Greatest Tiger of them all? It’s either Cobb or Kaline

Ty Cobb and Al Kaline hold almost every batting record for the Detroit Tigers. Their birthdays are a day apart in December.

Whenever the talk gets around to picking the greatest Detroit Tiger of them all, the argument typically boils down to two men: Ty Cobb and Al Kaline. Despite being separated by several decades – Cobb’s heyday was in the Deadball Era of the 1910s while Kaline reached his peak in the power-hitting 1960s – they are remarkably similar in many ways.

Both players broke in as 18-year-olds and played 22 seasons in Detroit (though Cobb concluded his career with two more seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics). Their birthdays are just a day apart: Cobb was born December 18, 1886, while Kaline came into the world on December 19, 1934. The birth dates proved significant when Kaline won the batting title as a 20-year-old in 1955, making him the youngest player – by a day – to ever win a batting championship. Cobb had previously enjoyed that distinction, winning his first batting title as a 20-year-old in 1907.

It is often overlooked that Cobb, like Kaline, played right field. It wasn’t until after he’d been in the league for a few years that the Georgia Peach moved permanently to center field. In fact, Cobb played right field in all three World Series he participated in, with Wahoo Sam Crawford playing center. Although little is said about Cobb’s fielding prowess, his speed gave him great range and his arm was above average, at least until he messed it up by fooling around with pitching. There were no Gold Gloves given out during Cobb’s era, but since the awards seem to recognize those who excel as much at the plate as they do in the field, it’s not unreasonable to think that Cobb might have won a few. Kaline, whose impeccable positioning and accurate arm made him one of the greatest right fielders of all time, earned 10 Gold Gloves during his career.

There was no annual All-Star Game played in Cobb’s time. Kaline was an 18-time All-Star, a remarkable feat that Cobb nonetheless probably would have matched if not exceeded. The one category that Kaline enjoyed an advantage over Cobb is perhaps the most important: World Series championships. Kaline, of course, was a key member of the 1968 champs. Cobb, on the other hand, played in three losing Fall Classics. It irked him to the end of his days. Kaline’s greatest frustration was falling one home run short of being a member of the 400 homer/3,000 hit club, a club that was considerably more exclusive when he retired in 1974 than it has since become.

Finally, both men were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the first year they were eligible – a fitting home for two of the game’s true legends.

Just for the fun of it, here is how Cobb and Kaline match up statistically. Note that the numbers for Cobb include only his seasons in Detroit and not his overall record.

Games played: Kaline 2,834, Cobb 2,806
Career base hits: Cobb 3,902, Kaline 3,007
Career batting avg.: Cobb .368, Kaline .297
.300+ seasons: Cobb 21, Kaline 9
.400+ seasons: Cobb 3, Kaline 0
Career home runs: Kaline 399, Cobb 111
Career slugging average: Cobb .516, Kaline .480
Career RBI: Cobb 1,805, Kaline 1,583
Career runs scored: Cobb 2,088, Kaline 1,622
Career stolen bases: Cobb 869, Kaline 137
World Series batting average: Kaline .379, Cobb .262

7 replies on “Greatest Tiger of them all? It’s either Cobb or Kaline

  • Russ Barnett

    When #6 retired, he didn’t realize that he was 1 homer short of 400, and later said he would have played one more year if he had known. He has always been my favorite player, and I had the thrill of a lifetime when I was able to make a delivery to Kaline’s house a few years ago. He was standing at the door waiting, and tried to act like he was just another Joe. He was very humble and friendly. He sat at his desk and autographed a bunch of things for me. The only display of anything baseball in the whole place was his world series trophy, tucked away neatly on top of a bookcase. He took a phone call from Rollie Fingers while I was there. A day I will never forget.

  • KalineCountry Ron

    Kaline’s only weakness as a player was his inability to stay healthy a full season. Missing from 20 to 60 games a year with injuries starting in 1959, Kaline would have easily topped 400 homeruns and have4 or 5 30 homerun seasons along with as many with runs scored and rbi. 60 years with the Tigers.
    Cobb is always in discussion as the best player ever and a top 5 inner circle HOF member.

  • Dan Holmes

    Very true about Kaline. he missed out on several “season milestones” like 30 HR, 100 runs and 100 RBI because he was constantly missing 4-5 weeks with injuries. Otherwise, his stat line looks even better.

  • J. Conrad Guest

    If you believe what you read in Cobb biographies, he was not a very nice human being. Obviously I never saw him play, but I grew up watching Kaline, and he was my first boyhood idol. If you go strictly by the numbers, and Kaline’s injuries, I have to go with Cobb as the greatest to ever wear the English D, and the greatest ballplayer ever, over Ruth. But as human beings and ambassadors to the game, it’s gotta be Kaline.

  • John Bozzo

    “Baseball’s Best 1,000” lists Charlie Gehringer at number 45, behind Cobb but ahead of Kaline.
    I discounted Eddie Matthews because he’s associated more with the Braves.
    Harry Heillmann is 49. Mickey Cochrane is 62. “Hammerin” Hank Greenberg is 65. Al Simmons is 84, but he also played for four other teams.
    Al Kaline is ranked 96 in this book.
    Perhaps our discussion gets down to Cobb and Kaline because Cobb was so amazing. He’s number 4 behind Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Honus Wagner. And Kaline is the most recent of the greats in our memory. For example, I immediately thought of Hank Greenberg before I thumbed through this book.
    Not that this book is a bible on the subject. For example, Henry Aaron is listed at 14. An objective look, I think, would move Aaron up higher.

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