“I almost forgot to run,” said an embarrassed but relieved Al Kaline after he reached the biggest milestone of his brilliant career.
On the night of September 24, 1974, Kaline lined a pitch from Dave McNally of the Orioles down the right field line that bounced into the wall in the corner. Right fielder Rich Coggins chased the famous baseball down and fired it to Mark Belanger standing near second base. The Orioles’ shortstop handed it to Kaline, who waved his arms in the air to his hometown crowd. The Tiger legend must have had a million thoughts in his head.
“To have my mom and dad here is special,” Kaline told reporters after the game, which Detroit lost 5-4.
Parents Watched from the stands
Born in Baltimore, Kaline owed a lot to his parents, who always encouraged his obsession with baseball.
“My parents drove me to games and tournaments,” Kaline said, “and I never [had to] have a job when I was in high school. I could play ball.”
Hit #3000 came in the last days of Kaline’s career, a 22-year journey that began only days after 18-year old Al signed his first professional contract with the Tigers while sitting at the kitchen table in his parents home in Baltimore.
His teammates knew Kaline was close to hanging them up. The 39-year old was pretty sure too, even back in Lakeland during spring training. That’s when his manager, the crusty Ralph Houk, called Al into his office. The two baseball lifers discussed Kaline’s role as a senior member of the roster. Kaline was too humble to make any demands, but he wanted to play regularly after an injury-plagues year the season before. In 1973, Kaline was embarrassed that he only had 79 hits. Not much from a $100,000 ballplayer. So Al told general manager Jim Campbell that he should play every day to earn his hefty contract.
Houk told his veteran star that he wanted him to play at designated hitter. “You need about 140 hits to get to 3,000,” Houk said. But Al wanted nothing to do with that.
“I should play to fulfill my contract and only if I help the team,” Kaline said.
Drive Toward 3,000
Always in great shape, Kaline got off to a good start, and his average was over .300 on May 1. At the All-Star break, he was second on the Tigers to Bill Freehan in RBIs. And he felt like he was just getting rolling.
Like Miguel Cabrera is doing for Detroit in 2021, Kaline got hotter as he started to creep up the all-time hit list. But there was less company back in his day. In 1974, only 11 men had ever collected as many as 3,000 hits in the history of baseball.
As September started, Kaline needed 24 hits with 30 games left for the Tigers. Houk wrote #6 into his lineup every day, and after a hot first week, Kaline had 2,983 hits on his ledger. Fans started to look at the schedule to see when their hero might get the historic knock.
In Baltimore, a few pitchers were wondering too. In August, Dave McNally and a few other O’s pitchers were talking about Kaline, and McNally said he expected to be the one to give up the 3,000th hit.
“He’s gotten 500 other hits off me,” McNally said, “so one more doesn’t make a difference.”
On September 14, Kaline had three hits against the Yankees at Tiger Stadium. That put him at 2,991. After his third hit, the fans at The Corner gave Kaline a standing ovation. A few days later the team packed for a three-city, eight-game road trip. Now it wasn’t clear whether Al would get the big hit in Detroit, and he didn’t care.
“I want to play it out,” Al told reporters at his locker in Detroit in the game before the Tigers went to Boston. “I talked it over with [Houk and GM Campbell] and we decided it was best to get it as soon as possible, rather than try to do it [in Detroit].”
Playing like a teenager again in Beantown, Kaline had five hits, including his 399th (and what would be his final) home run. He left Boston with 2,997.
Next was Milwaukee, where Al had two more hits in a three-game series. On September 22 in the finale, he came to the plate for the first time sitting on 2,999: flying out against Eduardo Rodriguez. The magic hit would have to come at home in Baltimore.
Milestone in Baltimore
Wouldn’t you know it? McNally took the rubber in the opener in Baltimore. With Mr. and Mrs. Kaline seated only a few rows behind the visiting dugout, the game had a magic feeling to it. For the O’s, the game had added significance: they were in a back-and-forth fight with the Yankees for the division title.
McNally tipped his cap to Kaline the first time he faced him, coaxing Al to ground to short in the first inning. But in the fourth, when #6 emerged from the dugout, smiled at his mom, and walked to the plate to lead off the inning, McNally was not in a friendly mood. Detroit was leading 1-0, and McNally had a job to do. But he couldn’t sneak a fastball past Kaline, and the ball went down the line in right, the one that meant 3,000.
For the record, Kaline had 43 hits off McNally, the third most he had against any hurler. Not a bad record against a pitcher who won 20 games in four straight seasons.
After Kaline’s milestone hit, he celebrated with his teammates, but there was little fanfare, keeping with Kaline’s quiet demeanor. He had dinner with his family that night at the same table where he signed his first contract with Detroit, 21 years earlier.
A One week later, after meeting with team owner John Fetzer, general manager Jim Campbell, and his family, Kaline made it official: he was retiring as a player. His final ledger showed 3,007 hits, the 11th most in baseball history.
When Cabrera gets his 3,000th some time later this season (maybe?) or early next year, he will be the first Tiger to do it since Kaline. And his journey, like that of #6, will be part of baseball history.