The news of Al Kaline’s death felt like an electric shock. He was my youth. By the time I started following the Tigers, Kaline was an established star. He had won the American League batting championship in 1955, the year I was born.
In fact, the very first Tigers game of my life came on May 5, 1955 – 5-5-55 – one day after I was born at 11:15 p.m. and the Tigers game that day was over. The next day, with me screaming in a nursery at Foote Hospital, Kaline hit a two-out, walk-off triple to lead the Tigers to a 3-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Briggs Stadium in Detroit.
I would have loved that. Actually, I do love that. Kaline brought home a winner in the first game of my life.
To a young boy growing up in Michigan, Al Kaline was baseball. Other than 1961, and I wasn’t old enough to appreciate them that year, the Tigers were not real good in the early to mid 1960s. That is why Kaline was so important to a 10-year-old boy. The Tigers had a real star. The Yankees had Mickey Mantle, the Red Sox had Carl Yastzemski and the Orioles had the Robinsons, but Detroit had No. 6, and he didn’t get here through a trade of anything else. The Tigers signed him out of a Baltimore high school, and Kaline never played a day in the minor leagues.
Kaline was my first favorite player, although as the 1960s moved on, I gravitated to pitchers and clung to Denny McLain in 1968. But I always worshipped Kaline as he seemed bigger than life to me.
I had to be there in the rain on Al Kaline Day at Tiger Stadium. I wanted to be at Cooperstown when he went into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I was not able to pull that off. One thing I never dreamed was that one day I would meet him and have a conversation with him.
Oh, the perks of the sports writing business. On occasion, we get to meet our heroes, but we can’t act like we’re meeting our heroes. It has to be professional. I had been in his presence a few times but never really had a chance to talk with him one-on-one until 1999, when I interviewed him for my 2 1/2 Minutes column in the Jackson Citizen Patriot.
Kaline was never rude, but he was not comfortable in an interview session with someone he didn’t know, and he really didn’t like to talk about himself. But after I approached him, Kaline agreed to sit down and have a chat.
I was excited and calm at the same time, and really, I only remember one thing about it. I asked a question that resulted in an answer I was not expecting. I asked him if he thought that his injury woes through his career hurt his performance in the long run.
Kaline basically said he wished that he could have done better but he did the best he could. I felt like a jerk. Somehow, he took that question as my criticizing his career, when I actually was trying to say, “Al, you were a great, great player. How much greater would you have been without injuries.”
It didn’t hamper the rest of the interview, but to this day I regret that I did not word the question better. Most players would not have taken it that way, but Al was an introvert to those he didn’t know, and maybe he thought I had an agenda.
I ran into Al in the locker room a few years later, and he recognized me and said hi, and that made me feel a lot better. Those were my only two personal interactions with him, other than getting an autograph at a card show many years earlier.
Al Kaline wasn’t the greatest player ever. He wasn’t even the greatest Tiger ever. But he is Mr. Tiger, and there will only be one Mr. Tiger. He could do it all. He could hit for average, he could hit for power, he could field, he could throw and he could run – above average for all five tools.
Off the field he was the perfect ambassador for the Tigers. He remained in Detroit, and as a TV color man on Tigers games, he became visible to the generation that was born too late to watch him play. Then he joined the front office, and every summer, No. 6 was on the field, never being pushy with advice but always being there to give it if a young player would just ask.
In Detroit baseball history, there will likely be another Al Kaline, a teen-ager who never played in the minors leagues and became the youngest player ever to win a batting title. Then throughout his scandal-free career, he was a player to be proud of; a player to look up to. He earned and deserved all the admiration that he received.
Al Kaline was a superstar. Al Kaline was a gentleman. And in a world of big egos and wild lifestyles, Al Kaline was just a kid from Baltimore who wanted to play baseball more than anything in the world. And he played it better than almost everyone in the world.
Thanks for the memories.
A few months ago, I ran my 2 1/2 Minutes column that ran in the Jackson Citizen Patriot in 1999. I thought I’d share it again at this time. Maybe some of you never saw or, or a few might want to read it again.
I feel very fortunate to have spent the time with Al Kaline not only for the story but for the memory of my interactions with a giant personality of my youth.
When I worked at The Jackson Citizen Patriot, I wrote a column called 2 ½ minutes. That’s how long it normally took to read it. The column was a question-and-answer format with a topical sports personality.
Just days before the final game at Tiger Stadium in September of 1999, Al Kaline agreed to be the subject of the column that would run the week of the final game. Really, there was nobody better than No. 6 to signify the closing of Tiger Stadium.
Here is the column, as it was written in 1999:
When the final out has been made at Tiger Stadium on Monday, Al Kaline should have first choice of what he wants to take home. He is the greatest living Tigers player, and he played in more games for the Tigers than any other player.
Ty Cobb may be the greatest Tigers player of all-time, but not many are still around who can remember seeing Cobb play. There will be many in attendance on Monday who witnessed Kaline’s brilliant career.
Question: How long did it take for the aura of Tiger Stadium to wear off when you first made it to the major leagues?
Kaline: First of all, I didn’t know how long I was going to be a part of the Tigers. As the years progressed and I started having good years and knew I was going to be here for a while, I started thinking, ‘Wow, Ty Cobb played in the same outfield I played in. Hank Greenberg hit a home run in the same spot that I did. Babe Ruth played here.’
Question: How much pressure was put on you for becoming the youngest player to win a batting title?
Kaline: The first year after that was a tough thing to live with because there were a lot of expectations and being compared to Cobb and people like that. It was a little bit difficult.
Question: How concerned were you in September of 1968 about your chances of playing in the World Series?
Kaline: I had missed six weeks of the season and (manager) Mayo Smith was in quite a difficult spot because the writers were starting to write, ‘Is Kaline going to play?’ I was getting to the age where maybe I would never get the chance again, and it turned out to be true. I had a conversation with Mayo, and I told him I thought it was only right that he played the guys that got him there. Then he made the comment to me that I should work out at third base and take some ground balls before I got back in the lineup. He was going to play me at third base in the World Series, but then Willie Horton got hurt and missed the last three or four weeks of the season. I went back out to right field, and I really had a great month, and that was when the decision was made to put (Mickey) Stanley at shortstop and keep me in the outfield.
Question: You drove in the winning run in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series. Was that your biggest moment in Tiger Stadium?
Kaline: It’s certainly one of them, although it wasn’t one of the hardest hit balls I ever hit here, but more people saw that than any other hit I had. I would say it was the most important hit I ever had here, getting a chance to get a big hit in the fifth game of the World Series.
Question: How did you feel in 1984 as a TV announcer when the Tigers won the World Series?
Kaline: I loved it. I loved working that season. When they got off to their great start of 35-5, it was a joy to be around those guys. When you win, it really creates a team atmosphere. It’s all for the team, and nobody cares about individuals. When you lose, everybody tends to think about individual things.
Question: If you had your choice of anything to take from Tiger Stadium, what would it be?
Kaline: I’ve been thinking a lot about it, but I haven’t made a decision. I would like to take home plate or my locker, and from what I understand, there are a lot of guys who want home plate, so I’d better get here the night before and dig it out.
Question: What about the No. 6 that is on the third deck that represents your retired uniform number?
Kaline: Oh wow. I hadn’t even thought about that. It’s so big, though, I don’t know where I would put it in my house.”