On his 79th birthday, Al Kaline is still “Mr. Tiger”

Al Kaline played 22 seasons for Detroit and has never been out of the employ of the Tigers since he was 18 years old.

Al Kaline played 22 seasons for Detroit and has never been out of the employ of the Tigers since he was 18 years old.

It is hard to believe, especially to the Baby Boomer generation of Detroit Tiger fans that had the sheer pleasure of watching Al Kaline perform, that Number Six turns 79 years old today after finishing his 61st year with the ballclub.

There of course have been greater Tiger hitters, including Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, and Miguel Cabrera. But Albert William Kaline will forever be known as “Mr. Tiger.”

Sixty years ago this past June, one of baseball’s greatest outfielders and all around players made his major league debut at eighteen and embarked on a remarkable 22-year Hall of Fame career with Detroit. Just two years later at age twenty, the eighteen time All Star, ten time gold glover, 3,000 hit club member, and 1968 World Champion became the youngest player in the American League to win a batting title, a distinction he still holds.

Despite losing the equivalent of two and half seasons due to a plethora of unfortunate injuries, Kaline, who retired after the 1974 season with 3,007 hits, and a .297 career average, became only the 10th player in history to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

It was a thrill to watch Kaline, standing at home plate with his perfect upright batting stance, suddenly unleash that classic, textbook swing.

He was seemingly flawless in clutch situations and always appeared to be involved in a game winning rally or making a game saving catch.

When the Tigers won the 1968 American League pennant after Don Wert hit a single in the bottom of the ninth against the Yankees, it was Kaline who scored the winning run.

In the World Series, Kaline batted .379, second only to Norm Cash’s .385 and knocked in eight runs to tie Jim Northrup for the lead.

Kaline’s clutch hit in Game Five of the Series against the St. Louis Cardinals became the defining moment of his career and one of the biggest in Tiger history.

In storybook fashion, with the Tigers down 3 games to 1 in the Series and trailing 3-2 in the seventh inning, Kaline stepped to the plate with the bases loaded as a crowd of 53,634 screaming Tiger fans were on the edge of their seats.

Once again, the idol of thousands of Detroit area kids came through in grand fashion as he lined a fastball from Joe Hoerner to right field with the game-winning hit that brought in two runs. The Tigers then went on to capture the Series with victories in games six and seven.

Four years later at age 37, Kaline nearly single handedly lifted the Tigers into the’72 playoffs during a tight division race with Boston.

Down the stretch in September Kaline collected 22 hits in his final 44 at bats (that’s a .500 clip, folks). In a season-ending three game showdown with the Red Sox, Kaline went 3-for-4 in the opener as the Tigers won 4-1 and the next night “Six” came through with a seventh inning game-winning RBI single as Detroit captured the division title.

In the outfield, Kaline had no equal in the American League. He was sheer poetry in motion and carried himself with the elegance of the Yankees’ revered Joe DiMaggio.

You will be very hard pressed to find anyone who remembers seeing Kaline make a mistake in right field.

Kaline made so many fantastic catches, whether it was diving for balls, running down long fly balls, or climbing a fence with perfect timing to rob a batter of a home run. I have five different photos of Kaline making spectacular catches and every one is against the dreaded Yankees. (Four of the five are at Yankee Stadium.) Frank Lary may have earned the label “Yankee Killer,” but Kaline was a thorn in the Bombers’ side his entire career.

And then there was Kaline’s unbelievable arm.

He once threw out a runner at second while making a throw from a sitting position.

When a hitter sliced a ball into “Kaline’s Corner” at Tiger Stadium, Al would make his patented spin after playing the ball off the wall before whirling to make a throw at second. If he didn’t throw the runner out, chances are it’s because the runner didn’t even try for second, fearful of Kaline’s powerful arm.

There is also another generation of Tiger fans who never saw Kaline play and only knew him as a broadcaster.

For 26 years he served as the color analyst on Tiger telecasts.

