A 19-year-old Al Kaline sits on the bench with Tigers manager Fred Hutchinson in June of 1953 after signing a $35,000 contract to play for the Tigers.
Former Detroit Tigers manager Billy Martin called him “Mr. Perfection.” Some of his fellow players called him “Big Al,” and to others he was known as “the Line”. But most often they gave him the ultimate accolade a ballplayer can give another. They called him simply by the number on his uniform: Six.
Albert William Kaline was born in Baltimore on Dec 19,1934, the third child and only son of Nicholas and Naomi Kaline. Of German-Irish extraction, his family almost preordained Al to become a baseball player. His father, Nicholas, his uncles, Bib and Fred and his grandfather, Philip, had all been semipro catchers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a place that spawned many major leaguers.
The Kaline family, poor but proud–no Kaline had ever graduated from high school–decided that little Al would succeed. “My parents always helped me” Kaline explained. “They knew I wanted to be a major leaguer, and they did everything they could to give me the time to play baseball. Even though the family could have used the money I might have made at odd jobs, my father never would let me earn a dime. I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.
Kaline tosses the bat after a home run in 1955.
But Al suffered from osteomyelitis, a persistent bone disease. When he was 8 years old, doctors took two inches of bone out of his left foot, leaving jagged scars and permanent deformity. But this slowed Al down only slightly and only temporarily.” We had a big factory right across the street from us and there were a lot of people working there. Every lunchtime they would come out and have these pick-up games. They were always a man or so short, and I’d be standing under the trees to see if they were. They’d say ‘Come on, Al, play.’ I was only ten or eleven at the time, but they put me in the lineup and that’s how I really got started.”
Baltimore had a strong recreational baseball program, which allowed young Al to play with four or five different teams all the time. “I’d play a game in one end of town, then my father or uncle would drive me to another game. I would change uniforms in the car on the way. Sometimes I’d play three games a day. I never got enough.”
During his spectacular high school career, scouts from every one of the major league clubs came to watch him play. His coach, heavy with strong pitching talent, decided to try the young player at shortstop. Al proved himself as an infielder but with his unbelievable strong arm and the ability to throw with pinpoint accuracy, Al was installed permanently in center field.
“Switching to the outfield was the best break I ever got,” recalls Kaline.
By 1963 Kaline was an established veteran and recognized as one of the premier players in the game. Here he climbs Tiger Stadium’s right field wall in an attempt to steal a home run from the Yankees’ Joe Pepitone.
Kaline signed with the Tigers, the day after he graduated from Southern High School, June 18,1953. The Tigers thrust about $15, 000 on him with another $15,000 to come later as salary. Al turned every penny of it over to his parents. Mrs. Kaline underwent a much needed eye operation, and paid off the mortgage. In an interview with Detroit News Sports writer, Joe Falls, Kaline recalled his first days with the team.
“I’ll never forget that first night with the team. Going to the ballpark on the bus was the hardest 30 minutes of my life. I had to walk down that aisle between all the players. I really didn’t know too much about the Detroit Tigers at that time. I didn’t know who was on the team, but I saw every eye as I walked down the aisle. It looked like a thousand eyes were staring right at me saying, ‘Who is this young punk?’ I just kept my eyes straight ahead. I had only one suit to my name I could feel myself sweating under the arms. I could feel the sweat running down my sides.”
“We lost my first game. I missed the ball with guys on second and third when the batter hit a line drive out to right. I started in for the ball but I just couldn’t get it. I should have caught it because I was used to catching everything on the sandlots. But they hit the ball a lot harder in the major leagues and I just couldn’t reach the ball this time.”
As the days went on, I didn’t mind the games. In fact, I looked forward to them. That was the easiest part of all. I couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark I’d be the first one there and I was willing to do anything. I think that’s why the veterans liked me.”
Kaline always played the game full-out, seemingly with little fear for injury. On this play Aug. 19, 1965, Kaline broke his collar bone while diving for a ball in the first game of a double header with the Yankees.
“But the rest of it really scared me, All of a sudden I’m in the major leagues and we’re traveling from town to town. I see the other players dressing different every day. I’ve got only one suit and I keep wearing it over and over. I’m really embarrassed. I don’t even want to leave my hotel room. I lived at the Wolverine Hotel in Detroit. I didn’t know what to do with my time. We didn’t play many night games–14 or so–and so I was off almost every night. I’d go to the movies a lot and just walk around the streets looking in the store windows. It’s 10 or even or 12 o’clock and I’ve got nothing to do and I’m just wandering around the feeling pretty lonely.â€
But the days got better for Al — much better. After that first year of irregular play, on April 17, 1955, Kaline made baseball history. In a game against the Kansas City A’s, Al became the first person to hit two home runs in one inning since Joe DiMaggio had done it early in 1936. In 1955, Kaline became the youngest player to win the batting title. He was two months shy of his 21st birthday. The comparisons to Tiger Hall of Famer, Ty Cobb, who was one day older when he won his first batting title in 1907, were inevitable but painful to Al.
