On April 6, Al Kaline died at the age of 85. A member of baseball’s Hall of Fame, Kaline played with the Detroit Tigers for 22 years, his entire playing career. Known as Mr. Tiger (though Billy Martin called him Mr. Perfection), he is surely Detroit’s most beloved baseball player.
Kaline made the All-Star team 15 times, batting .324 against the National League. He won the Gold Glove as the American League’s best defensive right fielder nine times and another Gold Glove as the league’s best center fielder. I wrote about a memorable defensive play by Kaline here. There were so many more.
Kaline signed with the Tigers right out of high school in 1953, and he received a bonus. In those days, a bonus meant that the player (the “bonus baby”) had to stay on the big league roster for two years.
The Tigers expected Kaline to be their 25th man — the fate of other bonus babies including Harmon Killebrew and Sandy Koufax. After the apprenticeship, they planned to send him to the minor leagues — again, the standard operating procedure.
However, Kaline held his own in limited appearances in 1953. By 1954 he was regular in the Detroit outfield.
In 1955, the year he had been expected to spend in the minors, Kaline was an All Star and the American League batting champion. At age of 20, he became the youngest batting champ ever, one day younger than Ty Cobb was when Cobb won the batting title in 1907.
If you look at the rest of Kaline’s career batting stats, you will find very little of the black ink used to signify league leadership in a particular category. You also will not find any Most Valuable Player awards, though he was the runner up in 1955 and 1963 (to a pair of Yankee catchers, Yogi Berra and Elston Howard), and finished third in 1956 (behind Mickey Mantle and Berra).
What you will find is a remarkable record of sustained excellence from 1955 through 1967. By any reckoning, that record places Kaline easily among the ten best right fielders of all time. Arguably, he’s among the best five.
If you dig deeper, it becomes clear that, but for injuries, Kaline would likely have more “black ink” and quite possibly at least one MVP award.
In making the game-saving catch in 1962 I wrote about, Kaline broke his collar bone. At the time, he was batting .336 with an OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.048. He was leading the American League in RBIs with 38 (in 36 games) and was second in home runs with 13.
After his return, Kaline played well, but nowhere near the “career year” level he had been enjoying. Despite playing only 100 games, he finished sixth in the MVP voting.
In 1967, the story was similar. Kaline broke his hand in late June and missed a month of the season. At the time of the injury, he was batting .328 with an OPS of .991. He finished the year at .308 and .952.
Kaline was fifth in the MVP voting that year. Even without the injury, he wouldn’t have been MVP. 1967 was the year of Carl Yastrzemski’s triple crown. However, he might have deprived Yastrzemski of the batting crown (Yaz batted .326). And the Tigers, who finished one game behind the Red Sox, probably would have deprived Boston of the pennant.
Injuries thwarted Kaline in another way. Kaline battled osteomyelitis, a chronic bone disease that forced the removal of diseased bone from his left foot. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I constantly read about Mickey Mantle’s osteomyelitis and the feats he would have accomplished if free from the disease. At the time, I never knew that Kaline suffered from the same condition.
I’m not equating Kaline with Mantle. But it’s fair to say that, if not plagued by injuries, Kaline would rank even higher up than he does on the list of all-time greats.
In his 22 years with the Tigers, Kaline played in only one World Series. That year, 1968, Kaline also suffered a major injury. In late May, Oakland’s Lew Krausse shattered Kaline’s arm with a pitch. Kaline missed more than a month.
When he returned, right field belonged to Jim Northrup, a fine hitter. Kaline became, in effect, the fourth outfielder — behind Northrup, defensive ace Mickey Stanley in center field, and power hitting Willie Horton in left.
For the World Series, though, manager Mayo Smith moved Stanley to shortstop to replace light-hitting Ray Oyler. Northrup moved to center field and Kaline was back as the regular right fielder.
Kaline responded with a fantastic World Series. He was Detroit’s best hitter, batting .379 with 11 hits, 8 runs, 8 RBIs, and two home runs. In Game 6, a most win contest for the Tigers, Kaline went 3-4, drove in 4 runs, hit a home run, and set a World Series record for putouts by a right fielder.
The Tigers prevailed in 7 games.
Kaline’s best season thereafter was 1972 when, at age 37, he caught fire late in the season to carry the Tigers, managed by Billy Martin, to the AL East title by a game and a half over Boston. On August 15, when he returned to the lineup after another injury, Kaline was batting .271 with an OPS of .760. When the season ended, he was batting .313 with an OPS of .849.
In the crucial last 8 games of the season, Kaline went 17-35 with 13 runs, 8 RBIs, and 4 home runs (including three in the final four games).
The Tigers lost a tough ALCS to Oakland, 3 games to 2. Kaline contributed a home run off of Catfish Hunter and batted .263. The great Oakland pitching staff held the Tigers collectively to an average of .198.
After retiring as a player, Mr. Tiger continued to serve the Tigers first as a broadcaster and then as a special assistant to owner Mike Illitch and, later, to general manager Dave Dombrowski. Thus, generation after generation of Detroit player came under his influence.
The praise from ex-Tigers for Kaline upon learning of his death says it all. This tweet from Justin Verlander was typical:
Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many. I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years. R.I.P. Mr Tiger, Al Kaline.
As another Tiger great, Alan Trammell said simply, “He’ll be missed, but never forgotten.”