In his 22-year career, Al Kaline won a batting title, hit .300 or more nine times, socked 399 home runs, walked more than he struck out, and collected 3,007 hits. He had a lot of good days in the big leagues for the Detroit Tigers. There were few pitchers he didn’t victimize.
Asked last year by Joe Bescia of the New York Times to name the toughest pitchers he ever faced, Kaline identified four hurlers: Bob Lemon, Nolan Ryan, Frank Sullivan, and Early Wynn. Kaline’s memory was pretty good, but the numbers show that Wynn was his toughest adversary.
Kaline was giving Lemon undue respect: “The Line” pummeled Lemon to the tune of a .380 average with a .600 slugging percentage and 15 RBI in 57 appearances against him. Ryan faced Kaline very few times, all at the tail end of the latter’s career, when his Hall of Fame reflexes were fraying a little, but the Tiger still hit .300 against “the Ryan Express” in 10 at-bats. Sullivan was a tall, side-arming right-hander whose delivery gave Kaline fits (he hit just .266 against Sullivan in over 100 plate appearances).
That leaves Wynn, the barrel-chested bulldog who toed the rubber for the Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians, and Chicago White Sox from 1939-1963. The prime of his career coincided almost perfectly with the first decade of Kaline’s, and their teams usually squared off for 22 matchups per season. Wynn was one of the most imposing forces of his era: a strong-willed, highly-competitive man who hated his opponent on game days and just about every other day too. Though he was stocky and muscular, he was a gifted athlete: he fielded his position well, had a strong arm that sent a frightening fastball to the plate, and could hit well to help his own cause.
Wynn was famous for his temper. Once when his manager Al Lopez came to the mound to get Wynn, the big right-hander threw the ball at the startled skipper. If one of his teammates made a miscue behind him they were certain to hear about it from Wynn, often right there in the middle of the field.
“[Once I] booted a ball, a routine grounder,” recalled infielder Billy Goodman, who played with Wynn on the White Sox from 1958-1961. “He walked over to me at third and pointed at me, [saying] ‘Do that again and I’ll punch you.’ ”
Wynn channeled that ferocity into results. He won 20 games five times for the Tribe and ChiSox, winning 17 or more ten times. Getting better as he aged, the man his teammates called “Gus” won back-to-back strikeout titles at the ages of 37 and 38. He was notorious for brushing back hitters and scaring many of them before they even stepped to the plate.
“That space between the white lines, that’s my office, that’s where I conduct my business,” Wynn said. “You take a look at the batter’s box, and part of it belongs to the hitter. But when he crowds in just that hair, he’s stepping into my office, and nobody comes into my office without an invitation when I’m going to work.”
Perhaps it was his aggressive nature or maybe it was his knee-high fastball, but there was something about Wynn that baffled Kaline. In his many battles against the righty, Kaline hit just one home run and batted .209 (24-for-115) off Wynn. Impressively, Wynn allowed just six extra-base hits to Kaline, limiting the talented hitter to a .287 slugging percentage. In ’55, when Kaline won the batting title at the ripe age of 20, Wynn held him to 2-for-14 (.143), the following year Kaline hit just .188 (3-for-16) against him. In 1959, when Wynn led the Sox to the pennant, Kaline was 0-for-10 off him.
On July 13, 1963, pitching for Cleveland, Wynn won his 300th game, a 5-4 victory over the Kansas City Athletics. It was his last major league win. Less than two months later, on September 1, Kaline and Wynn faced each other one final time. Wynn came on in relief and pitched 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in the Sox victory over Detroit. In the eighth inning he got Kaline to fly out to right field.
In 1980, Kaline was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Among the former players who congratulated him that day was Early Wynn, who had been inducted into the Hall of Fame himself eight years earlier.