“It hurt me a great deal. It put a lot of pressure on me because I was at a young age and the writers around here and throughout the league starting comparing me to Cobb. It put a lot of pressure on me.”
Cobb won 11 more batting titles. Kaline never won another, although he finished his career with a .297 average. Kaline also hit 399 career home runs — 15-to 20 a season — and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.
Kaline who was named on 340 of the 385 ballots cast, became the 10th player in history picked for the Cooperstown shrine in his first year of eligibility. “I was very, very shocked,” Kaline said of the honor. “I thought my chances were fairly good, but I tried to stay low key about it, not too high and not too low. That was the way I played, too.”
During his 22 years as a player, Kaline became one of the finest right fielders ever. He won 10 Gold Glove awards for his fielding prowess, and once went 242 consecutive games without an error. He played in 12 All-Star games and helped his club win the 1968 world championship.
In the seventh inning of the fifth game of the series that pitted the Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals with the bases loaded, Kaline came to bat. George Cantor, longtime Detroit News columnist in his book “The Tigers of 68,” takes it from there:
One of the most feared hitters of his time, Kaline was often targeted by opposing pitchers. Here he goes down during a game in 1957 after being hit in the head by a pitched ball.
“In Kaline’s long career, this may have been the defining moment. Many of the corporate and VIP fans who had been given tickets for the first two game of the Series had jumped off the boat for this one. The people who loved the game were in the ballpark and they screamed for their long-time hero with passion that could not be contained. This is where it had all been leading, their adulation of him for all these long hopeless seasons. It was all this moment. Kaline could not fail them now. If there had been noisy afternoons before in this ballpark’s long history, they were eclipsed by the din that filled it at this moment. The light towers seemed to sway from the sheer volume of it. The big crowd pleaded with him not to fail.
“Joe Hoerner got ahead on the count, and Kaline fouled off one pitch after another on the corners. This was Six, one of the smartest hitters in baseball , fully focused on what had to be done. Hoerner finally made one pitch a little too good.
“Kaline who always described himself as a ‘mistake hitter’ pounced on this mistake. He lined it to right-center. Lolich and McAuliffe came racing home and the Tigers went ahead. If there had been noise before in this game, in this season, it was nothing compared to this. The stands had become a cauldron of hysteria. The Line had come through with everything on the line. The last fifteen years had been redeemed, stamped ‘paid in full.'”
Other baseball aficionados claim Kaline’s greatest achievement was his 1972 season when he rallied his faltering teammates and led them to a divisional victory and almost a pennant. Author Hal Butler in his book “Kaline” recounts, “Injured much of the season, and burdened by an unspectacular batting average, Kaline regained his top form that September. In the clutch when there was no longer a margin for error, Kaline performed like a 20-year old rather than a 20-year veteran. He lifted the Tigers into the playoffs against Oakland and acquitted himself brilliantly in the five-game showdown series.
Kaline speaks to the fans that came by the thousands to honor him on his “day” at Tiger Stadium Aug. 2, 1970. Among the honors was the renaming of a street behind Tiger Stadium as Al Kaline Drive.
In his 20th season as a big leaguer, and two months short of his 38th birthday, Kaline finished 1972 with a .313 batting average, his highest since 1961. Billy Martin, who became Kaline’s manager in his final years, said, “I have always referred to Al Kaline as Mr. Perfection. He does it all–hitting, fielding, throwing, running–and he does it with that extra touch of brilliancy that marks him as a super ballplayer. Although a regular outfielder, Al fits in anywhere, at any position in the lineup and any spot in the batting order. I like to send him to the plate in the number two slot because he is the best there is at moving up the runner. He can bunt, hit the ball behind the runner to right, or belt it out of the park.”
A television broadcaster since 1976, Al has become almost as successful in the booth as he was on the field. But he still feels he should be giving something back to the game. Recently he has worked as a volunteer coach. Speaking of today’s players, Kaline said, “I hope that they will appreciate the fact that a lot of people struggled to make the game what it is for them right now.”
What he gets upset about with the newer players is what he perceives is a lack of intensity. “They tend to go through the motions a little bit.” He says. “They don’t understand that you’ve got to practice the way you play. You’ve got to get good habits of working hard so that when that play comes up during the regular season that you’re able to complete it and do it the right way.”
In 1974 Kaline retired. Joe Falls summarized his career: “Al Kaline, magnificent ball player, decent person, family man who for 22 years conducted himself with great presence as a Tiger player. Not an Aaron. Not a Mays. Not a Mantle. He never pretended that he was. He was a man who simply went into the right field corner, played that double-carom shot and fired the ball into second, holding the runner on first. He didn’t hit them upstairs because he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough. But he could line it into left, or maybe up the alley and two runs would score. And he would do it day after day.”
(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )
By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News