Al Kaline- the Most Beloved Tiger

Over a span of twenty two seasons, Al Kaline played in more games as a Detroit Tiger than anyone else. Al Kaline also hit more home runs than any other Tiger, finishing with 399. Had he gotten that one more to get him to 400, Al Kaline would have been the first American Leaguer to reach that milestone plus accumulate 3,000 base hits. But injuries robbed Al Kaline of approximately two hundred games during his prime; he still was one of a very few to be elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Al Kaline’s steady play over two decades in baseball made him as popular a player in Detroit as anyone has ever been.

Al Kaline was born in 1934 in Baltimore, Maryland, where he would ironically one day garner his 3,000th base hit. He played baseball constantly as a youth, with his family members ferrying him around to the many games in the various leagues he was in. Al Kaline was signed as a “bonus baby” for $35,000 right out of high school in Baltimore and never played an inning in the minor leagues. Possessing great quickness and a strong right arm, Al Kaline went straight to the Tigers at the age of eighteen and made his major league debut in June of 1953. Al Kaline was sent out to right field on June 25th that year; it was the first time he had ever played the position. Soon, it would seem as if the position was invented for Al Kaline.

He played very little that first season as he got his feet wet, being used mostly as a pinch runner. Al Kaline only had thirty at-bats in 1953, but did manage to hit his first home run off of the Indians’ Dave Hoskins. The next season, the right-handed hitter was part of an outfield platoon, but did get up over 500 times. Al Kaline hit just four home runs in 1954, and there were questions about his power. One of those homers was a grand slam, on June 11th, making him the second youngest player at the time to have belted one. Al Kaline showed that he had power in 1955, as he hit 27 homers, knocked in over 100 runs, and won the batting title with a .340 average over Vic Power of Kansas City, who batted .319. At twenty years old, Al Kaline was and still is the youngest player ever to win a league batting crown. His 200 hit season would be the only one of his career, and Al Kaline narrowly missed being named the American League MVP, finishing just behind Yogi Berra of New York.

He had his most productive season in 1956, when Al Kaline knocked in his career high of 128 runs and hit .314. Al Kaline became a perennial All-Star, and patrolled the Detroit right field with ease. Fifteen times Al Kaline was made an All-Star, and from 1957 through 1967, only 1960 went by without Al Kaline earning a Gold Glove for his work in the outfield. He once threw two men out at home plate in the same inning, and never made more than seven errors in right field after 1954. In a June game in 1958, Al Kaline threw the opposing pitcher out at the plate and hit a home run off of him to win the game 1-0. Al Kaline finished with a fielding percentage of .986 as an outfielder, and collected 170 assists on his throws from right over his career.

In his fifteen All-Star Games, Al Kaline batted well over .300, with home runs in the 1959 and 1960 contests. Al Kaline was having a great start to 1962 when he fractured his right collarbone making a game-saving catch against New York’s Elston Howard at Yankee Stadium in late May. Ironically, Howard would be voted the AL MVP the next year over Al Kaline. When Al Kaline returned to action two months later, he picked up where he left off. In only one hundred games in 1962, Al Kaline belted 29 homers and had 94 runs batted in. Al Kaline never hit more than 29 home runs in a season, but that year he would surely have hit forty had he stayed healthy.

In May of 1968, Al Kaline was hit by a pitch which broke his arm. He only played in 102 games that season, but Detroit managed to win the pennant with the help of a 31 win season from Denny McLain. In the World Series against the Cardinals, Detroit skipper Mayo Smith, in a risky move, brought Gold Glove centerfielder Mickey Stanley in from the outfield to play shortstop, in order to get more offense in the line-up against Bob Gibson and St. Louis. This allowed the outfield to be comprised of Willie Horton, Jim Northrop, and Al Kaline, and removed the light hitting shortstop platoon of Dick Tracewski and Ray Oyler from the equation; neither had hit over .156 that year! The move did not pay immediate dividends, as Gibson struck out a World Series record 17 Detroit hitters in Game One, including Al Kaline three times. McLain was beaten by Gibson and the Cardinals by a 4-0 count. Detroit evened things up the next day behind Mickey Lolich, and Al Kaline contributed a pair of hits and two runs to the 8-1 rout.

With the Series back in Detroit, Al Kaline got the Tigers off to a good start with a two run homer in the third, but St. Louis rallied for a 7-3 triumph. When Gibson beat a suddenly vulnerable McLain 10-1 in Game Four, with Al Kaline getting two of the five hits off the great pitcher, the Tigers looked finished. But Lolich shut the Cardinals out after allowing three first inning runs in Game Five, and Al Kaline won the game with a two-run bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh. The Tigers staked McLain to a 13-0 lead in Game Six after five innings, with Al Kaline knocking in four of the runs with two singles in the ten run third and a solo homer in the fifth, and they won 13-1 to set up a deciding Game Seven. Gibson and Lolich were involved in a scoreless duel until the seventh, when St. Louis centerfielder Curt Flood butchered a Jim Northrop drive into a two-run triple. Detroit went on to win 4-1, and Al Kaline, who had hit .379 with eight RBI, Northrop with eight RBI, and Lolich with three complete game victories, were the heroes.

Al Kaline kept plugging away for Detroit as he approached different milestones. On September 24th, 1974, Al Kaline doubled off the Orioles’ Dave McNally in his hometown of Baltimore for his 3,000th base hit, the twelfth player at that time to reach that number. He retired at season’s end, with 3,007 hits, a .297 career average, 1, 583 runs batted in and 2,834 games as a Tiger. Al Kaline became the tenth player elected to Cooperstown on his first year of eligibility, in 1980. On September 27th, 1999, Al Kaline brought out the line-up card, in his familiar number 6 Tigers’ uniform, for the last game ever played at Tiger Stadium, the most beloved athlete ever in Detroit.

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