For baby boomers like me who grew up idolizing Tiger Hall of Famer Al Kaline, I must say I feel a lot older knowing that Number Six turns 75-years old today. It is hard to believe.
For 57 years Kaline has been “Mr. Tiger”– first as a Hall of Famer ball player for 22 seasons, then as a broadcaster with the legendary George Kell, and most recently as a special assistant to Tiger President Dave Dombrowski.
He first arrived at Briggs Stadium as a skinny 18-year old rookie two weeks after graduating from high school. Two summers later he became the youngest player to win the American League batting title as he went on to become a perennial all star and one of the greatest right fielders in the history of the game.
I suppose you would have to be at least 40 years old to have remembered seeing Kaline play at Tiger Stadium considering he retired 35 years ago with 3,007 hits, .297 lifetime batting average, and 399 home runs.
In storybook fashion, it was only fitting that it was Al Kaline who delivered what turned out to be the game winning two run single in the 7th inning of Game 5 that turned the ’68 World Series around..
I once asked Kaline about how he delivered in that pressure situation in what is considered his most famous at bat.This is what he said:
“I never heard the crowd when I was batting because I concentrated so much. I really only heard the fans when I was on the on deck circle. If you hear the crowd when you’re playing then you have rabbit ears and that is no good. There were two strikes on me so I choked up a bit. Ted Williams had taught me to anticipate where and what the pitcher would throw. I knew the Cardinal pitcher (Joe Hoerner)r knew my strength was inside so I anticipated low and away. Sure enough there it was and I hit it.”
For me, even though he was a clutch hitter, the beauty of watching Kaline was how he played right field. (Kaline recently told Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin, “You can’t always get a hit, but there’s no reason you can’t be a good outfielder every day.”)
Kaline was not only so graceful in the field as he came in to make a catch, he made numerous spectacular catches where he timed his leap perfectly whether it was climbing the wire fence at Tiger Stadium or jumping up against the wall at Yankee Stadium for a game saving catch. On the wall of my office I have five framed photos of Kaline making spectacular catches and I kid you not, everyone one is against the dreaded New York Yankees, including the the one that ended the game in Yankee Stadium on national tv in May of 1962 where he made a game saving diving shoe string catch and tumbled over, breaking his collarbone..
Kaline’s arm was a cannon, and his only equal was fellow right fielder Roberto Clemente. On countless occasions when a ball was hit into Kaline’s Corner, he would make his patented pivot spin and rifle the ball into second, holding the batter to a single. On more than one occasion, Kaline threw to Norm Cash at first base!
One of my greatest thrills of watching baseball at The Corner occurred in 1969. I was sitting in those beautiful box seats in the upper deck between home and third. A fly ball was hit to Kaline and Baltimore’s Paul Blair tagged up at third and started for home. Kaline, throwing his whole body into it rifled the ball to catcher Bill Freehan on the fly! Blair, who by then was half way down the third base line ran back to third in a panic and slid headfirst. The crowd stood up and gave Kaline a thunderous ovation. What was Blair thinking? For God’s sake you don’t run on Kaline!
Al may be 75 now, but for me he will be forever young. Thanks Number Six for all those great memories and for being Mr. Tiger.
2 replies on “Celebrating Al Kaline on His 75th Birthday“
Happy 75th Birthday to Al Kaline Forever a Tiger.
I would take a team of Al Kalines’ over any player not named Aaron, Mantle or Mays from his era. No player had a stronger AND Accurate throwing arm than Kaline. Those lasers – frozen ropes to second, third, and home are forever etched in my minds eye. Al Kaline had no weakness at the plate or in the field. Kaline was the Ultimate team player, looking for a basehit, or to hit the ball to the right side to advance the runners, instead of swinging for a 450 foot homerun every atbat. Al knew what to do in Every game situation.
Kaline was signed by Tigers’ scout Ed Katalinas the afternoon he graduated from high school in 1953, and turned his signing bonus of $35,000. over to his parents so his mother could have a much needed eye operation. Al played usually 2 and sometime 3 games most days while in high school at Baltimore Southern High and the sandlots-legion ball. He was schooled in his baseball acumen by his father and uncles all semi-pro players.
The one and only weakness Al had was his inability to stay healthy through out his career. He missed about 400 games from a variety of injuries from his all out play. Those years of injuries, (’59 fractured cheekbone, ‘62 broken collarbone, ‘63 sore leg and knee, ‘67 broken hand, ‘68 broken arm), and missing 15-20 up to 60 games in 1962, many of those years, cost Al many homeruns, hits, and several years that he could have had 30 homeruns and a few more 100 plus runs and rbi seasons. Many people don’t know that Al had the same debilitating osteomyelits (a bone disease),that Mantle also had for much of his playing career.
Kaline was so consistent at such a high level for so many years, and played with such a smooth and elegant style he was really taken for granted by many of the fans, but not the players. Kaline did play in an era that was geared more towards pitchers having the advantage, but his .296 batting average during the 1960’s was the highest of any American League player. Kaline led the league as mentioned in B.A. and hits in ‘55, and also led the league in total bases as well. In 1959 Kaline led the league in slugging and ops. In 1961 he led the league in doubles. Every other year ‘55-’67,Kaline consistently ranked in top 3, 5, or ten in nearly every offensive category. Those two years Al finished second in the MVP Award, ‘55 and ‘63, he was voted the Sporting News American League Player of the Year.
Al played in 15 All Star games, voted to 18 all together, and hit .324 12 for 37. Al played at the highest level in that ‘68 World Series and I was so Proud of my “Hero” coming through in game 5 with the clutch hit to win that game while the Tigers were down 3 games to 1.
I still get chills and a few tears in my 62 year old eyes every time I see old film of Al or when he is interviewed in recent years. The Greatest Tiger I have ever seen, a Class act and All Time Great player. God Bless and Thankyou for all the thrills Al Kaline – Mr. Tiger.
Here’s a special treat: a video clip from home movies taken on Aug. 4, 1956, when a family of Yankee fans came to Briggs Stadium for a game pitting the upcoming Triple Crown winner (Mantle) versus the defending batting champ (Kaline). Both were magnificent. You simply won’t believe it.
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