“I almost forgot to run.”
That was a strange admission from a player who always seemed to do the right thing on a baseball field. But that’s what Al Kaline said about the biggest milestone of his career — his 3,000th hit. It happened 40 years ago in 1974, when Kaline was putting the finishing touches on his stellar career with the Detroit Tigers.
It was a sharp-cutting liner down the right field line that started well in fair territory but quickly started to slice toward foul. As a result, Kaline found himself watching the ball, not really sure it would land in fair territory at all.
“The ball really was curving foul,” Kaline said. “It was plenty fair when I hit it, but I didn’t think it was going to make it.”
The ball dropped fair by about two feet and Kaline glided into second base with a stand-up double. “When I got to second base, I said a little prayer of thanks for letting me play all these years and get all these hits,” Al said. “I was just happy that it was finally over. I felt like a big, dark cloud had been lifted off of me.”
The hit came on the first pitch in the top of the fourth inning in Baltimore on September 24, 1974. He got it so quickly in the at-bat that some fans were taken by surprise. But two special fans saw the whole thing clearly from a close perch. Al’s mother and father, Naomi and Nicholas Kaline, were in the front row at Memorial Stadium to see their 39-year old son reach the magical mark that only nine other batters had ever reached. In a great sign of serendipity, Kaline got the hit in his hometown, not far from the sandlots where — as a a teenager — he became a legend in Baltimore baseball. It was Kaline’s parents who insisted that Al play as much as he could.
“They wanted me to enjoy being a kid as long as I could, ” Al told me in an interview in Cooperstown in 2005. “I never had to have a job or work at anything when I was coming up, and [my parents] drove me all over the place so I could play ball.”
That freedom to be a ballplayer at such a young age paid off: when he was just 20 years old, Al won the 1955 batting title, when he was one day younger than Ty Cobb, who also won it at the age of 20. Kaline’s parents beamed with pride at the sight of their son reaching such an historic milestone, and even the partisan Orioles’ crowd was impressed. The game was halted moments after Kaline’s hit, as American League president Lee MacPhail and Detroit general manager Jim Campbell were on hand to pose for a photo with all three of the Kaline’s. MacPhail secured Al’s bat as well as the ball for shipment to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A place in Cooperstown had long been reserved for Kaline, but 3,000 hits were not. The 1973 season had been one of the toughest of his career. He injured his right knee, he tweaked his left foot, which had a degenerative bone condition that he’d been born with and given him problems for years. He also struggled at the plate for the first time in his big league career, hitting just .255 with little power in 91 games. In the off-season he had some more bad luck: he injured his left knee in a pickup basketball game. As he entered spring training in Lakeland in February of 1974, there were concerns that Kaline might not be able to get the 139 hits he needed to reach 3,000.
But new Tigers’ manager Ralph Houk quickly huddled with his star player and told him of his plans. Houk wanted Kaline to be his full-time designated hitter, taking advantage of the new rule unveiled the year before. Kaline agreed immediately, and he welcomed the chance to give his aging and often injured legs and other limbs a needed rest. As a result, Kaline had a resurgent season, showing that his bat was still All-Star caliber. He led the Tigers with 28 doubles and 64 RBIs, while also pacing the team with 65 walks and finished second in hits. For some it was unfortunate that Kaline’s 1974 final season .262 batting average dipped his career mark below .300 (it ultimately rested at .297), but Al could have cared less. It was his final act as a player, and it was just as classy as the rest of his career had been.
Winning the World Series in 1968 will always be the greatest thrill of Kaline’s career, but the 3,000th hit ranked second for Al.
“This definitely ranks above the batting championship. Any time you win a batting championship, there’s a lot of luck that goes with it. But when you get 3,000 hits, I don’t think anyone can say you were lucky.”
No one ever thought Al Kaline got where he did through luck. Hard work and talent, yes. Luck, not a chance.