As spring training unfolded in Lakeland, Florida, in 1968, the hopes were high for the Tigers’ chances to contend for the pennant after falling just short in 1967.
There were not many opportunities to make the 25-man roster, and there was virtually no chance that a pitcher who had one year of professional experience and had not pitched in two years could make the team.
He knew that. However, he might have had the best story of any player in camp that spring, and he was one of the first arrivals at Tigertown in 1968.
His name was Charley Kuhn. He was a left-handed pitcher who was 22 years old and had pitched for the Tigers’ Class A affiliate Daytona Beach in 1965. He had a great excuse for not being in camp the previous two springs: He was with the military in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Kuhn served 19 months of military service in Vietnam, mostly as a military policeman with the 25th Infantry Division.
“I hadn’t pitched in two years, and I was apprehensive about coming back to baseball,” Kuhn said in The Sporting News. “I’m proud of going over there. I spent 12 months with our military police and seven months as an advisor to the South Vietnamese national police. The Vietnamese are intelligent people, and I respect them.”
Kuhn began his professional career in the Chicago Cubs organization in 1965, but that season Detroit acquired him and sent him to the Daytona Beach Islanders of the Class A Florida State League. He was 4-3 with a 2.30 ERA and a 1.340 WHIP at age 19 with Daytona Beach in 1965, and he did not pitch again until the spring of 1968.
“He’s got a fine arm,” Tigers pitching coach Johnny Sain said. “After what he’s been through, he shouldn’t get scared on the mound, should he?”
Kuhn, who never appeared in a Grapefruit League game in 1968, was a frequent batting-practice pitcher that spring for the Tigers. He split the 1968 season between Rocky Mount of the Class A Carolina League and Lakeland of the Class A Florida State League and combined to go 3-5 with a 4.28 ERA.
Kuhn pitched in the minors for Detroit from 1968-73, although he did appear in seven games with Denver, an affiliate of the Washington Senators, in 1970. He had his best season in 1972 with the Montgomery Rebels of the Class AA Southern League. He was 10-9 with a 3.15 ERA, and he struck out 130 batters in 143 innings.
The following spring, Kuhn was a non-roster invitee to the Tigers’ major-league camp. He finished his seven-year career in the minors with a record of 38-42 and a 3.87 ERA. He appeared in 251 minor-league games with 62 starts.
He was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from John Carroll University. After baseball, he became an insurance claims adjuster in Pennsylvania. He also built and maintained web sites and was a horse handler at Brandywine Raceway in Wilmington, Del. He spoke five languages, including Vietnamese, Russian and Latin.
Kuhn passed away unexpectedly at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia on April 30, 2016. He was 70 years old.
It is one of those records that could be broken at some point, but it isn’t likely.
Marc Hall pitched a Detroit Tigers franchise record 13 relief innings on July 5, 1914, in the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns at Navin Field.
Tigers starting pitcher George Boehler gave up three runs in the top of the first inning and did not return for the second inning. Hall, a third-year pro in his second season with the Tigers, came on in relief. A right-hander who was five weeks shy of his 27th birthday, allowed one run in the third inning and another in the eighth, and after nine innings the game was tied 4-4. It stayed that way until the top of the 14th when the Browns scored what proved to be the winning run in a 5-4 victory.
Hall had pitched 13 innings and allowed three runs on 13 hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He also was 0-for-5 at the plate, and the loss dropped him to 4-4. Earl Hamilton of St. Louis pitched all 14 innings to get the win.
Only eight pitchers have thrown more than 13 relief innings since 1913, and the record belongs to Cubs pitcher Zip Zabel, who pitched 18 and one-third innings on June 17, 1915, at West Side Grounds in Chicago.
Hall’s record 13 innings of relief become even more amazing for two reasons: 1, He had pitched four and two-third innings of relief the previous day, and 2, he was on the verge of being diagnosed with a disease that would take his life in less than seven months.
Hall, a native of Joplin, Mo., broke into professional baseball in 1907 at the age of 19 in the Class D Oklahoma-Arkansas-Kansas League. He pitched for Springfield in 1909 and Joplin in 1910 of the Class C Western Association and got his first taste of the major leagues when the St. Louis Browns in 1910. He was 1-7 with a 4.27 ERA in eight games with the Browns and returned to the minors.
In 1911-12, Hall went 42-26 in two seasons with Omaha of the Class A Western League, and that got the attention of the Tigers, who signed him for the 1913 season. He made his debut with the Tigers in his native Missouri against his old team, the Browns. Hall pitched two scoreless innings of relief against the Browns in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and he went on to got 10-12 with a 3.27 ERA for the Tigers.
