Monday, February 6, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Ed Kranepool

In the film "Forrest Gump", the titular character ran across the country from one ocean to the other just because he "felt like runnin' ".  His travels took him across flat land, up the highest mountain, back down again, and even through a pile of dog ... ahem ... poo.  After spending three years, two months, 14 days and 16 hours on the roads of America, Gump decided to stop running because he was tired.  There was no fanfare as his run came to an end.  He just quit and went home.

Gump's spirited jog commenced around October 1, 1979, as a news broadcast that was airing at the beginning of his cross-country trek was reporting that President Jimmy Carter had collapsed that day while attempting to complete a six-mile race.  Just one day before Gump began his long run in the fictional town of Greenbow, AL, another long run was coming to an end in the very real city of St. Louis, MO.  And when this run of 18 seasons with a single major league franchise came to an end, it also had no fanfare.  It just marked the quiet close to the career of the last man who played for the original Mets.

He was steady.  He was Eddie.  But as a teenager, was he ready?  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Edward Emil Kranepool was barely out of his James Monroe High School cap and gown when the Mets signed the amateur free agent to an $85,000 contract in June 1962.  The new expansion team was enamored with the young man who broke Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg's home run records at Monroe, promoting him to the big club before its inaugural season was over.  At age 17 and just three months out of high school, the Bronx-bred Kranepool collected his first major league hit at Manhattan's Polo Grounds - an opposite field double off Cubs reliever Don Elston.

In 1963, Kranepool split his time between AAA-Buffalo and the Mets, producing an impressive .310 batting average and .507 slugging percentage in 53 minor league games, while being overmatched at the major league level, batting .209 and slugging .289 in 86 games.  The following year, his last as a teenager and his first at the newly opened Shea Stadium, Kranepool became just the 13th player to appear in 100 or more games in a single season prior to blowing out 20 candles on his birthday cake.  The first baseman improved greatly during that 1964 campaign, batting .257 and finishing among the team leaders in hits (108), doubles (19) and home runs (10).

Although Kranepool was blossoming into an offensive talent, the Mets continued to bring up the rear in the National League standings.   After losing 111 and 109 games in 1963 and 1964, respectively, the Mets found a way to regress in 1965, finishing the year with a 50-112 record.  The team could actually have been a lot worse had it not been for Kranepool's performance in the first half of the season.

Through games of June 3, Kranepool batted a hefty .344 and produced a .922 OPS, while racking up 21 extra-base hits and 29 RBI.  As a result, Kranepool was chosen to be the Mets' sole representative in the All-Star Game, his first and only selection for the Midsummer Classic.  Kranepool didn't get to play in the game, as N.L. manager Gene Mauch chose to play Ernie Banks at first base during the entire contest, but the Mets' first baseman did become the youngest player at that position to become an All-Star - a distinction Kranepool still holds to this day.

Kranepool ran out of gas in the second half of the 1965 campaign, as evidenced by his .216/.268/.292 post-All-Star Game slash line.  He also had to deal with the unexpected retirement of the only manager he had ever played for in the big leagues, Casey Stengel, who broke his hip in a fall in late July and called it a career a month later.

When the Mets signed Kranepool in 1962, they were hoping to get the player who broke all of Hank Greenberg's high school records.  Instead, they got a mediocre player who seemed to be living out a real life "Groundhog Day" situation, doomed to repeat the same campaign year after year.  From 1964 to 1967, an average season for Steady Eddie saw him put up a .258/.312/.383 slash line with 19 doubles, 12 homers and 52 RBI.  Kranepool never hit below .253 or above .269 in any of those four seasons.  He also hit exactly ten home runs in three of the four years (he flexed his muscles in 1966 when he bashed a career-high 16 homers) and produced between 45 and 57 RBI during the quadrennium.  Kranepool was also playing almost every day, averaging over 500 plate appearances per season.  That all changed in 1968, when a new manager came aboard and ended up extending Kranepool's career by playing him less.

Prior to 1968, the Mets had lost 100 or more games in five of their first six seasons.  They had also established a permanent residency in the National League cellar, coming out for a sniff of ninth place just once in 1966.  But after six seasons of playing like a first-year expansion team, the arrival of skipper Gil Hodges shifted the mindset of the team.

