Kranepool in a pinch

One of the most quoted lines of dialogue in movie history occurs in the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard when Gloria Swanson, playing a washed-up silent movie star, denigrates the preeminence of dialogue in the talkies and asserts, “We had faces!”

Now, more than half a century later, extensive research involving pirated copies of the original shooting script has revealed that her original line was “We had faces! And so did major league baseball franchises!”

I don’t know why that line was truncated, but had the movie gone into circulation with the complete line, then the fabled phrase, “the face of the franchise” might have gained currency decades earlier.

As I recall, the “face of the franchise” phrase was not part of the vernacular in 1974. That’s not to say there was no such thing in those days. Consider the New York Mets, 1974 vintage.

In 1974 the New York Mets were in Year No. 13 of their history. Even though they were National League champions the year before, an asterisk really should be attached to that achievement. The National League East was either incredibly balanced (only 11½ games from top to bottom) or incredibly mediocre (the second-place Cardinals were 81-81). The Mets had won the National League East with a mere 82-79 record.

In a short series, however, the Mets’ pitchers could be equalizers. In fact, Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, et al. had led the league in 1973 with 1,027 strikeouts. In the NLCS, they gave up just eight runs in five games and defeated the Reds, the defending National League champions. So the Mets advanced to the World Series, where they finally met their match in the form of the Oakland A’s dynasty.

While the 1973 pennant was a pleasant surprise, it was obvious that there would be no return engagement in 1974. The Mets peaked way too early. After the third game of the season, they were 2-1—and that was the only time all season they were over .500. After that, they embarked on an eight-game losing streak and never looked back. By May 18, they managed to claw their way back to two games below .500 but that was as good as it got. By season’s end, they were mired in fifth place in the NL East with a 71-91 record.

It was a forgettable season, except for two things. One was Jon Matlack leading the league in shutouts with seven (surprisingly, his record was only 13-15); the other was Ed Kranepool setting the major league record for highest pinch-hit batting average in a season.

If that “face of the franchise” stuff had been around in 1974, Kranepool certainly would have been a candidate, though Tom Seaver also would have had plenty of support. Not that Kranepool’s talents were Hall of Fame-caliber, but he did have a unique niche in franchise history.

Kranepool probably heard plenty of Bronx cheers (note to NY craft brewers—Bronx Cheer—great name for a seasonal brand, no?) in his youth—but not the kind you’re thinking of. He was a local schoolboy athlete, having gone to James Monroe High School in the Bronx. He was not an original Met, but he made his debut (on Sept. 22, 1962) in their inaugural season. He was only 17 years old.

The wisdom of introducing someone to major league competition at such a tender age may be questioned, but with a week to go in their epic 40-120 season, the Mets certainly had nothing to lose. To no one’s surprise, he went back and forth between the Mets and their Triple-A Buffalo affiliate in 1963 and 1964.

In 1965, Kranepool was named to the NL All-Star team. To be sure, he would not have been there save for the rule that requires every team to have at least one representative on the squad. His season totals of .253, 10 home runs, and 53 RBIs would not get him on any postseason all-star teams— but it must be remembered he was only 20 years old.

In 1966 he led the Mets in home runs with 16. Again, given the Mets roster in those days, that was not saying much. But for a 21-year-old, he was doing just fine. And when the Miracle Mets astounded the baseball world in 1969, he was only 24. Aside from a 1970 demotion to Triple-A Tidewater (now Norfolk) after a rough start to the season, he was with the Mets to stay.

In 1971 he hit .280 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs, while fielding a league-leading .998 at first base. The next two seasons were a bit less impressive but still respectable.

By the time the 1974 season rolled around, Kranepool was a seasoned—one might even say grizzled—veteran. Yet after 12 seasons with the Mets, he was still on the young side of 30.

Curiously, while his place with the Mets appeared to be secure, for the most part he was not an everyday player. Only from 1965-1967 did he get enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. As a left-hander, he could play only first base and the outfield. But when he wasn’t playing the field, he was a useful fellow to have on the bench when a left-handed pinch-hitter was needed.

Even so, a record-setting performance in 1974 was probably the last thing on Kranepool’s mind, especially since his results were modest for the first two months of the season. As the record shows, Kranepool was at his best during the summer, from Memorial Day till just after Labor Day.