Hall’s season was cut short in August when he broke a bone in his foot while fielding a bunt. The highlight of the season was a four-hit shutout on June 1, 1913, against the White Sox at Comiskey Park in Chicago. It was the only shutout of his career.
Hall entered the 1914 season with high hopes. Eight of his 25 appearances were as a starter, and he was 4-6 with a 2.79 ERA when his season – and ultimately, his career – ended when he was diagnosed with diabetes. The doctors told him he would never play baseball again. The Tigers released him.
Hall reported early to the Tigers’ training camp in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1915, in an attempt to work out on his own. Even though he did not feel he would be in shape to make a major-league roster, he hoped to show enough to land in the minors, according to The Sporting News.
During that time, Hall’s illness became worse, and he returned home to Joplin, where he died on Feb. 24, 1915, at the age of 27.
Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Elden Auker wrote in his book that the only major-league player he knew of before he played baseball was Babe Ruth. Even the subtitle of the book is, “A Lifetime of Memories From Striking Out The Babe to Teeing It Up With The President.”
There is no verification that Auker ever struck out Ruth. In his book, he said it happened in 1933 after he entered the game as a relief pitcher in the third inning. In Auker’s first appearance against the Yankees, he did enter the game in the third inning. Babe Ruth sat out that game.
Auker pitched against the Yankees twice that season, and Ruth did not play in either game. OK, maybe he mixed up the seasons. In 1934, Auker pitched against the Yankees five times. Here is a recap of those five games:
May 5, 1934: Ruth grounded out the first time he faced Auker and homered in the second meeting.
May 18, 1934: Ruth singled and walked against Auker.
June 16, 1934: Ruth singled in his only at-bat against Auker.
July 14, 1934: Ruth grounded out, homered and singled in three at-bats against Auker.
September 19, 1934: Ruth did not play.
That’s it. Auker faced Ruth just eight times, and Ruth was 5-for-7 with two home runs and a walk. The only times Auker retired Ruth were on two ground outs, unless the historical play-by-play is wrong.
However, we’re not going to hold it against Auker, whose book was published in 2001 – 68 years after the alleged strikeout of Ruth.
However, there was a day in 1937 when Auker hit like The Babe, and this one is verified Auker had three career home runs, and two came on August 14 in the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns at Navin Field in Detroit.
Auker pitched a four-hitter in a 15-1 win. After a sacrifice fly in the third, Auker led off the sixth inning with a home run off Nig Lipscomb, a rookie second baseman who was being used as a pitcher to give the bullpen a rest in the blowout. An inning later, Auker hit a three-run shot off Lipscomb to give him five RBIs.
“Part of the beauty of baseball is that on any given day even a banjo hitter might just swing the bat with more power than one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the game,” Auker wrote in his book.
Auker was not making another reference to Ruth. He was writing about teammate Hank Greenberg, who had hit 26 home runs that season going into the doubleheader. The Tigers pounded the Browns in the second game, too, so St. Louis again turned to Lipscomb to rest toe bullpen.
Greenberg faced Lipscomb two times in the first game. He grounded into a double play and popped out to second base. In the second game, Greenberg 2-for-3 with a walk before Lipscomb entered the game. Greenberg finished 2-for-5, so it’s clear that he was hitless in two at-bats and finished the say 0-for-4 against the rookie.
“After it was over, I went up to Hank in the clubhouse and said, ‘Here, you want these two home runs of mine? I don’t need them,’ ” Auker wrote in his book.
Greenberg finished with 40 home runs in 1937. Auker never hit another one for Detroit.
“How can I get the same feeling of satisfaction out of it? I’m not giving them the same thing, so I’m not getting the same thing. You think they’re hurting me? But I’m hurting them, that’s the difference.” – Lou Gehrig to his wife, Eleanor, on May 1, 1939, the day before he benched himself in Detroit.
When Lou Gehrig decided to bench himself on May 2, 1939, it was a decision that did not come overnight. It might have started back in the final month-plus of the 1938 season when Gehrig hit an unusual three home runs in the final 39 games of the season.
After struggling in the preseason, Gehrig was off to a slow start in 1939, and on April 30, Gehrig was convinced his play was hurting the Yankees. He went 0-for-4 in a game against the Washington Senators at Yankee Stadium, and in his final at-bat he hit the ball as hard as he had hit one all season, and it failed to clear the fence for a home run.