"Spring Training, Gil Hodges wanted you to lead by example," Kranepool said about his former teammate and current manager.  "He built the ballclub around leadership."

Kranepool made his debut as a defensive replacement for Hodges, then played under him.  (Herb Scharfman/Getty Images)

The Mets won 73 games in '68, fueled by the pitching of rookie Jerry Koosman and sophomore starter Tom Seaver.  Unfortunately, Kranepool had his worst season since 1963, batting .231 with only three homers and 20 RBI despite getting the majority of the starts at first base.  Kranepool continued to get the bulk of the playing time at first base during the early part of the 1969 season as the team got off to an 18-23 start.  But after a club-record 11-game winning streak in late May and early June suddenly thrust the Mets into second place, the team felt the need to upgrade its offense, especially after being held to three runs or fewer in 34 of their first 56 games.  The team addressed the problem by trading for veteran slugger Donn Clendenon.

At the time of the trade, Kranepool was back to his typical pre-1968 self, which meant he was batting .256 with six homers and 26 RBI while getting most of the starts at his customary position. The lefty-swinging Kranepool and the right-handed batting Clendenon were then platooned at first base by Hodges, which maximized power production at the corner infield spot.

From June 15 until season's end, Kranepool and Clendenon combined to produce 17 homers and 60 RBI in 441 plate appearances.  Kranepool also produced some huge hits along the way.  His walk-off RBI single off future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins on July 8 capped a three-run, ninth-inning rally and gave the Mets a thrilling victory over the rival Cubs, just one day before Seaver shut down Chicago with his Imperfect Game.  Five days after his hit against Jenkins, Kranepool delivered another game-winner, this time a tie-breaking RBI double in the eighth inning against Montreal that gave New York a 4-3 victory.  The Expos were once again victimized by Kranepool on September 18, when the veteran homered and drove in both runs in the Mets' 2-0 victory.  Six days later, the Mets wrapped up their first N.L. East division title.

"We kept applying the pressure, and the Cubs knew they were in a pennant race," Kranepool said.  "Every time we played a big series, we won it.  We beat the Cubs head to head in every series after that.  We got some breaks - but look, a winning team makes its breaks."

Buoyed by their late-season push for the playoffs, the Mets miraculously won it all in 1969, sweeping the Atlanta Braves in the inaugural National League Championship Series and needing just five games to upset the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.  Kranepool started four of the Mets' eight postseason games, collecting a hit in each contest.  In the Mets' first-ever playoff game, Kranepool scored two runs and delivered the fielder's choice that plated the go-ahead run in the eighth inning.  The following day, Kranepool got the Mets on the board first with an RBI single in the first inning.  Kranepool played in just one World Series game because the Orioles started left-handed pitchers in four of the five games, but he made the most out of his sole appearance, clubbing a home run in the Mets' Game Three victory - the first Fall Classic game ever played in Flushing.

The look of a champion.  (Focus On Sport)
Although he was only 24 at the time, Kranepool had become the longest tenured Met.  He was also a world champion and one of the leaders in the tight-knit clubhouse.  Third baseman Ed Charles, the poet laureate of the Mets, said it best when he discussed the team's camaraderie during their championship season.

"We felt like a family," Charles said.  "It started with Mrs. Joan Payson, the owner, who had a habit of making people feel at home.  It included the leadership of Gil Hodges.  And there was the chemistry of the team.  We were all close.  I went to barbecues at the home of Kranepool, (Art) Shamsky, (Ron) Swoboda.  We went out together on the road.  I never saw a team with so much closeness."

As close as Kranepool was to his teammates in 1969, he ended up playing far away from them for most of the 1970 campaign.  Kranepool batted just .222 in April, then went 0-for-May, failing to collect a hit in the 12 games he appeared in during the month.  After not collecting a hit in five June games, which dropped his batting average to a pitcher-like .118, Kranepool was unceremoniously demoted to AAA-Tidewater, spending the next two months there trying to regain his hitting stroke.  Kranepool batted .310 in 47 games with the Tides and was called back up to the Mets in mid-August, where he was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter.  His final major league stats for the year: .170 batting average, eight hits, no homers and three RBI in 43 games.

