Al Kaline is Mr. Tiger, not only because he played in more games as a Tiger than anyone else and hit more home runs than any Tiger, but also because he gave his Detroit teammates and fans his classiest best in baseball skill, leadership, and determination each inning he played.
Kaline was born into a sports-minded family that included a father and two uncles who played semi-pro baseball. Though smaller than most boys his age and somewhat shy, he became a top-notch player by sheer practice and playing time. He enrolled in several organized leagues each season, being transported from field to field by family members. Young Al possessed a great arm, developed solid hitting skills, and had great infielder quickness.
Scout Ed Katalinas signed Kaline ($35,000 bonus) right off the Baltimore sandlots and Al never played one inning in the minor leagues. On June 25, 1953, his first game, he played right field for the first time in his life. He was used sparingly by Manager Fred Hutchinson, usually as a pinch runner. His first homer came off Dave Hoskins (Cleveland) and he singled off Satchel Paige before that first season ended.
In his rookie year of 1954 Kaline hit a modest .276 with four HR and was part of an outfield corps that included Don Lund, Bob Nieman, Bill Tuttle and highly touted Jim Delsing. By 1959 all of these phenom outfielders were gone in favor of Charlie Maxwell, Harvey Kuenn, and Kaline. Kaline’s second career homer in 1954 was a grand slam, making him the second youngest ever to have hit one. (Eddie Onslow of the 1912 Tigers was the youngest until Boston’s Tony Conigliaro moved him back in 1964.) Red Sox legend Ted Williams told Kaline to build his wrist strength up over the winter by squeezing baseballs as hard as he could. Though the slender rookie’s glove was never in doubt, his power was. Those doubts were laid to rest early in 1955 as Kaline hit in 23 of his first 24 games, including seven home runs – three at Kansas City in one game (his only three-homer game), two in one inning. Ending at .340, 27 HR, 102 RBI, and 121 runs, he was the youngest AL batting champ, shading the immortal Ty Cobb for the honor. It was the only time he would amass 200 hits in a season. He finished second in MVP voting, just 17 points behind Yogi Berra.
As a perennial All-Star, Kaline homered off Lew Burdette (1959) and Bob Buhl (1960) while hitting .324 in All-Star 16 games. In 1962 Kaline was having a fantastic year (.336, 13 HR, 38 RBI) when on May 26 he fractured his right collarbone diving for the last-out catch in a 2-1 Hank Aguirre win at New York. Two months later he reentered the race with a game-winning, two-run single in a 4-3 Aguirre win. In a mere 100 games that year he hit 29 HRs with 94 RBI. Proportionately, had he played the entire season, he would have eclipsed 30 homers and possibly 40 for the only time in his career. That injury certainly cost him the opportunity to later become the first American Leaguer to collect 400 homers and 3,000 hits in a career. Various injuries removed Kaline from some 200 games during his 15 “prime” years. In 1963 Kaline again finished second to a Yankee catcher, Elston Howard, in the MVP balloting.
After missing a third of the 1968 season, Kaline was fit into manager Mayo Smith‘s World Series lineup by playing centerfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop. In the seventh inning of Game Five, the bases were full and the Tigers were down 3-2 in score and 3-1 in games. Kaline singled home two runs to win the game and ignite Detroit’s comeback for the World Championship.
Kaline made playing right field into an art form. He won 10 Gold Gloves in 11 years (1957-59, 61-67). All comparisons to his glove work eventually fellelson short because he was so graceful and quick. Never a wasted motion, never a wrong decision. Kaline has said, “When I first came up to the Tigers I was scared stiff, but I had desire. Desire is something you must have to make it in the majors. I was never satisfied with just average.” Though he was not spectacular, he was as close to perfect as a player could be. All of his baseball skills were impeccably honed: hitting for power and average, speed, throwing, and fielding judgment.
Always a Detroit hero, Al Kaline joined the Tiger broadcasting crew after his retirement from the field.