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.