Even numbers are the most heralded: a .300 hitter, 20 victories, 100 runs batted in, 3,000 hits and 300 wins. Home runs are the king of baseball stats, look no further than Babe Ruth to see that. 500 homers, 600 homers, 700 homers, the Bambino reached them all.
For many years 500 home runs was an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame. For decades the 500-homer club was an exclusive group of baseball’s greatest sluggers: the Babe, Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams. Then, in the 1960s the club welcomed Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
As a contemporary of those 1960s sluggers, Al Kaline was a fine home run hitter as well. But when he hung up his spikes after the 1974 season, Kaline was stuck on a very uneven – and unglamorous – number. 399, as in 399 career home runs. But had it not been for some bad luck, “The Line” would have ended his career with 400 homers, making him one of the few to have reached that mark at the time of his retirement.
Kaline wasn’t a pure slugger like Mantle or Mays. He was a great hitter with quick wrists and a fine eye. He was good for 20-25 homers per season and a .300 average was virtually guaranteed. He was more Joe DiMaggio than he was Mantle. A graceful right-handed swinger with no weaknesses on a baseball diamond.
Twice in his career, Kaline lost home runs that would have given him 400. On June 1, 1958, the 23-year old right fielder belted a home run off Ray Moore of the White Sox to lead off the second inning. The Tigers were leading the game two innings later when rain started to fall. After a 45-minute delay, the game was called. Kaline’s home run, as well as every other event of the contest, was erased. As far as Major League Baseball was concerned, it never happened.
Five years later the Tigers were playing the Senators in a doubleheader when Kaline smacked a homer off Bennie Daniels in the second inning of the first game, sending the ball into the bullpen at D.C. Stadium. In the bottom of the inning, after a rain delay of one hour and 12 minutes, umpires called the game and cancelled the second as well. Kaline again had a home run washed out.
Of course many players have lost home runs to rained out games, but in Kaline’s case it was a particular shame because the legend finished his career on 399. It just doesn’t seem to look right on his stat sheet. One more would have given him a nice round number. Which is exactly what baseball likes.