In the next inning, Gehrig fielded a ball to his right at first base. Normally, he would have jogged to first to make the out, but he realized he might not get there in time and had to throw the ball to the pitcher to make the out. Gehrig’s teammates congratulated him in the dugout, and it caused him to wonder if his play had fallen so far that he would be congratulated for making a routine play.
“Heavens, has it reached that stage?” he asked himself, according to Jonathan Eig’s book, “Luckiest Man.”
The Yankees had an off day before starting a road trip in Detroit. Joe DiMaggio already was out with an injury, and Gehrig was not producing with a .143 batting average and no home runs in eight games.
At home on Monday, Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor, described him as, “troubled, shaken, even shocked,” in “Luckiest Man.”
The train carrying the Yankees arrived in Detroit early that Tuesday morning. After eating breakfast with Yankees catcher Bill Dickey at the Book-Cadillac Hotel, Gehrig saw manager Joe McCarthy in the lobby. Gehrig told McCarthy they needed to talk, and when they arrived at the manager’s room, Gehrig asked McCarthy to play someone else at first base.
Gehrig had played in 2,130 consecutive games, stretching from June 2, 1925, until April 30, 1939, so it was national news that he was going to miss a game.
McCarthy talked the press and said, “it’s a black day for me and the Yankees.”
Babe Dahlgren was chosen to replace Gehrig at first base, and he pleaded with Gehrig to reconsider, but Gehrig had his mind made up. After batting practice and infield practice, it was obvious that Gehrig was going to sit out the game, and the only thing left was to make it official.
McCarthy gave the lineup card to Gehrig, who as team captain occasionally would take it out to the meeting with umpires at home plate prior to the game. As Gehrig walked back to the dugout, Tigers broadcaster Ty Tyson grabbed the public address system and said, “How about a hand for Lou Gehrig, who played in 2,130 games in a row before he benched himself today.”
The crowd of 11,000 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit responded with cheers and an ovation. Gehrig rose to the top step of the dugout, tipped his cap and retreated to the locker room in tears. Doc Holst described the scene in The Detroit Free Press.
“Gehrig bawled like an engineer who has been given a party at his retirement on full pension after 55 years of faithful, honest service,” Holst wrote. “Gehrig cried because at 36, the greatest thing in his life had ended. He felt like a nobody.
“He didn’t want a parasol for 50 years of faithful service or an engraved gold watch. He wanted to keep on working. Rocking on the front porch and thinking of the things you used to do holds no glamour for a thirty-six-year-old man. So, Gehrig bawled like a baby and Boss McCarthy of the Yankees didn’t blame him.
“He’s the only truly modest fellow I’ve ever known,” McCarthy said in the Free Press. “He could hit a ball over that Masonic Temple over there, and you would never hear Lou tell about it. I never in my life heard Gehrig talk about something that he did. It was always something he didn’t do that worried him.”
It created a somber atmosphere in Briggs Stadium, but the game went on. The Tigers were starting a rookie pitcher, Fred Hutchinson, who was making his major-league debut. Hutchinson went on to pitch for Detroit for 10 seasons and win 95 games. He later managed the Cincinnati Reds but died of cancer at age 45. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center was named in his honor.
The Yankees were way too much for Hutchinson in his debut. He gave up eight runs in the first three innings, and New York went on to a 22-2 victory, obviously fired up to win one for Gehrig. Dahlgren, who replaced Gehrig, had two hits, including a home run in the third inning.
Gehrig never played again, although he stayed with the team as the two-week road trip progressed. When the team was in Chicago, Gehrig flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he underwent tests for six days before it was determined that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which later became known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
He was finished as a ballplayer, and on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day was held at Yankee Stadium. It was then that Gehrig made his famous “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech. He died on June 2, 1941, at the age of 37.
Gehrig lived nearly two years after his diagnosis and just 25 months to the day after he benched himself on a Tuesday afternoon in Detroit. That same day, a baby named William James Brown was born in Crestline, Ohio, less than 200 miles from Detroit. Thirty years later, that baby would become one of the most beloved Tigers players of all time. But we didn’t know him as William Brown or Bill Brown, we knew him as Gates Brown, born on the same day Lou Gehrig benched himself in Detroit.
Some might say Dale Alexander started his major-league career 44 years too soon. He was the prototype for the designated hitter, which started in the American League in 1973.
The strapping Alexander, nicknamed “Moose” or “Ox,” burst onto the major-league scene in a way few have, but defensive liabilities, a powerless stretch and eventually an injury left other players and fans to wonder what could have been.