For 21 of those years, from 1976 through 1996, Kaline and George Kell brought the game into our homes. No other Tiger broadcasters shared the microphone as long as these two Hall of Famers.

For the past 12 seasons Kaline has served as a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski and is still seen in the Tiger clubhouse before games often sitting near his own locker.

Whether today’s players truly appreciate having this legend in their presence is up for speculation.

Kaline can offer so much more than a ceremonial first pitch.

When asked, in September he told me that for the most part the players don’t ask him for advice.

“Once the players today make it to the big leagues I find they don’t want your help,” Kaline told me. “I do help the outfielders in spring training. But I’m at Comercia Park everyday, and I tell them I’m here if I can help you on the field or off the field, but nobody comes to ask me anything.”

Here is some unsolicited advice to the Tiger players.

You ought to be like sponges and listen to everything you possibly can from a man who truly knew how to play the game. You just might learn a thing or two.

Even if the players don’t fully appreciate him and all that he can offer, Tiger fans know the place this man has in the history of Detroit baseball and the national pastime.

We are lucky he is still around.

Best wishes on your birthday Mr. Kaline and may you have many more.

3 replies on “On his 79th birthday, Al Kaline is still “Mr. Tiger”

  • KalineCountry Ron

    Thankyou Bill Dow, and to all the writers here at Detroit Athletic.
    One of my favorite parts of the day are coming to Detroit Athletic and reading the stories on our Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, Pistons.

    God Bless Al Kaline. An All-Time Great Major Leaguer and Detroit Tiger. Al Kaline is a Man of Integrity and Honor.
    My mind’s eye still sees his picture perfect swing, his elegance, never a wasted motion, on a single, his strike throws to second, on a fly ball his throw to the base in front of the runner even with said runner on the base.
    Kaline’s defensive genius was that of Strong and Most Accurate throws, and Intimidation.
    Nobody ran on Al Kaline……nobody.

    I have always thought that Al is somewhat under-appreciated by the mainstream national media baseball writers. With as much to do with saber stats, the counting stats still count. Al’s numbers year to year, just were short of those round numbers of several 30 plus homers, and more seasons of 100 Runs and 100 Rbi. His all out style of play, he was always missing 15/20 to that one year in 1962 sixty games. Still in 1962 29 homeruns and 94 rbi in 100 games. His final numbers as great as they were, missing those 450 games to injuries…..we’ll never know.

    In Al’s era, the years he played, I would take a team of Kaline’s over any other player outside of Aaron, Mantle, or Mays.

    Some 30 years ago at an autograph show, I got a ball autographed by the great Mickey Mantle and told him he was my second favorite player next to Kaline. Mickey then said to me that during his career the best all-around player in the American League was our # 6 Al Kaline.

  • larry

    If you grew up in the 50’s and 60’s Al Kaline was Mr. Tiger to you . His defense was stellar with an arm like a rocket . Try to score from second base you might not make it. Kaline to Freehan and you were out .
    A Hall of Fame player Detroit was proud of and to this day respects . # 6 was one heck of a ball player.

  • Rick

    Bill, another great article about not only a great player but a greater person. I find it shocking and appalling that none of today’s Tiger outfielder’s seek him out. There is not a one of them that could carry his traveling bag! Country Ron, I have to say I respect and admire the reverance in how you speak about Mr. Kaline. He was without a doubt my favorite athlete of all-time. I had the pleasure of getting his autograph several year’s ago and was standing in awe of my hero and could not speak. I was truly mesmerized by him. I finally mumbled that as a kid growing up I was always him when I played ball while some of my friends preferred Clemente and Mays. I told him I thought he was better then either of those guys he smiled and said “thanks but I don’t think I was”. The man actually talked to me and to this day I have never forgotten that day! Mr Kaline if you ever read these articles. I know you know this but let me say it again. You were a true hero to MILLIONS of kids in Michigan and I’m sure Maryland as well. Belated happy b’day to an ALL-TIME GREAT! And again, thank you Bill!

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