RIP to Al Kaline, one of the greatest players in Detroit Tigers history and a Hall of Fame outfielder. Nicknamed “Mr. Tiger,” Kaline died on April 6 at the age of 85. No cause of death officially has been released, but a family friend told The Detroit News that Kaline had suffered a stroke recently. Kaline’s playing career with the Tigers lasted from 1953 until 1974, though his tenure with the team lasted for more than 60 years.
Al Kaline was born in Baltimore on December 19, 1934. His obituary in the Detroit Free Press notes that he came from a working-class background; his father Nicholas worked in a broom factory, and his mother Naomi cleaned floors. As young as 12 years old, he was impressing people with his baseball schools. At a Westport Grammar School event, Kaline threw a baseball 173 feet, 6 inches. The judges thought that they had measured incorrectly, so he grabbed another baseball and did it again.
Along with serving as a center fielder at Southern High School in Baltimore, Kaline also played in amateur leagues for United Iron and Metal Co. and Leone’s Restaurant. He finished his high school career with a career .427 batting average and 13 home runs. The thing that excited scouts was that he was a true five-tool talent. His fielding was already being compared to a professional outfielder, his throwing arm was accurate, and his speed from home to first base was clocked at 3.4 seconds, which was just behind Mickey Mantle’s 3.1 seconds for the MLB record. (Like Mantle, injuries prevented speed from being a significant part of Kaline’s game, but he could chase down a fly ball with ease in the majors.) At the time, he was also the only player in the history of the Maryland Scholastic Association to be named to The Baltimore Sun‘s all-scholastic team for four years.
Kaline is one of the few players who never saw a day in the minor leagues. He signed with the Tigers directly from Southern High School in 1963. When he received his signing bonus, reportedly $35,000, he paid off his parents’ mortgage and paid for his mother’s eye operation.
“I needed that money,” he said. “My folks knew that I had always dreamed about being a big-league ball player and though they never had much money, they wouldn’t let me get a job while I was going to high school. They knew I wanted to play ball all I could. When I signed, I really didn’t want to be a bonus player — you usually sit on a bench for two years — but I figured my folks deserved the money. And they got it.”
As a bonus baby, Kaline was required to stay on the major-league roster for two years. It was an awful system that served to stymie the careers of many rookies by forcing them to sit on a bench for two seasons rather than play every day in the minors. Occasionally, the players were so good that it didn’t matter. The recently deceased Johnny Antonelli was one example of a player who overcame the bonus baby stigma; Kaline was another.
“I think Al can develop into one of the game’s great players,” said Tigers scout Ed Katalinas. “I am happy; the Tigers are happy, and — what’s most important — the boy is happy.”
The boy made his major-league debut on June 25, 1953, in Philadelphia. He took over for center fielder Jim Delsing in the bottom of the 6th inning and flew out to center in his only at-bat. His first hit came on July 8 off the White Sox reliever Luis Aloma, and the first career homer was on September 26, against Cleveland’s Dave Hoskins. He appeared in 30 games in total that year, but only four were in starts. Most of the time, he was a defensive replacement who saw time in all three outfield spots or a pinch-runner.
Kaline became a Tigers regular in 1954 and slashed .276/.305/.347. He hit only 4 home runs in 138 games and drive in 43 runs, but it was a good enough showing that he finished in third place in the AL Rookie of the Year vote. He followed that up with a spectacular 1955 campaign that saw him become the youngest player to ever win the AL batting title. He was just 20 years old — and a day younger than Ty Cobb when that Tigers superstar won his first title.
Within the first 10 days of the ’55 season, Kaline had matched his entire output of home runs in 1954 with 4. He doubled it 20 days later and hit three in one game on April 17 — with two of them coming in the same inning. He spent the first month hitting .400 and ended the season with a .340 average, which led all of baseball. He recorded 200 hits, which also topped the majors. He hit 27 homers and drove in 102 runs while slugging .546 and getting on base at a .421 clip. He was a runaway winner of the AL Sophomore of the Year Award (yes, that was a thing in 1955), was named to the AL All-Star Team and finished second in the MVP voting. Yogi Berra won the MVP, which is pretty difficult to justify when he wasn’t even the best player on his own team that year (Mantle had 9.5 WAR, Berra 4.5, and Kaline 8.3). Kaline was a pretty soft-spoken player, but plenty of others spoke on his behalf.
“The kid murders you with his speed and arm,” said Yankees manager Casey Stengel. “He’s made some catches that I still don’t believe. He’ll hit you too. I sorta hate think what’ll happen when he grows up.”
Kaline never won another batting title, but he topped the .300 mark another eight times in his career. He never hit 30+ home runs in a season, but he reached 29 twice and 27 four times. He was named to the All-Star team every year between 1955 and 1967, and he was named to two All-Star teams in 1959, 1960 and 1961. Kaline also won Gold Gloves in right field or center field in 10 out of 11 seasons between 1957 and ’67.
If you eliminate the years at the beginning and end of his career, a typical Al Kaline season looks like this: a .302/.384/.497 slash line, 24 doubles, 4 triples and 21 home runs, 79 RBIs and 81 runs scored. During those peak years, between 1955 and 1972, Kaline had an OPS+ of 140. He didn’t lead the league in offensive categories all that often, but he was regularly within the top 10. Add his defensive skills to his offensive skills, and he became one of the best outfielders in the American League for close to two decades.
