September 30, 2014

The Glory Days: Kaline the Selfless Star

May 6, 2012 by · 2 Comments 

Al Kaline never sought the spotlight.

It found him at Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, the All-Star Game and the World Series, places the light shines brightest.

Otherwise, he was Everyday Al. He could have been carrying a black lunch pail, the way he went about his job. So workmanlike, so steady.

Kaline was a steady standout for 22 summers. His job was playing right field for the Detroit Tigers, and he did it with such grace and ease that sometimes it seemed nobody noticed.

Of course, we know that isn’t true. We know because he has a plaque in Cooperstown, the hallowed place where baseball’s finest are sainted.

Mr. Tiger. Mr. Right Fielder. Mr. Consistency.

They all fit, but if you asked the man, he would say he is just Al.

The truth is, Kaline liked the fact that he was not noticed much, that not a lot was made over him. He just enjoyed going out and doing his job every day.

He excelled at one of the most difficult jobs there is, hitting that round ball with a round stick of wood. He rapped out 3,007 base hits, slugged 399 home runs, drove in 1,583 runs and compiled a lifetime batting average of .297.

As for the right field part, well, no one did it better. Getting a great jump, he turned hundreds of potentially tough catches into easy outs. His white and navy uniform hid the fact that his right arm had been replaced by a Winchester rifle, which is what he used to gun down 170 base runners.

The heart of Kaline’s career was in the 1950s and ’60s, what I consider to be the Golden Years of baseball. It was the perfect time for him. He obviously would have made millions of dollars playing today, but he would not have fit in with the modern major league landscape.

His game, of course, would have stood up to anybody’s at any time. His consistent production would have lifted him into the elite few in any era.

But he would never have gone for the Me Mentality. Can you imagine Al Kaline beating his chest or pointing to himself or standing at home plate and admiring a home run he hit?

He never received a lot of fanfare, not like he would have in New York or L.A. Fans knew he was good, just not how good. The players knew, though. Mickey Mantle, for example, called Kaline the best all-around player he had ever seen.

It didn’t take long for him to show his stuff. He never played a day in the minors, going straight from high school to the Tigers. He won the American League batting title at the age of 20, hitting .340 in 1955.

His career ended after the 1974 season, when he hit 13 home runs, giving him at least 10 in each of his last 20 years in the majors.

In between, he helped Detroit win a World Series. He had 11 hits, including two homers, and eight RBI, batting .379 as the Tigers defeated St. Louis in seven games in the 1968 Fall Classic.

Kaline came through with perhaps the key hit of that Series. It came in Game Five, with the Cardinals up three games to one. St. Louis led, 3-2, in the seventh inning before Kaline rapped a two-run single that put the Tigers in front for good.

A 15-time All-Star selection, he batted .324 with two home runs in the 13 All-Star games in which he played. He finished second in the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award balloting twice, behind Yogi Berra in 1955 and Elston Howard in 1963.

He won 10 Gold Gloves and led the league in assists two times, getting 23 in 1958. He once went 242 consecutive games without committing an error.

This story says a lot about him and his sense of fairness:

In 1971, the Tigers offered to raise Kaline’s salary to $100,000, which was a monumental figure in those days. This, after he had batted a disappointing .278 the previous season. He refused to sign, saying he did not deserve that much. He signed for $90,000.

Everyone in baseball has always respected the man known as 6, the number the Tigers retired in his honor. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Kaline has personified the word gentleman, and his shy, selfless nature has made him as much a popular figure in Detroit since his playing days as during them.

He remains the selfless star, now just as when he excelled as one of baseball’s greatest players.

Comments

2 Responses to “The Glory Days: Kaline the Selfless Star”
  1. KalineCountry says:

    Hi Thad, Thankyou for a wonderful piece and read about a Tigers and mlb legend to generations of fans.

    I have watched Al Kaline’s greatness since as a nearly 7 year old little boy at Briggs Stadium in late July 1954 with dad at a game with his redsox and his hero Ted Williams in town. Little did I know that after the 1957 season, my life would forever change as we moved back to where my family came from originaly, boston.
    Took awhile to adjust to new friends, school, city, but my one constant was my love of the Tigers, especially Kaline. Back in those days we could get a morning and also a late afternoon early evening edition of the Boston Globe, or the Record American aka Boston Herald. I would look for the Tigers boxscores and back in the day the original 8 played each other 22 times a season. I would go to fenway with Dad, or mom, or with friends and their parent(s). Kaline never let me down with a great catch, throw to get a runner, or what seemed like his getting a hit or two every game I went to, iirc Kaline was a lifetime .324 hitter at fenway.

    I think what cost Kaline in the eye’s of other teams fans and the national media was his never having 30 plus homer seasons or more 100 runs/rbi season. Seems like Kaline was getting banged up almost every year and missing 20 to 60 games a season. Starting in 1957 with a chest cold and banging his knee in the narrow foul line and field in right, the Tigers took out several rows of seats to give Al more room to make catches, from there the injuries seemed to be almost yearly; 1959 a grounder to billy gardner and a wild throw hits Al in the face fracturing his cheekbone, May 26 1962 the game saving catch to beat the Yankees, Kaline landed on and broke his collarbone. That season might have been the one that he would hit 40 homers, as he was leading the league in the triple crown, still played exactly 100 games with 29 homeruns and 94 rbi. ’63 had to end the campaign early with knee and hip problems.
    All these years, unbeknownst to most fans was that Kaline had the same bone disease that the great Mantle had, osteomyletis. Kaline ran on the edge of his foot, until he finally had an operation to correct it in 1965. But, in 1967 after a strikeout iirc sam McDowell, Al slammed that bat in the rack had it bounce out and broke a finger. I can’t help but think a healthy Kaline would make up more than the game the Tigers finished out of first place. Even in 1968, lew krausse drilled Al and broke his arm. Kaline comes back and tells Mayo Smith to stick with the players that got them there. Thankfully old Mayo made that move to play Mickey Stanley at short to get Kaline in right. So in essence, Kaline probably missed 4 maybe 5 seasons of 30 plus homeruns and the same number of 100 rbi/runs seasons. Even though it was during a pitchers era, Kaline always said he wasn’t a Mantle, Aaron, or Mays, but he was right there in the next group of superstars.
    Kaline was brought up with those old family values, his dad and uncles played semi-pro as catchers. Kaline was a sandlot and high school star at Baltimore Southern.
    Kaline’s unquestionable integrity, perserverance, and lifetime dedication to baseball and the Detroit Tigers is what kept him going to get the 3000 hits, even with missing about 450 games with the injuries.

    This quiet unpretentious great player, finally let a long time old Tigers beat writer Jim Hawkins do a biography on him; Kaline The story of a Detroit Icon in 2010, and the Tigers also put out a pictorial book on Kaline called Six, A salute to Al Kaline also in 2010.

    All these years since his playing career ended, he has stayed with the Tigers organization as a Spring Training Coach, a radio and television announcers, and as a front office executive to Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and President and GM Dave Dombrowski. This 2012 season is the 60th season Al has spent with the Detroit Tigers team in these capacities.

    I think that Bud Selig and major league baseball should honor this great player and greater person of character, humility, and integrity by beginning a new award…The Al Kaline Gold Glove Award to be given to the best defensive outfielder in the American League. Kaline was one of the original three in 1957 to win the first Gold Glove with Minnie Minoso and Willie Mays.
    Thanks for letting me share my feelings for the hero of my youth,
    Ron.

  2. Austin says:

    Nice piece on a nice guy and a great player.

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