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.