to be broken.

Ralph has told the Willie Mays story before. Ralph has told nearly every story before. Gary Cohen and Ron Darling toss him BP as Torres mows down the Phillies and Ralph gets in his cuts. He doesn’t ground out to short. The Choo Choo Coleman nickname story (short version: Choo Choo had no idea why he was called Choo Choo) gets a little garbled in 2013, but that’s OK. Gary told it the night before. Why does Gary know it so well? Because Ralph lived it in 1962 and made it a staple forever after.

Ralph’s had three times as many birthdays as Anthony Recker and hit more than 50 times as many home runs. Long homer and nice catch notwithstanding, the name Anthony Recker won’t summon stories echoing down the corridors of eternity as the name Choo Choo Coleman has. Choo Choo is an exception anyway. Ralph deals in immortals mostly. Of course he effortlessly invokes Al Simmons. Of course he’s an authority on Willie Mays. Of course he offers high praise for the late Gary Carter. Of course he believes Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio are too casually overlooked in the 21st century. Ralph saw them. Ralph can tell you about them. Ralph suggests you learn more. “Pick up a book once in a while,” he urges his audience. (I’m gonna assume he means this one [4].)

It took Ralph Kiner every last ballot of eligibility to be elected to the Hall of Fame by the baseball writers, yet he’s been a Hall of Famer eight years longer than Anthony Recker’s been alive. He’s been a Hall of Famer longer than all but four of his fellow living human beings: Yogi Berra, Sandy Koufax, Monte Irvin and Whitey Ford. Only Irvin and Bobby Doerr are Ralph’s seniors among living Hall of Famers. Among the dozens of certified legends who congregated on the stage in Cooperstown this summer [5], chances are slight that anybody besides Ralph could have elaborated on Al Simmons’s batting stance.

And I’d bet with great certainty that none of them had ever seen Rube Marquard dance.

Rube Marquard’s name came up during the Mets game Thursday because Max Scherzer was pitching in Detroit. Five days earlier [6] he had defeated Matt Harvey for his 19th win against one loss. Scherzer’s 19-1 record is a rarity. Only a couple of pitchers had crafted one at any juncture of a season in the long history of baseball: Roger Clemens in 2001 and Rube Marquard in 1912. Nobody wants to talk about Clemens, so Ralph talked about Marquard.

Ralph didn’t see Rube pitch for the Giants that year. Even Ralph has his limits. But Ralph mentioned without pretension that he had met Rube — who was born in 1886, recorded 201 victories between 1908 and 1925, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971 and lived until 1980 — at an Old Timers Day and its attendant festivities somewhere along the way. Rube Marquard of the 1912 National League champion New York Giants was quite the dancer, Ralph informed us. He and his wife cut a rug presumably as impressive as any catch for which Anthony Recker could dive.

That was a new one.

Gary and Ron were dumbfounded. Ralph was just being Ralph. He has a million of ’em but isn’t the type to advertise it. He could talk about what Daniel Murphy is doing right to be on his way to four hits against the Phillies, but you don’t perk up to Ralph’s infrequent appearances for contemporary chalk talk…though you’re reassured he can always bring that if so requested. You get excited because Ralph says he has a story about Dick/Richie Allen. While John McDonald prepares to hit with two outs in the top of the fifth, Ralph’s about to step into the box, too. He’s going to avoid the bucket. He’s going to swing up, not level. He’s gonna tell the hell out of this story.

But McDonald bunts to Torres, who forces him at first. The third out made, Gary is suddenly thanking Ralph for having joined them in the booth. That’s it? Ralph lodges a good-natured protest. He really wanted to tell the Richie Allen story, he says. “Next time,” Gary promises.

Yes. Next time. Please.