To Detroit fans he was known simply as “Mr. Tiger,” a graceful performer during his playing career and a stately gentleman after.
On Monday, April 6, 2020, Kaline passed away at the age of 85.
Kaline played 22 seasons for the Tigers, arriving as a fuzzy-faced bonus baby of only 18, and lasting into the 1970s as a veteran Gold Glove right fielder. He became the youngest man to win a batting title, in 1955. Thirteen years later in the World Series he batted .379 with a pair of home runs to pace the Tigers to a championship. In 1974, Kaline became the twelfth member of the 3,000 hit club.
After stepping off the diamond, Kaline served in the television broadcast booth with George Kell for more than two decades. The pair were immensely popular in the state of Michigan, and Kaline continued his connection to the players who wore the Old English D.
Following his retirement from broadcasting, Kaline was invited to serve as a special assistant to the front office under the Ilitch family, and he helped mentor young players like Curtis Granderson, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and others over the next twenty-plus years. As recently as 2018, Kaline was in uniform in Lakeland as a special assistant during spring training. He exemplified the history and tradition of the franchise.
Here are six things you may not know about Albert William Kaline.
1. Owed a lot to Mom & Pop
When he was a kid growing up in Baltimore, Kaline loved to play baseball. He was often in two or three leagues each summer, including the American Legion league where he hit an amazing .609 one season. His father, a broom maker, and his mother a homemaker, allowed Al to play as much baseball as he could, they never required him to have a job when he was a teenager. “They knew I wanted to be a major leaguer, and they did everything they could to give me the time to play baseball,” Kaline told the Detroit News. “Even though the family could have used the money I might have made at odd jobs, my father never would let me earn a dime. I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.” On many summer days, Kaline’s mother drove Al to two different ballgames or tournaments so he could play baseball. By the time he was 16, Al was drawing attention from big league scouts in the area.
2. Overcame a gimpy foot
Kaline was born with a condition called osteomyelitis, a chronic condition that required the removal of part of the bone from his left foot. As a result, Kaline had a limpy gate throughout his life and frequently played in pain. At a young age he taught himself to run on the side of his left foot. Nevertheless, he was a fast runner and quick in the outfield.
3. Signed with Tigers while wearing his prom suit
When he was still 18 years old and just one day after he had graduated from high school, Kaline was signed to a major league contract by famed scout Ed Katalinas, who arrived at the Kaline home as early as he could and spoke with Kaline’s parents. Al was preparing for his prom dance and came down to the dining table and signed the deal, which called for a $15,000 bonus and a $15,000 salary in his first season. Since that day in June of 1953, Kaline was under the employment of the Detroit Tigers in some capacity for more than six decades.
4. Received valuable advice from Teddy Ballgame
In his rookie season, Kaline was introduced to Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams by manager Fred Hutchinson. Williams spoke at length with the young Kaline, telling him how to hit the low fastball. Williams also suggested that the scrawny Kaline work on adding muscle to his upper body and that he squeeze a rubber ball in his hands to improve his grip strength. Kaline and Williams remained friends throughout their lives.
5. Right field was transformed to help Kaline
In 1954, Kaline was hurt when he collided with the first row of seats in right field at Briggs Stadium. As a result, team president Spike Briggs ordered the row of seats, which jutted out into foul territory along the right field line, removed. Later, more improvements were made to the right field corner and the wall to ensure that Kaline would be safe as he scaled the walls and ran down the line. the area become known as “Kaline Corner.”
6. Asked out of the World Series
The 1960s were filled with a series of frustrations for Kaline, even as he continued to be an All-Star. In 1967, after striking out, Al slammed his bat into the bat rack and broke his right hand. He missed almost a month of the season. In 1968 he was hit by a pitch from Lew Krausse that broke his left arm, and as a result he was sidelined for six weeks. When he returned, the Tigers were in first place and the outfield trio of Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, and Jim Northrup was clicking well. Kaline was used as a pinch-hitter and at first base for much of the rest of the season, and when the Tigers clinched the pennant (with Al scoring the winning run), Kaline put the team first. He went to manager Mayo Smith and told him that he didn’t deserve to play in the World Series, that the guys who got the team there should start. Smith refused to accept that notion, played Kaline in the Series, and Al led the Tigers with 11 hits and 8 RBI. Famously, Kaline had refused to attend a World Series until he played in one, despite numerous offers to participate in the Fall Classic in some capacity by MLB. In ’68 he finally fulfilled his dream of playing in the World Series and he proved clutch, hitting two homers to go along with his .379 average in the seven-game victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
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