Alexander attracted attention in 1928 with Toronto in the International League. He batted .380 with 236 hits, 31 home runs and 144 RBIs, and he was purchased by the Tigers along with another player for $100,000.
Tigers Hall-of-Fame outfielder Harry Heilmann was attempting to make the move to first base in spring training, but Alexander put on a power display that resulted in Detroit keeping Heilmann in the outfield.
The first-base job belonged to Alexander. It turned into an historic season.
Alexander hit for power and hit for average, much as he had the previous season in Toronto.
Some were calling Alexander the new Babe Ruth, but the original Ruth was more than holding his own. A doubleheader on September 7, 1929, featuring Alexander’s Tigers and Ruth’s Yankees, drew a lot of attention at Yankee Stadium.
Alexander won the matchup in the first game as he had a triple, home run and three RBIs in a 5-4 victory for the Tigers. Ruth was held to two singles. However, Ruth turned the tables in the second game with three hits, including a double and his 41st home run of the season, and four RBIs as New York defeated the Tigers 11-7.
Alexander had a single, double, home run and two RBIs as both sluggers finished with five hits in the doubleheader.
At the end of the season, Alexander had 25 home runs, 137 RBIs and a .343 average. He finished with 215 hits, making him the first rookie in the American League with more than 200 hits since Joe Jackson of the Chicago White Sox had 239 in 1911. Alexander also made history along with teammate Roy Johnson, who had 201 hits, as the first rookie teammates to each top 200 hits in a season.
But there was a problem. Alexander was horrible in the field.
“I know I look bad at first base,” Alexander said in a story written by Michael Santa Maria and James Costello in the 1991 Baseball Research Journal. “I had the bad habit of getting my feet crossed at first. But I’ve had some good coaching, and I’m getting so I can reach for a ball without falling down.”
He made 56 errors in his first three seasons at first base and twice led the AL in that category.
John Kieran of the New York Times wrote, “Big Dale used to play beside Charley Gehringer and Charley went into a decline after a while. That is, he practically declined to play second if Dale continued to play first.”
Kieran went on to write that when a ball came the way of Alexander, he would say, “I’ll take it – no, you take it – never mind, I have it – ah, there it goes.”
But he continued to hit. In 1930, Alexander nearly duplicated his great rookie season by batting .326 with 20 home runs and 135 RBIs. During the season he had a 29-game hitting streak that featured six home runs and 40 RBIs. Alexander drove in at least one run in 22 of the 29 games, including 19 of the last 22.
The highlight of the streak came on May 24 against the Chicago White Sox in Comiskey Park. He homered in consecutive at-bats off Tommy Thomas, and his second home run came after one hit by Marty McManus for back-to-back shots.
The streak came to an end on June 19 in Yankee Stadium. The Tigers had off days on June 17-18 to travel from Detroit, where they had just concluded a 13-game homestand. Ed Wells and a rookie by the name of Vernon Gomez – who would become better known in future years as Lefty Gomez – combined to end Alexander’s streak with an 0-for-3 performance, although he did have a sacrifice fly. Wells left the game after five innings with a blister.
Alexander began the 1931 season by collecting 27 hits in 53 at bats (.509) in 14 games. Of course, he could not keep up that pace, and he ended up hitting .325. But something was missing. He had just three home runs in 517 at bats.
With his power gone, Alexander was not nearly the feared hitter that he had been his first two seasons, causing Shirley Povich to write in the Washington Post, “When Alexander isn’t hitting he’s about as much use to a club as an armless pitcher.”
A few days before the 1932 season opener, the Tigers purchased Harry Davis from Toronto, and Tigers manager Bucky Harris, frustrated with Alexander’s defensive shortcomings, announced that Davis was his new first baseman.
Alexander never made a start for the Tigers in 1932. He appeared in 23 of their first 50 games – nearly all of them as a pinch-hitter – and Detroit dealt him to the Boston Red Sox on June 13, 1932. The Tigers swapped Alexander and outfielder Roy Johnson – the same Roy Johnson who had 201 hits for the Tigers in 1929 – for outfielder Earl Webb, who led the AL in doubles in 1931 and batted .333.
Alexander was batting just .250 (4-for-16) in 23 games when they dealt him, but he found Boston and Fenway Park to his liking. He went on to post a .372 average in 101 games for the Red Sox and became the first player to win a batting championship in the same season in which he had been traded. But the batting title came with controversy.
Alexander’s .367 average came in 392 at bats and 124 games. That was before baseball changed the rule so that a batter would need 502 plate appearances to qualify for the batting title; in 1932 it was 100 games.
