Of all the great baseball players who played for the Detroit Tigers over the course of their 120 seasons, there has been none greater than Al Kaline. From the time he was signed straight out of a Baltimore high school in 1953 until his passing in 2020, no other player or person better personified the title “face of the franchise”.
Even in his 80’s, the cameras would pan to Kaline, now a special assistant to the general manager and a fixture in the booth above home plate at Comerica park. He was never far from Tigers’ baseball. From his rookie season until the day he died, he was “Mr. Tiger”, Detroit’s own true legend. He was someone that we could all be proud of no matter where we were in America.
When Kaline became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1980, he went in on the first ballot. He remains the last player voted in by the Baseball Writers’ Association to go in as a Tiger. Seven other former Tigers have gone in since, either voted by the veterans’ committee or wearing a different cap. There was never any question about Kaline going into the Hall.
Many Tigers’ fans will remember Kaline as a color commentator, or as the elderly statesman. I am fortunate enough- and old enough- to remember at least some of Kaline’s playing days. So, I’d like to share a few memories of his playing days at Tiger stadium.
Detroit has always been a great baseball town. Growing up around Detroit in the 1960’s, we’d get our baseball mostly on the radio. When riots set the town ablaze in 1967, and President Johnson called in the national guard, and the Vietnam war raged on the evening news, the Tigers were a healing force. For many, they were just the distraction that we needed to take our minds off tougher times. And Kaline was the star of that team.
There was a curfew declared during the riots in 1967, and kids were told that we could not go past the sidewalk without an adult, so we’d be confined to the porch. We had a transistor radio that would bring us Tiger games, as narrated by Ernie Harwell.
The Tigers were what the kids would talk about in school, what workers would talk about in the factories, and what writers would fill the pages with in the newspapers. We didn’t have much else to cheer for, at least on the sports scene. When Kaline came up to bat, the chatter stopped and everyone listened.
By the time I started playing little league in 1966, Kaline was already a legend in Detroit. He made the All-Star team 13 years in a row. Ironically, that streak would be broken in 1968 due to an injury. Still, he returned in time to help the Tigers win their first World Series title since 1945. The grown ups all said it was fitting that Kaline finally got to win a World Series title while he was still one of the best in the game.
Kaline was the player who did everything right. Although he was a great hitter, racking up 3,000 hits and still the youngest player to win an American league batting title at age 20 in 1955, he was an even better outfielder. He could throw the ball from the warning track in right field into the glove of the third baseman or the catcher on the fly, every time. That’s what I think of when his name is mentioned. He moved in the outfield with grace and little effort, always making great plays look easy. He was the exemplary player. The one that all the kids would want to emulate.
Word was that Kaline had signed with Detroit for a $35,000 bonus out of high school, but he later said that he got only $15,000, plus a guaranteed salary of $6,000 per season for two years. When the Tigers made him their first ever $100,000 player, he resisted. His humble demeanor is part of his legend.
When the Tigers finally got to the World Series in 1968 after missing out on the American League pennant by one game the previous season, Kaline was back in the lineup. He hit .379, driving in eight runs, including a two run single in the seventh inning that turned the series around in Game Five with the Tigers trailing three games to one. It would be the only fall classic appearance of his career.
Kaline, along with several other veteran Tigers, staged their last hurrah, winning the AL East division in 1972. With the Tigers trailing the Boston Red Sox by 1⁄2 game with two games against them remaining in the season, Kaline went 5-for-8 with three runs scored to help Detroit win the division title, advancing to the league championship series.
I recall one particular Saturday when my dad brought us to a day game. It was “ladies- retirees day”, meaning ladies, seniors, and kids got in cheap. We tore up an old sheet and painted with water colors “Al is our pal” and took the sign to the game. I don’t remember the year, or who won, just that we got to see Al Kaline and the Tigers. It was a special day.
Kaline never hit as many as 30 home runs in a season, yet he is still the all time franchise leader with 399 home runs. By the time he retired after the 1974 season, he was the all time franchise leader in games played, bases on balls and Win Probability Added (WPA+). He is second only to Ty Cobb in several other categories. Twenty-two seasons, all as a Tiger.
Following his retirement, Kaline joined Hall of Famer George Kell in the broadcast booth as a color commentator beginning in 1976. Just one or two games each week were televised during the summer, with Kell doing the play-by-play and Kaline explaining the game to viewers. He continued in that role through the 2002 season as more and more games were on television.
Perhaps the player most often compared to Kaline was Roberto Clemente, the National League right fielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates who was tragically killed in a plane crash bringing aid to earthquake victims in his native Nicaragua. When MLB renamed their man of the year award after Clemente, it was first awarded to Al Kaline as “the Major League Baseball player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team”, as voted on by baseball fans and members of the media. Clemente and Kaline are two of just four players ever to collect 3,00 hits and 10 gold gloves. Ed. note: the others being Ichiro Suzuki and Willie Mays.
Even after he retired from broadcasting, Kaline would be at spring training, giving tips to young outfielders, and consulting with the club’s front office brass. Everyone looked up to him. His presence was a reminder of the history of a great franchise in Detroit.
Kaline was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1980. His uniform number is retired, there is a statue of him in the outfield in Comerica Park, and a street named after him near the old Tiger stadium location. He was the first Tiger to have his number retired, and we even named a BYB fantasy baseball league “The Kaline League”. On the scale of greatness, baseball players don’t come any greater than Mr Tiger.