While Kranepool was in the minors in 1970, his bat wasn't missed in the starting lineup, as Clendenon batted .288 with 22 homers and a then-franchise record 97 RBI.  But Clendenon saw a significant drop-off across the board in 1971 (.247, 11 HR, 37 RBI in 88 games), which allowed Kranepool to re-establish himself in the big leagues.  Kranepool's renaissance season ended with a .280 batting average, 14 homers and a career-high 58 RBI.

At the conclusion of the 1971 campaign, Clendenon was released by the Mets, allowing Kranepool to take over first base on a full-time basis for the first time since before Clendenon's arrival.  But the sudden death of Gil Hodges prior to the start of the 1972 season changed the direction of the club, with Yogi Berra tabbed to replace the beloved Hodges.  The passing of his manager and mentor also affected the play of Kranepool, who batted just .204 with four homers and 14 RBI through the team's first 87 games.  Kranepool eventually recovered after a three-month mourning period, batting .326 with 15 extra-base hits and 20 RBI over his final 195 plate appearances.

As good as Kranepool was during the second half of the 1972 season, he was surely going to lose playing time the following season to John Milner, who finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote in '72.  Milner played mostly in left field during his stellar rookie season, but was more suited to play first base.  In 1973, Milner and Kranepool switched positions, with Milner getting most of his starts at first base and Kranepool splitting time between first and left.  Kranepool did not respond well to the switch, batting .239 in 1973 with just one homer and 35 RBI.  He was also mostly a spectator during the Mets' run to their second division title in five seasons, appearing solely as a pinch-hitter during the last two weeks of the regular season.  But even in limited action, Kranepool was instrumental in getting the Mets back to the World Series.

The Mets played a dozen games during the 1973 postseason; Kranepool started one of them.  That lone start occurred in the first do-or-die playoff game in franchise history and only happened because right fielder Rusty Staub injured his shoulder in Game Four of the NLCS while making a spectacular catch against the outfield wall.  With the Mets and Cincinnati Reds having split the first four games of the best-of-five series, Kranepool got the nod from Berra to start Game Five in left field, with Cleon Jones moving to right in lieu of the injured Staub.  Kranepool rewarded his manager immediately, driving in the first two runs of the game with a bases-loaded single.  The Mets never trailed in the game and advanced to their second World Series, which they lost in seven games to the Oakland A's with the underhand-throwing Staub returning to right field and the healthy Kranepool returning to the bench.

The bench became a familiar place for Kranepool for the rest of his career.  From 1974 to 1978, Kranepool started just 317 games over the five-year period, making more than 82 starts in just one of the five seasons (1976).  Although he performed well as a part-time starter, batting .286 with a .399 slugging percentage, Kranepool was lethal as a pinch-hitter.  When he came off the bench from 1974 to 1978, Kranepool batted an eye-popping .396 (57-for-144) and slugged .590.  Included in the torrid stretch was a .486 batting average as a pinch-hitter in 1974 - the first of four consecutive seasons in which Kranepool batted .400 or higher as a sub - and a .300 pinch-hitting average in 1978, which doesn't seem as impressive until you consider that he hit .065 (2-for-31) during the season when he batted in other roles.

In the mid-to-late '70s, Kranepool was the team's top pinch-hitter and top mustache-grower.  (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

By the time 1979 rolled around, the team was in shambles.  Gone were Seaver and Koosman, with The Franchise being traded to Cincinnati as part of the Midnight Massacre in 1977 and Kooz being dealt to the Minnesota Twins following the 1978 campaign.  Not a single player from the '73 pennant-winning team remained at the start of the 1979 season.  Except for Kranepool.  And his days as a Met were also about to come to an end.