Alexander’s batting title cost Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Jimmie Foxx the Triple Crown. Foxx led the AL with 58 home runs and 169 RBIs, but his .364 average fell short of Alexander.
However, Alexander’s rebirth as a slugger was short-lived. On May 30, 1933, Alexander twisted his knee sliding into home in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. He underwent a new therapy in the clubhouse between games, and that was the beginning of his decline.
Alexander returned to the Red Sox and belted a home run 11 days later against the Washington Senators at Fenway Park, but he wasn’t the same slugger. Alexander finished the 1933 season with a .281 average – his only average under .325 in five big-league seasons – five home runs and 40 RBIs. He hit the final home run of his major-league career off Tigers reliever Firpo Marberry at Navin Field in Detroit on June 21, 1933.
“I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t field, and when I got hurt, that was the end,” Alexander said.
The following season he was in Newark of the International League, and he never played in the big leagues again. However, he showed minor-league fans a glimpse of his massive power on June 14, 1935, when he hit four home runs in four successive at bats for Double-A Kansas City. For the rest of his minor league career, Alexander never hit under .300 until his final season in 1942. In the minor leagues, Alexander finished with 2,072 hits, 1,171 RBIs and an average of .338.
When he was through playing, Alexander became a manager in the minor leagues and later a scout and totaled 36 years in professional baseball. He died after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer on March 2, 1979, in his hometown of Greenville, Tenn. He was 75.
“D” TALES: Dale Alexander’s rebirth as a slugger with the Boston Red Sox was short-lived.
On May 30, 1933, Alexander twisted his knee sliding into home in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. Red Sox trainer Doc Woods tried diathermy, a new therapy, on Alexander in the clubhouse between games. In the 1991 Baseball Research Journal, Michael Santa Maria and James Costello wrote, “Diathermy uses electric currents to produce heat in body tissues. After putting Dale in for the treatment, the trainer went out to get something to eat and forgot about him.”
Years later, Alexander’s son Don said, “They’d just barbecued his leg. It really sort of atrophied. It really was smaller than the other. Just like it was a burn. Scarring tissue. It was discolored.”
Alexander described the treatment in that issue of Baseball Research Journal.
“It was a new method of treatment and not much was known about it,” Alexander said. “I noticed my left leg felt awfully hot. I ended up with third-degree burns and a gangrene infection, and I almost lost my leg. I was finished in the majors.”
After his first 532 at-bats in the major leagues, 20-year-old Al Kaline had a career .274 batting average with five home runs and 45 RBIs.
Those are pre-1955 numbers. That season changed everything for Kaline, and he wasted no time doing it. He had two hits in each of his first five games leading up to an April 17 game against the Kansas City Athletics at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. It would be Kaline’s first big moment in the major leagues/
Still only 20, Kaline hit third and played right field for the Tigers against Athletics second-year right-hander Johnny Gray. It was scoreless going into the bottom of the third, but Kaline, who had walked in the first inning, ended that with a two-out, two run home run off a curveball, giving him a six-game hitting streak. The Tigers battered Gary in the fourth, driving him from the mound with Charlie Bishop taking over. Kaline capped a four-run inning with a run-scoring single, and that gave him six consecutive multi-hit games.
Kaline was far from through for the day.
The next time Kaline came to the plate, it was the bottom of the sixth inning, and Bob Spicer was on the mound for Kansas City. Kaline led off by blasting a fast ball over the wall in left-center field for his second home run of the game. The Tigers batted around to bring Kaline to the plate again with a runner on third and one out and Detroit leading 14-0. Now facing Bob Trice, Kaline smacked a slider into the lower left field stands for a two-run homer to score Harvey Kuenn, giving him three home runs in the game and two in the same inning. And he hit them off three different pitches from three different pitchers.
With a chance at four home runs in one game, Kaline came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, but Trice retired him on an infield popup, leaving Kaline’s line at 4-for-5 with three home runs, six RBIs and three runs scored.
The last American League player to hit two home runs in the same inning was New York Yankees great center fielder Joe DiMaggio on June 2, 1936, and Kaline was the first to do it for the Tigers. The three-homer game was the first by a Detroit player since Pat Mullin in 1949.
It not only was a springboard to a batting title, it was a springboard to a Hall-of-Fame career.
The headline on Page 1 of the Detroit Free Press read, “Shy Guy With Big Bat.” Free Press sportswriter Hal Middlesworth, who would later become public relations director for the Tigers, wrote, “No one could have picked Kaline as the newest addition to baseball’s honor roll of slugging.”
