I made some references here recently to Gordie Howe — who certainly qualifies as a special man and player — and the remarkable “war stories” that people like to tell about him. How fortunate the baby boomer generation in Detroit was to grow up witnessing the amazing careers of Howe of the Red Wings, the Lions’ Bobby Layne, and the incomparable Al Kaline of the Tigers. (And a quick definition here of “incomparable”: Have you ever seen a player even close to the style and accomplishments of any of those three guys?)
Like Howe, Kaline has been a hero for everyone; a star with grace and class who has touched people far beyond his career stats and Hall of Fame stature. As with Gordie, almost every Detroiter has his favorite Kaline stories — memories from youth, stories passed from one generation to the next.
One of my favorite Kaline “war stories” came from a televised Tigers game I watched with my father around 1957, I’d guess. The Tigers were playing the always-lousy Washington Senators one evening. Camilio Pascual, a really strong pitcher for years, was on the mound for the at-home Senators, and he had just issued a three-run homer to a Tigers slugger; probably Ray Boone. Next up was Kaline, and as was often customary in those days, he paid a price for that home run. Bang — up came a blazing fastball under his chin, and down went Kaline.
As a kid, you hang on your Dad’s words, and my father immediately remarked on Kaline’s anger at having been almost beaned by Pascual. The pitcher’s Latin temper must have overtaken him, because he didn’t just brush Al back, but came very close to his head. And #6 was burning. He stormed around the batter’s box, stopping a few times to send glaring looks out at the mound. “I’ve never seen him that mad,” said my Dad, and that got my attention. “If he’d hit him, he could’ve killed him,” he added, and that really got my attention, because Kaline WAS the Tigers back in those days. So tension was rising, in our front room and in Washington, as Kaline dug in aggressively at the plate, awaiting the next pitch.
Still … what’s a batter to do when a pitcher aims at his head on purpose? Push a bunt to the first base side, and run the pitcher over at first? Nope, Al was cooler than that As we were all soon to find out. On Pascual’s next pitch, a screaming fastball down the middle — Kaline swung and sent a liner, a rope … right back at the pitcher’s head. Zing! Pascual flipped up and over as the ball sailed practically under his nose, continuing on a line into dead centerfield. Now it was the pitcher who was sprawled in the dirt, and clearly shaken by his close brush with mortality. Kaline had — I swear to God ’cause we saw it — turned that pitch around and sent it right at Pascual’s head. If it had hit him, as my Dad pointed out, it’d have killed him. How’s that for a turnabout?
And Al? There was Six, as the camera showed him … standing on first, his arms on his hips, still staring at Pascual. But this time with a different look on his face. Not anger now … but a look of grim satisfaction; a look that seemed to say “Hey pal … how’d ya like that?”
“I’ve never seen a hitter do that,” said my amazed Dad, awe evident in his tone. Neither had I, and I’ve never seen it repeated … not to this day.