DATE             LOCATION       HITTING  FOR     RESULT    SCORE

4/11            New York         Tom Seaver       Single    Cards 8, Mets 7

4/17            Montreal         Ted Martinez     Out       Expos 7, Mets 4

4/27            San Francisco    Ray Sadecki      Out       Giants 11, Mets 3

4/29            Los Angeles       Tug McGraw      Out       Dodgers 8, Mets 7
_________________________________________________________________

APRIL: 1 for 4 (.250)
__________________________________________________________________





5/5             New York         Jerry Grote        Out	          Padres 5, Mets 4 (DH/1)

5/7             New York         Tom Seaver         Out	          Giants 4, Mets 3 (DH/1)

5/15            St. Louis        Ray Sadecki        Out	          Cards 10, Mets 1

5/22            New York         Ray Sadecki        Announced	  Cubs 9, Mets 6

5/28            Cincinnati       Bob Miller         Single	  Reds 7, Mets 2

May 31          New York         Jerry Koosman      Walk	  Astros 7, Mets 1
__________________________________________________________________

MAY: 1 for 4 (.250)	TOTAL: 2 for 8 (.250)
__________________________________________________________________

6/3             New York          Bob Miller         Walk	 Reds 5, Mets 2

6/6             New York          Tom Seaver         Single	 Mets 4, Reds 3

6/8             Houston            Bob Apodaca       Out 	 Mets 6, Astros 5

6/9             Houston            Bob Miller        Double	 Astros 11, Mets 1

6/16            New York           Bob Miller         Single	 Dodgers 7, Mets 1

6/18            New York           George Stone       Out	 Braves 6, Mets 1

6/19            New York           Jon Matlack        Announced  Braves 5, Mets 0

6/22            Philadelphia       Ray Sadecki        Out	 Phils 5, Mets 2 (DH/1)

6/30            New York           Jerry Koosman      Out	 Cards 5, Mets 2(DH/1)

6/30            New York           George Stone       Single	 Cards 5, Mets 3 (DH/2)
__________________________________________________________________

JUNE: 4 for 8 (.500)	TOTAL: 6 for 16 (.375)
__________________________________________________________________

7/4             New York            Tug McGraw         Out	 Phils 6, Mets 2 (DH/2)

7/6             New York            Tug McGraw         Single	 Giants 5, Mets 2

7/9             New York            Jon Matlack        Single	 Padres 5, Mets 4

7/10            New York            Ray Sadecki        Single	 Padres 10, Mets 1

7/12            Los Angeles         Bob Apodaca         Walk	 Mets 5, Dodgers 2

7/13            Los Angeles         Harry Parker       Single	 Dodgers 2, Mets 1

7/16            San Francisco       Bob Miller         Double	 Giants 9, Mets 4

7/17            San Francisco       Bob Miller         Out	 Giants 6, Mets 2

7/25            St. Louis           Jon Matlack        Home Run	 Cards 4, Mets 1
__________________________________________________________________

JULY: 6 for 8 (.750)	TOTAL: 12 for 24 (.500)
__________________________________________________________________

8/1             New York            George Theodore     Out	 Cubs 3, Mets 1 (DH/2)

8/7             Pittsburgh          Bob Miller          Triple	 Bucs 10, Mets 1

8/10            New York            Bud Harrelson       Single	 Reds 5, Mets 3

8/14            New York            Tom Seaver          Out	 Mets 3, Dodgers 2

8/18            Cincinnati          Jon Matlack         Announced   Reds 6, Mets 5

8/29            New York            George Theodore     Single	 Mets 7, Astros 0
__________________________________________________________________

AUGUST: 3 for 5 (.600)	TOTAL: 15 for 29 (.517)
__________________________________________________________________



9/6              St. Louis          Jerry Koosman        Double	 Cards 3, Mets 0

9/10             New York           Tug McGraw           Single	 Expos 6, Mets 4

9/11             New York           Harry Parker         Out	 Cards 4, Mets 3

9/14             New York           Jerry Cram           Out	 Cubs 12, Mets 0

9/24             Philadelphia       Benny Ayala          Out	 Phils 6, Mets 3

10/2             New York           George Theodore      Out	 Phils 3, Mets 2 

__________________________________________________________________

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER:2 for 6 (.333) TOTAL: 17 for 35 (.486)
__________________________________________________________________

Perhaps the most striking feature of Kranepool’s pinch hits was how little effect they had on the bottom line. As mentioned earlier, the Mets had a 71-91 (.438) record in 1974. That’s nothing to cheer about, but during games in which Kranepool made a pinch-hitting appearance, the Mets’ record is a mere 4-37—a winning percentage of just .096. Even if you subtract the three games where he was announced as a pinch-hitter but never made it to the plate, that brings the winning percentage up to only .118. By 1974, the Mets were no longer lovable losers, but in some respects they were still amazing.

The Mets were barely above .500 (82-80) in 1975 and had their best season of the decade in 1976 with a record of 86-76, good for third place in the NL East. The remaining years of the decade, however, they could not crack the 70-victory mark.