Kaline didn’t try to explain it.
“My stance and swing are the same,” he said in the Free Press, “and I’m using the same bat.”
One difference was a weight gain. When the 1954 season ended, Kaline weighed 155 pounds, and he was at 175 for the start of the 1955 season.
While Kaline could not continue his six-game streak of multi-hit games to open the season, he continued to hit consistently through the first month of the season. He stretched his season-opening hitting streak to 14 games and was batting .453 with an OPS of 1.373 at that point. He quickly added an 11-game hitting streak before going 0-for-4 on May 13. Then, he hit in another six in a row to make it 25 out of 26 and 31 out of 33 to start the season.
As if that wasn’t good enough, Kaline then embarked on his longest hitting streak of the season. He had a 15-game hitting streak from May 24 through June 7. He was 25-for-59 for a .424 average with three doubles, one triple, two home runs and 10 RBIs. His batting average was .378.
Kaline really was not threatened much as the season progressed, and Vic Power finished second to Kaline at .319 and George Kell, the former Tigers player who later would team up with Kaline on the television broadcasts, was third at .312.
Although Al Kaline is not considered the greatest Tigers player of all-time – that would be Ty Cobb – he is the unquestioned Mr. Tiger.
Kaline had a greatness of his own on the field, and it was solidified when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot Off the field, he was nothing but class for more than 65 years with the franchise as a player, television analyst, front-office employee and franchise icon.
Kaline, who never played in the minors and made his professional debut in the majors at 18, had no weaknesses. He could hit for average (career .297), he could hit for power (399 career home runs, .480 slugging percentage), and he could run (137 career stolen bases. And he had a keen eye with 1,277 walks to 1,020 strikeouts.
Defensively, he won the American League Gold Glove Award 10 times, and his rocket arm helped him lead the league in assists for an outfielder three times (1954-56-58). He likely never led the league again in assists as base runners stopped testing his arm.
He went from the Baltimore sandlots right to Detroit, skipping the minor leagues because he was considered a bonus baby (a player who received more than a $4,000 signing bonus). He received a $35,000 signing bonus, which meant he had to remain in the major leagues for two seasons before he would be eligible to be sent to the minors.
“It was certainly great to go right to the major leagues, but I have to say it was very tough emotionally on me,” Kaline told Will Carroll of the Bleacher Report in 2014. “Here’s an 18-year-old kid coming in and taking somebody’s job who probably spent four, five, six years in the minors.
“I remember the first day I joined the ballclub, a veteran player grabbed me by the shirt and said, ‘You don’t belong up here, you took my best friend’s job.’ (It) scared me to death, I’m only 18 years old and I’m only doing what they told me to do.”
Kaline joined the team in June of 1953 but was more of a spectator than a player. He was mostly used as a pinch-runner, and by the end of August he was 2-for-12 in 23 appearances without a start. However, on September 16, Kaline drew his first start. As a center fielder, he hit eighth in the batting order and went 3-for-5 with an RBI in Detroit’s 8-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Kaline made three more starts that month, and in 1954 he was a regular from the start, including Opening Day, when he played center field. At 19, Kaline hit .276 but only had 25 extra-base hits out of 139 as his body had yet to fill out. Still, he finished third in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year and 23rd for the AL MVP Award. He was set up for a breakout season.
In 1955, Kaline went from contender for the Rookie of the Year Award to American League batting champion and runner-up in the voting for the AL MVP Award. He also was named an all-star for the first time. He started with a bang – six consecutive multi-hit games to start the season, including three home runs in one game. That was the beginning of his new-found power, and he went on to hit 27 home runs with 102 RBIs and 121 runs scored. His slugging percentage jumped from .652 to .967.
Kaline became the youngest player to win the batting title – he hit .340 with 200 hits – breaking the record set 48 years earlier by Cobb. He was one day younger than Cobb had been when Cobb won the batting title.
For the next six years, Kaline topped 500 at-bats each season and reached at least a .300 batting average four times. In 1959, Kaline led the American League with a .530 slugging percentage and a .940 OPS after hitting .327 with 27 home runs and 94 RBIs.
In 1961, Kaline led the league with 41 doubles as the Tigers won 101 games but still finished second behind the New York Yankees. He also had a 22-game hitting streak, which ended up being the longest of his career, and he seemed prime for another outstanding season in 1962.
