For Kaline in the outfield, practice made perfect

With incredible instincts, talent, and hard work, Al Kaline became one of the best right fielders to ever play the position.

With incredible instincts, talent, and hard work, Al Kaline became one of the best right fielders to ever play the position.

One word you almost always encounter when you read something about Al Kaline is underrated. The former Tiger outfielder and Hall of Famer is famous for being unappreciated.

Sure, Kaline has a plaque in Cooperstown, but he’s not who many baseball fans think of when they list the top outfielders in baseball history. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente, and – in recent years Ken Griffey Jr. – they all pop to mind. But somehow, Kaline is glossed over.

But when it came to playing right field, few in baseball history were ever the peer of Detroit’s #6. In several ways, Kaline revolutionized defensive play in right field and turned it into an art form. Few people are still around who got to see him ply his trade in the outer regions of the outfield, and there are even fewer videos of him in action, but for those who did get to watch Kaline play defense, they some something special.

There have been several outfielders in baseball history who have gotten accolades for their defensive prowess: Tris Speaker played so shallow that several times he served as the pivot man on double plays at second base; Willie Mays made unbelievable catches by utilizing his speed and incredible instincts; the graceful Clemente showed off his amazing range and powerful throwing arm; and Jim Edmonds made daring diving catches to rob enemy hits. Kaline was no less efficient, but he was often less flashy. A guiding philosophy he learned as a boy growing up in Maryland helped him become one of the greatest right fielders the game has ever seen.

“I studied the game, [and] studied techniques,” Kaline said in an interview with David Faulkner for his book, Nine Sides of the Diamond: Baseball’s Great Glove Men on the Fine Art of Defense. “The point was that I practiced how I played.”

Kaline spent countless hours as a young player going through defensive drills to perfect his timing. Eventually, he became so skilled at setting himself up in perfect position to field base hits and catch fly balls, that he earned the ultimate compliment from the opposing team. They rarely ever ran on him. Sure, Kaline was blessed with a great right arm, but he also worked his tail off to be sure that he fielded baseballs in a way that he could get them out of his throwing hand as soon as possible. It was that practice that helped the Detroit star earn respect in the American League as the premier right fielder in the league.

“A lot of guys shy away from [practice] because they think they’ll get tagged as hot dogs or showboats, never realizing that what it’s all about is doing things right.”

In the outfield during spring training or before a regular season game, Kaline took shagging flies and fielding the ball very seriously. There was no time for being casual and flippant with his attitude. The game of baseball was his passion and his craft. For Kaline, fielding and throwing the ball correctly every time wasn’t an option. It was the only way. As a result, he won 10 Gold Glove Awards.

The plays that Kaline became most famous for were his ability to get to the wall and catch the ball despite the dangers inherit with crashing into a hard object. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were no padded outfield walls, and in fact, when Kaline debuted in the early 50s, most ballparks didn’t even have a warning track. As a result, the smart outfielder had to use his brain to prevent injury.

“I could count my steps and now right where I was when I was coming into a wall,” Kaline remembered. “I deliberately tried to relax when I went into walls so I wouldn’t be stiff and wind up breaking an elbow or something.”

Despite his skills with the wall, Kaline did suffer a few injuries crashing into them during his career. But more often, he won the battles and took many home run balls away in right field at Tiger Stadium. One catch in 1957 in a game against the New York Yankees saw Kaline step on the top of the wall, dig his other cleat two feet higher in the screen, and fully extend his upper body to snare a ball that would have cleared the screen by several feet. It was an amazing athletic achievement and it partly inspired the statue of Kaline that stands deep in right-center field at Comerica Park.

Kaline’s signature move was his play on balls hit into the right field corner (what became known as Kaline Corner). Charging the line hard to get the ball, Kaline would field it with his gloved left hand and then with his momentum carrying him toward the stands, twirl to his left, turning his back (and the large navy blue #6 on his uniform) toward the infield. Thus he would be in perfect position to rifle his throw with his right arm. Many times he would catch a runner trying to stretch a single into a double, or – in what became a common tactic he employed – Kaline would fire the baseball behind an unsuspecting runner who was content with a single, but had strayed too far off the bag. As a result, Kaline racked up 170 outfield assists in his stellar career.