As Kaline grew older, he ran into injuries — a broken collarbone, a sore arm, a bad foot — that cost him playing time and left him wondering if he had a future with the team. “I’ve played here my entire career and would like to finish up here. Detroit has been good to me in every way,” he said in 1965. He’d been limited to 125 games and a .281 average that season. While the faces around Kaline changed, he remained the heart of the Tigers team, the perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. The only thing that could stop him was his own body, because opposing pitchers couldn’t find the secret to beating him.
“Kaline has the best balance of any hitter I’ve ever pitched against,” said pitcher Bob Lee. “It’s impossible to get him off stride.”
When Kaline first signed with the Tigers in 1953, he joined a second division ballclub that finished more than 40 games out of first place. The addition of Kaline and fellow bonus baby Bob Miller was supposed to be a sign that ownership was looking to build a winning team. It happened, gradually. Detroit won 101 games in 1961, but that was the year that the powerhouse Maris & Mantle Yankees knocked the Tigers aside with a late-season flourish that left the Tigers 8 games back in second place. Kaline hit .324 that year and led the AL with 41 doubles, but he was outpaced by Norm Cash and Rocky Colavito, both of whom topped the 40-homer mark. He did win the BBWAA Comeback Player of the Year Award, for he’d batted .278 in 1960.
The Tigers remained in a first-division ballclub and came close again in 1967, finishing a game behind the Boston Red Sox in the standings. Detroit would not be denied in 1968, as it won 103 games and captured its first AL pennant since 1945. Kaline had what would statistically be considered a down year, with 10 home runs and a .287 batting average. In a year that was dominated by pitching, his OPS+ was still 146. He saved his gaudy numbers for the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Game One of the 1968 World Series is the Bob Gibson game, and nobody could touch him. Kaline managed one of the five Tigers hits but also was the victim for three of Gibson’s 17 strikeouts. He came back with a couple of singles in Game Two, which the Tigers won 8-1. Kaline hit a 2-run homer in Game Three, and he managed two hits off Gibson in Game Four. The Tigers lost both of those games and needed three straight victories to win the World Series, including the final two games in Busch Stadium. Kaline sent the Series back to St. Louis with a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game Five, turning a 3-2 Cards lead into a 4-3 deficit. In Game 6, he had 3 hits and 4 RBIs, including a solo homer off Steve Carlton, in a 13-1 beatdown of the Redbirds. Cardinals pitching finally held Kaline hitless in Game Seven, but the rest of the Tigers scored 4 runs in a Game Seven 4-1 win.
Tigers starter Mickey Lolich won 3 games and had a 1.67 ERA, so it’s hard to deny him the World Series MVP honors. But Kaline did hit .379 with 2 homers and 8 RBIs, which isn’t bad for a guy who wasn’t supposed to be a starter in the Series. It was actually a surprise that Tigers manager Mayo Smith named him the team’s right fielder. Many people, Kaline included, assumed he’d be a fourth outfielder, behind Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup. He was willing to play first base or even third base, saying, “I’ll play anywhere Mayo wants me.”
Kaline returned to the postseason in 1972, as the Tigers lost the ALCS to the Oakland A’s. He hit .263 with a home run in that series.
Although wear and tear took its toll, Kaline remained a useful player through his final season in the majors. He played in 147 games in 1974, when he was 39 years old and a designated hitter. He hit .262 but with 13 home runs. His 3,000th career hit didn’t come in Detroit, but it came in the next best place: his home town of Baltimore, with his parents, sister, in-laws and friends in attendance. He doubled off the Orioles’ Dave McNally for his milestone hit. “Kaline must have 500 hits just off me, give or take one or two,” McNally cracked. (For the record, Kaline had 30 hits off him.)
In 22 seasons, Kaline slashed .297/.376/.480, with 3,007 hits. Those hits included 498 doubles, 75 triples and 399 home runs. He had 1,582 RBIs and scored 1,622 times. He generated 92.8 Wins Above Replacement, which is second to only Ty Cobb in Tigers history. He is still the team leader in home runs and games played.
Kaline was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility, with 88.3 percent of the vote. He also is one of only six Tigers who has been honored with a statue at Comerica Park. Kaline stayed close to the Tigers as a broadcaster following his retirement. He was partnered with George Kell in 1976, and he later worked with Ernie Harwell and Frank Beckmann until his retirement from the broadcast booth in 2001. He still remained a part of the Tigers family, acting as a special assistant to former team president Dave Dombrowski and current general manager Al Avila.
This spring training, Kaline visited the Tigers facility in Florida and had dinner with former manager Jim Leyland. “We go to dinner that night and we talked 1953 Tigers up until 2020 Tigers, all the old guys, the old coaches, the old managers,” Leyland told MLB.com. “It was one of those evenings you never want to leave. And when we got back, he hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for being a friend for all these years.'”
“One of the most distinguished and decorated players in the history of baseball, ‘Mr. Tiger’ was one of the greatest to ever wear the Olde English ‘D,’” said the Tigers in a statement. “The Hall of Famer has been a pillar of our organization for 67 years, beginning with his Major League debut in 1953 and continuing to present in his duties as Special Assistant to the General Manager. Our thoughts are with Mr. Kaline’s wife, Louise, and family now, and forever.”
For more information: Detroit Free Press