Following the death of team owner Joan Payson in 1975, control of the club went to her husband, Charles, and daughter, Lorinda de Roulet, neither of whom shared the same passion for the game that Mrs. Payson had.  Baseball operations fell into the hands of team chairman M. Donald Grant, who had no intention of spending much money to better the team.  Instead, he pared the roster of veteran players who were asking to be paid like their counterparts in other cities.  The camaraderie that existed between the players when the Mets won the World Series in 1969 was completely gone a decade later, and so was Grant, who was removed as the team's chairman by the club's board of directors prior to the 1979 season.

Kranepool, who was never one to mince his words, had some harsh feelings about the questionable transactions made by the team during the ill-fated M. Donald Grant era.

"Look at some of the deals they made," Kranepool said.  "They were horrendous.  They unloaded everybody and didn't make a good deal."

And although most of the negativity surrounding the team following the death of Payson fell on Grant, Kranepool always dished out more vitriol towards general manager Joe McDonald.

"I didn't have a good relationship with Joe McDonald," Kranepool said matter-of-factly.  "I didn't respect him.  I didn't like him; he didn't know anything about baseball.  There were termites who ate away at the organization, and he was part of the termites.  Donald Grant got blamed for it, but Joe McDonald was the one who made the trades."

Because of his testy relationship with McDonald, Kranepool knew that when his contract expired at the end of the 1979 season, he would no longer be a Met, regardless of how he performed.  In what would be the final year of his long career, Kranepool batted .232 and managed just two homers and 17 RBI in 174 plate appearances.  To add insult to injury, the Mets closed out their season at Shea Stadium on September 23 by honoring Lou Brock of the Cardinals, who set a major league record when he stole the 938th base of his career in his final appearance at Shea.  Kranepool, the only man to play for the Mets in each of the franchise's first 18 seasons, didn't even get to play in the game and received no ovation from the home crowd.

Following the season, Kranepool was not tendered a contract and became a free agent.  Although he was only 34 at the conclusion of the 1979 campaign, Kranepool never played another game in the majors.  He finished his career as the Mets' all-time leader in nearly offensive category, even though a good chunk of his career was spent riding the pine.

Ed Kranepool wasn't just a hometown kid living out his dream on the baseball diamond.  He was also a stockbroker and a restaurateur.   He appeared in commercials, movies and TV shows, doing everything from plugging shaving cream to being accused of stealing Chico Escuela's soap in a classic Saturday Night Live sketch.  And on multiple occasions, he used his business savvy to try to purchase the team he once played for.

Krane.  (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)
Following the 1979 campaign, the newly-retired Kranepool joined forces with a small group of investors in a failed attempt to buy the Mets from the Payson/de Roulet family.  The Mets were eventually sold to the team of publisher Nelson Doubleday and real estate investor Fred Wilpon.  Three decades later, when Wilpon encountered financial difficulties due to his connections with Ponzi scheme swindler Bernard Madoff, he attempted to sell a small percentage of the team to increase his cash flow.  Once again, Kranepool stepped up to the plate, this time with a group of investors that included Martin Luther King III, but no purchase was ever made.

When Doubleday and Wilpon bought the Mets in 1980, Kranepool officially ended his career in baseball.  His retirement as a player ensured that he couldn't affect the Mets on the field, and his inability to purchase a part of the team meant that he couldn't have a say off it.  But despite his numerous failures - not being able to buy a part of the team, not developing into a perennial All-Star and not even being an everyday player for the majority of his career - Kranepool remains beloved by Mets fans to this day.

His career began as a 17-year-old when the expansion Mets called the Polo Grounds home.  He developed into a serviceable player as the team moved into their new home in Queens.  He owned a World Series ring before he turned 25.  He thrived as a pinch-hitter during the latter part of his career.  And he was inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame after his playing days were over.

Forrest Gump got to experience and influence many key moments in American history just by being there.  Ed Kranepool's longevity did the same for him, as he witnessed and participated in many of the Mets' seminal moments.  Kranepool was there for the highs of two pennants and one World Series championship.  He was also present for the decline and dismantling of a once-proud team.  And when his run as the longest tenured Met was done, the native New Yorker just went home.

Kranepool will always have a home when it comes to the Mets.

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen

1 comment:

Warren Zvon said...

This is the best piece I've ever read about "Steady" Eddie. It has everything. Fk'n EVERYTHING!