Curiously, as nondescript as the mid-to-late 1970s were for the Mets, Kranepool’s pinch-hitting exploits were anything but. His record year of 1974 set the stage for a remarkable run. The next two years he hit .400 (8 for 20 in 1975, 4 for 10 in 1976). In 1977, he hit .448 (13 for 29). Over that four-year span, his 42 pinch-hits in 94 at bats gave him a batting average of .447. Overall, he had hit .299 over that same four-year span, so he was also effective as a starter.

Kranepool remained with the Mets through 1979. He had spent 18 seasons with the franchise. At that point in baseball history, there was no such thing as a Mets season without Ed Kranepool. So when he retired, it was truly the end of an era.

Kranepool’s career totals (.261, 118 homers, 614 RBIs) are unremarkable, yet his career was a memorable one. He had been there for the first season at the Polo Grounds, the opening of Shea Stadium, the 1969 miracle year, the 1973 pennant, and the lackluster years of the late 1970s. When he retired, he was only 34.

Surprisingly, Kranepool’ss career total of 1,418 hits had real staying power. He remained the franchise leader until David Wright, who has been re-writing the Mets record book in recent years, passed him in late 2012. For now, Kranepool still leads in games (1,853), at bats (5,436), singles (1,050), and sacrifice flies (58). On the other hand, his longevity also resulted in franchise leadership in outs (4,287) and GIDP (138).

Kranepool, however, does not have a monopoly on all the pinch-hitting records in Mets history. Rusty Staub leads in total pinch-hits in a season with 24 in 1983. That same season, he also tied the major league record for consecutive pinch-hits with eight from June 11-26. Staub’s feat was of no more help to the team than Kranepool’s, as the Mets finished last that season.

Also worth noting is the 2001 season of Lenny Harris, who holds the Mets’ season record for pinch-hit at bats with 83 (and plate appearances with 95) in 2001. The Mets went to the World Series (the last Subway Series) that year, so obviously Harris’s efforts were more fruitful.

Remember, however, that Kranepool’s 1974 record is not just a team record but a major league record. Also, his pinch-hitting heroics covered more than just his record year of 1974. In 1978 when his pinch-hitting average was a “mere” .300 (15 for 50), fans must have wondered what was wrong with Kranepool. Well, three of those 15 hits went for home runs, so perhaps he was sacrificing average for power.

The magic was truly lost by 1979 when Kranepool’s pinch-hitting stats fell to 6 for 37 and a .162 average. Between that, his overall stats (.232, two home runs, and 17 RBIs), and the Mets’ dismal showing, he must have figured it was time to bow out.

Hard to believe that the face of the franchise was barely old enough to shave when it made its first appearance in a big league game. Fittingly, toward the end of his career, Kranepool was mature enough to appear in some TV commercials for Gillette, the folks who came up with the “Look sharp! Feel sharp! Be sharp!” slogan.

Not a bad mantra to have running through one’s mind when stepping into the batter’s box to pinch-hit.

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Comments

  1. Carl said...

    Thank you Frank for a great article about a long-time NY ball player. 

    I remember attending games @ Shea in the late 70’s to see the Mets and Ed Kranepool would inevitably get to pinch hit (they had terrible teams, were generally behind and often had to bat in the bottom of the ninth).  I remember the 3,000 – 10,000+ people in the stands chanting “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie” whenever he pinch hit. They would always introduce him as the only remaining “original Met”, which @ 9 years old in 1978 made him seem ancient.

    Great guy who I got to meet several times.  Really broad shoulders and has always been glad to give an autograph.  Still a frequent attendee @ Brooklyn Cyclones games.

    Later in life I found an early 60’s baseball card of Kranepool w Casey Stengel w a caption of something like “Casey teaches the new Mets”. Became one of my favorite cards.  Ahh, the memories.

  2. dennis Bedard said...

    Frank, since you are trying nobly to mix Sunset Boulevard with the Mets, might I offer some creative advice?  They should have done a re make, circa late 60’s, early 70’s.  William Holden could play Ed Kranepool, a down on his luck mediocre baseball player who inadvertently stumbles upon his boss’ mansion.  The boss?  Joan Whitney Payson, heiress and owner of the Mets played by Gloria Swanson.  She takes a liking to Holden and orders the Met manager to play him every game.  Even takes him to a tailor to look sharp for her off the wall New Year’s Eve party.  She becomes obsessed with him to the point where she murders him.  Wait.  I forgot one part.  Her ex husband/butler, Eric Stroheim, would be played by who else?  Don Zimmer!

  3. Menthol said...

    Krane was my favorite player when I was a little kid. He hit 2 HRs in the first game I ever watched (probably one of the very few times he did it in his career) and he was my guy forever after that.

  4. steveknj said...

    Just a correction.  The Mets played in the Subway Series on 2000, not 2001.  Not sure which year was Harris’ accomplishment.

    As a Yankees fan, I always liked Kranepool because he wore #7, same number as Mickey Mantle smile

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