Kranepool in a pinchby Frank Jackson
August 28, 2013
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.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.