Among right fielders as far as defense, Kaline rates among the very best to ever play the position. Clemente, Dwight Evans, Andre Dawson, Dave Parker, and current star Ichiro Suzuki are others who have been singled out for their ability with the leather. Who the best was it hard to say, but no one ever studied and practiced outfield play more than “Mr. Tiger” did.

14 replies on “For Kaline in the outfield, practice made perfect

  • KalineCountry Ron

    Dan, A Great and well said story on the Greatest Rightfielder I have ever watched. The Perfect Defensive Outfielder with never a wasted motion. What sets Kaline apart from the rightfielders mentioned was Al’s incredible Throwing Accuracy. It’s one thing to have a strong throwing arm, but to thread the needle with perfect strikes to 2nd, 3rd, and home plate, that was Kaline. After leading the league in assists in iirc 1958 the league stopped running on him. In 1962 after he came back from the May 26 broken collarbone on a game saving/winning catch, the league tested him for a couple of weeks, then realized he didn’t lose anything in arm strength and accuracy.
    The 1968 World Series spotlight and on the fly ball to him with the cardinal’s runner on third, Kaline catches the fly ball and throws a perfect strike to Freehan, the camera then pans over to third base, and the runner (Brock or Flood) was just standing on the bag with arms folded, he knew, nobody ran on Al Kaline, Nobody. That play made this lifelong Tigers fan so proud.
    The preeminent Rightfielder in American League history. Major League Baseball and Commissioner Selig have named several Awards after great hall of fame ball players in the recent past. They need to name an award after Mr. Tiger and call it the Al Kaline Gold Glove Award, given to the best defensive GG Winning outfielder in the league.

  • Coach Joe Ward

    Great article Dan. I saw him, in one game, catch a fly ball, run over the pitcher’s mound down the first baseline, twirl to his left and fire a strike to Freehan! The runner was out by 20 feet! Great player and a greater man among men.

  • Richard

    being upstate and poor, I took every chance to listen to games on the radio or would force myself into a neighbors den if there was a televised game and used my allowance on bubblegum hoping to get an Al Kaline.

  • Russ Tillman

    Well said Dan and Ron! I have always thought that an outfield throwing contest would go good with the All Star game homerun hitting contest. Of course, Number 6 would have ruled in such a contest.

  • Rick

    I too remember a game in 1969 the Orioles had the bases loaded and a fly ball was hit to Al Kaline and as I watched from between 3rd base and home the ball got to Freehan on the fly when I looked for the runner there he stood perched on third base! What an arm what a GREAT player! The BEST! Memories for a lifetime. Thank you Mr. Kaline

  • DannyP

    The difference was that they ran on Clemente, they didn’t run on Kaline! Clemente I believe had a stronger arm, but accuracy and speed of release both went to Al!!

  • Randy

    Great idea Ron to name the GG award in Kalines honor. As a kid my favorite Tiger was Horton while my brother Ricks favorite was Kaline. I am now 57 years old but for the first time I will admit to my little brother that Mr. Kaline is indeed one of the All Time GREATS. But I also have to remind him that Franco Harris did catch that ball

  • Gary Steinke

    Unfortunately defense doesn’t get noticed like offense does in baseball. Kaline was the best rightfielder I’ve ever seen. Kaline was also one of the most class acts in the game.

  • Otto

    Youll never see a current
    outfielder practicing throws to homeplate during the season. Outfield assists dont pay the big bucks.

  • Dan Holmes

    Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting. Kaline is still, nearly 40 years after his retirement as a player, one of the iconic figures in Detroit sports. A true legend. I wish I had been able to see him play in his prime.

  • Thomas R Giesken

    Could someone please make a long video of Kaline’s best plays in the outfield!!! Why don’t we have a 20 minute video of all the stuff he did including injuring himself running into the wall??

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