Going into the game on May 26, 1962, Kaline was hitting .345 with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs in 36 games. He seemed on his way to a potential MVP season, but in a game at Yankee Stadium, Kaline broke his collar bone while diving for a game-saving catch in right field. Detroit had a 2-1 lead, and a runner was on first with two out when Elston Howard drove the ball to right field. Kaline charged the ball and made a tumbling catch, securing the ball as his collar bone was broken.
“I don’t remember exactly what happened” Kaline, already wearing a cast, told Detroit Free Press writer Joe Falls after the game. “I know I was playing deep, out by the Yankee bullpen. If it wasn’t the ninth inning, I wouldn’t be doing that, but I had to guard against the extra-base hit. They had a guy on first base, and I didn’t want him to score. I had to be ready in case Howard hit one toward the seats.
“It happened so sudden. I remember falling. … I don’t know why I fell … and that’s about all.”
Kaline, an established star, missed two months. The Tigers were 19-17 at the time of the injury, and they were 26-30 without him. Kaline picked up where he left off on July 23 when he returned to the lineup, and he finished the season with a .304 batting average, 29 home runs and 94 RBIs in just 100 games. It established a career-high in home runs for Kaline, who never hit 30 in a season despite finishing with 399.
The injury certainly cost Kaline reaching 400 career home runs, but also might have cost him the AL MVP Award. By missing one-third of the season, he would have projected to more than 40 home runs and around 130 RBIs had he stayed healthy. It would have been his career year.
Kaline made a run at the 1963 MVP and finished second with 27 home runs, 101 RBIs and a .312 batting average. After that, Kaline never reached 100 RBIs again, but he had back-to-back 25-plus home run seasons in 1966-67. The 1967 season was a huge disappointment for Kaline as the Tigers lost the final game of the season when a victory would have put them in a tie for first place in the American League.
Kaline, sensing that he might never play in a World Series, and the rest of the Tigers were ready for 1968. Again, an injury popped up at the worst time possible for Kaline. On May 25 – late May, just like in 1962 – Kaline was hit by a pitch thrown by Oakland pitcher Lew Krausse. The Tigers won 2-1 to improve to 24-14 with a two-game lead in the American League, but Kaline was sidelined again.
This time, Kaline missed a little more than a month, but in the meantime, the Tigers had used Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup in the outfield, and all three were performing well enough to be starters. Kaline was good but not like younger Kaline, and his OPS of .820 was the lowest it had been since 1960 and seconc-lowest since 1954.
The Tigers easily won the pennant, but manager Mayo Smith had a dilemma. He wanted Kaline’s bat in the lineup for the World Series, but he did not know which outfielder would be replaced. Smith approached Kaline about playing third base in place of Don Wert, and Kaline took grounders there during batting practice for a few days before the idea was scratched.
With five games remaining in the regular season, Smith told Stanley that he would be playing shortstop in the World Series. Stanley was a great defensive center fielder and a fine athlete, so Smith felt he could handle the job and replace starting shortstop Ray Oyler, who was fine defensively but a liability at the plate.
Kaline’s spot in the lineup was secure. He would play right field, while Northrup would move to center. It is considered one of the biggest positional moves in World Series history, and it worked. After losing three of the first four games of the World Series to the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals, the Tigers won the last three to win the World Series for the first time since 1945.
Kaline was instrumental in the outcome. He hit .379 with a 1.055 OPS in the seven games with two home runs, eight RBIs and six runs scored. He also had what he considers to be the most important hit of his career. In the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 5 at Tiger Stadium, Detroit was facing elimination and trailing 3-2 with the bases loaded with one out. Kaline, facing Joe Hoerner, singled to right-center to score two runs for a 4-3 lead. Norm Cash added a run-scoring single, and the Tigers won 5-3.
From there, the Cardinals did not score again until the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7. By then, it was too late.
Kaline savored the victory. Team always meant more than individual to him, and it showed in the Detroit Free Press. He wrote a column each day of the World Series, and after Game 7, he finished his story by writing, “It always means more when you have to work for something, and, of course, I’ve been around 16 years and this is my
first pennant and World Series. And then, the way we won it made it doubly good, the way we played all year, from the time of that nine-game winning streak right after we lost on Opening Day/
“It’s been my greatest year in baseball. I’ll never forget it.”
The record shows that, in Kaline’s “greatest year in baseball,” he hit .287 with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs and missed more than a month with an injury. That’s a team player. That’s Kaline.
