There is only one known photo of what was probably the greatest introduction in Detroit Tigers history.
The historic meeting happened in 1956 during spring training in Lakeland, Florida. Detroit legend Ty Cobb drove (yes, drove) down from his home-state of Georgia to visit the Tiger camp. The 69-year old Cobb was a guest of Tiger manager Bucky Harris, a baseball lifer who had faced Cobb’s spikes as a second baseman for the Senators in the 1920s.
The other half of the famous meeting was 21-year old Tiger right fielder Al Kaline, the reigning American League batting champion. In 1955, Kaline had become the youngest man to win a batting title, eclipsing Cobb’s record by one day. Cobb was born on December 18, 1886, and won his first title in 1907. Kaline was born on December 19, 1934.
For the fresh faced Kaline, meeting “The Georgia Peach” was something he didn’t anticipate and he couldn’t prepare for. The stories of Cobb, the first man elected to the Hall of Fame, winner of 12 batting titles, and owner of an amazing .367 career batting mark, were legendary and often times ferocious.
“I’d always heard what a fierce man Ty Cobb was, but when I met him he was very mild mannered,” Kaline said of their meeting.
Several years removed from the game of baseball, Cobb was a prominent businessman, having made wise decisions with the money he made playing the game. He was baseball’s first millionaire, having invested in General Motors and Coca-Cola. He owned several bottling plants and rested on a fortune of stock options valued well over $10 million at the time. Though he was wealthy and famous, Cobb had a very small circle of friends, none of them very intimate with the former ballplayer. Every year or so Cobb would surface in the newspapers, usually at Hall of Fame induction time in Cooperstown and during the World Series, when he’d give his expert assessment of the teams battling for the title. He steadfastly clung to his opinion that the modern ballplayer was inferior to those of his era. Cobb scoffed at the low batting averages of the baseball stars of the 1950s. Players who were hitting .280 were making top dollar. They swung for the fences and struck out way too often, Cobb scorned.
In Kaline, Cobb saw a player who bucked that trend. Kaline had struck out just 57 times in 1955, batting a lofty .340 and drawing comparisons to Joe DiMaggio. As was his habit, Cobb gave the young outfielder hitting advice.
“He told me ‘Always bear down, because there’ll come a time when you won’t be able to bear down,’ meaning that there’ll come a time when you won’t be able to play,” said Kaline.
Good advice that Kaline must have listened to. He played 22 seasons in the big leagues, all of them in a Tiger uniform, joining Cobb in the Hall of Fame in 1980. He hit .300 nine times, including at the age of 37. Kaline could play the game. And so could Cobb. When they met in 1956, it was ancient Tiger legend meeting new Tiger legend. They stand as the brightest stars in the history of the franchise.