The Glory Days: Kaline the Selfless Star
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 His white and navy uniform hid the fact that his right arm had been replaced by a Winchester rifle, which is what he used to gun down 170 base runners.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.