However, that wasn’t the end of Kaline’s career, either. He hit 21 home runs in 1969 – his final 20-homer season – as the Tigers failed to defend their championship. The Tigers offered Kaline a contract for $100,000 – an amount no Detroit player had ever received. Kaline rejected it, saying that he felt he did not deserve it. A year later, he received the same offer and accepted it.”
While Kaline began to slip as he passed through his mid-30s and into his late 30s, he never was a liability. His average never dropped below .250, and he never failed to hit at least 10 home runs in a season.
Kaline and the Tigers reached the postseason again in 1972 by winning the American League East Division title. The Tigers clinched it in the next-to-last day with a victory over the Boston Red Sox at Tiger Stadium, and Kaline caught the final out, waving his arms in the air as he camped under the ball hit by Ben Oglivie. Kaline wasn’t as effective in the American League Championship Series as he had been in the World Series, but he still hit .263 with a home run and three runs scored as the Tigers lost to the Oakland Athletics, who went on to win the World Series by beating the Cincinnati Reds.
As Kaline neared the end of his career, there was one target he wanted to reach: 3,000 career hits. At the time, just 11 players had reached the milestone. While Kaline would certainly have liked to have reached 3,000 hits at Tiger Stadium, he did it at the next-best place: Memorial Stadium in his hometown of Baltimore. Kaline hit a pitch thrown by Orioles left-hander down the right-field line for a stand-up double and his place in the exclusive 3,000-hit club.
“This definitely ranks above the batting championship,” Kaline said in the Detroit Free Press. “Any time you win a batting championship, there’s a lot of luck that goes with it. But when you get 3,000 hits, I don’t think anybody can say you were just lucky. You’ve had to withstand the pressure of all those seasons, and injuries and everything. To me, that really means something. But, nothing will surpass winning the World Series.”
Kaline had seven hits left in him, and he collected No. 3,007 on October 1, 1974, at Tiger Stadium. It was a single to center off Jim Palmer, an Orioles pitcher who eventually joined him in the Hall of Fame.
Kaline was an 18-time American League all-star, and he started seven All-Star Games (1955-56-57-59-61-63-66). He hit .324 (12-for-37) with a double, two home runs and six RBIs, and he also stole a base. He homered off Braves pitcher Lew Burdette in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in the first of two All-Star Games in 1959. The following year, he again hit a home run in the first of two All-Star Games, this time off Braves pitcher Bob Buhl at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.
On January 9, 1980, Kaline was elected to the Hall of Fame. He was named on 88.3 percent (340 of 385 ballots) of the ballots; 75 percent was necessary for election. Long-time Dodgers outfielder Duke Snider also was elected on the ballot.
“I don’t think my vocabulary can express what I feel,” Kaline said in the Detroit Free Press. “Knowing all the great players who didn’t make it on the first ballot, I thought my chances of making it were nip and tuck, maybe 50-50. So, I tried to stay low key.
“Certainly, the ultimate possible is to go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. It’s super just to get in. I really never thought I would choose an individual thing that happened just to me over a team thing like the World Series. But I would have to say this is the biggest thin that has ever happened to me.”
The Tigers announced that they would retire Kaline’s No. 6 at a ceremony that summer.
During Kaline’s speech at his induction into the Hall of Fame, he said, “Regardless what anyone tells you, a player is only as good as those other players around him. I can’t tell you how lucky I’ve been to have played with some of the fellows that I did. Maybe we didn’t win a lot of pennants, but the Tigers were always there. Without naming all those who helped save my career, please accept my hearty thanks, guys.”
Two weeks after his induction into the Hall of Fame, Kaline became the first Tigers player to have his number retired. It happened between games of a doubleheader with the Texas Rangers at Tiger Stadium on August 17, 1980. A crowd of 42,117 turned out to honor the man who wore No. 6.
Kaline told the crowd that playing in Detroit made him “one of the luckiest baseball players that ever lived,” and he added that Detroit was “the greatest baseball town in the major leagues. It made my career more enjoyable than any players has a right to expect.”
Tiger Stadium closed after the 1999 season, and Comerica Park was opened in 2000. The Tigers mounted six statues behind the seats in left-center field: Ty Cobb, Hal Newhouser, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton and Kaline. In his statue, Kaline is shown reaching his glove hand above his head trying to catch a fly ball.
Kaline remained active with the team after his playing days. He became an analyst for Tigers games on television along with another Hall-of-Famer, George Kell, and Kaline accepted a front-office role as an advisor for team owner Mike Ilitch in 2001. He remained in that role through the 2010s.
On April 6, 2020, with baseball on hold because of the coronavirus, Kaline died at his home from an undisclosed illness at age 85.