Kaline, Al(bert) William

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KALINE, Al(bert) William

(b. 19 December 1934 in Baltimore, Maryland), baseball player for the Detroit Tigers who became the youngest player to win a batting title.

Kaline, of German-Irish descent and raised as a devout Methodist, was one of three children born into a baseball family. His father, Nicholas Kaline, his two uncles Bib Kaline and Fred Kaline, and his paternal grandfather, Philip Kaline, were catchers for numerous semiprofessional teams that played in the Eastern Shore leagues of Maryland. Times were hard, and Kaline's father's meager income as a broom maker was supplemented by the income provided by his mother, Naomi Morgan, who did housework. Kaline was encouraged to play baseball on the local sandlots even before he reached school age. His youthful promise was threatened at the age of eight by osteomyelitis, which required that surgeons remove two inches of bone from his left foot, but he quickly recovered. With a family full of catchers, it was natural for Kaline's first ambition to be a pitcher. Blessed with an excellent right arm, he set the Baltimore elementary school record while attending Westport Grammar School by tossing a softball 173 feet 6 inches.

At Southern High School, Kaline moved to the outfield; hit over .400 in his sophomore, junior, and senior years; and was named to the All-Maryland high school team for four years. While all the major league teams showed interest in the young Kaline, Detroit's Ed Katalinas signed him with a $15,000 bonus plus a first-year contract of another $15,000 that promptly paid off the family mortgage and allowed Kaline's mother to undergo the surgery that saved her failing eyesight. Under league rules at the time a "bonus baby" had to stay with the major league team for two years, so Kaline never played in the minors. Following his graduation from high school in 1953, Kaline joined the Tigers on 24 June 1953 and saw limited playing time in only 30 games, hitting a meager .250. He played 138 games in 1954 with a .276 batting average, but he showed stellar promise as an outfielder when, in one game against the White Sox, he threw out runners at second, third, and home in successive innings. At the end of the season that year, on 16 October 1954, Kaline married his high school sweetheart, Louise Hamilton, in Baltimore, and the family moved to Michigan, where they raised two sons.

On 14 April 1955 Kaline displayed his potential for the coming year by hitting three home runs in a game, two of them in a single inning. Only twenty years of age, he became the youngest player to win a batting title to that date, hitting .340 and leading the league in total bases. He was voted starting right fielder for his first of sixteen All-Star games and finished second in the balloting for the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award behind Yogi Berra. The year ended with Kaline named American League Player of the Year by the Sporting News.

In the field Kaline sparkled as a defensive player and won ten Gold Gloves over an eleven-year span from 1957 to 1967. From 1970 to 1972 he played in 242 consecutive games without an error, leading the league in 1971 with a perfect 1.00 fielding average. Kaline's first venture into postseason play came during the 1968 World Series. After the Cardinals won three of the first four contests and were ahead 3–2 in the fifth game, Kaline's clutch, bases-loaded hit in the seventh inning drove in the game-winning run. His World Series batting average of .379 with 2 home runs and 8 runs batted in (RBI) helped the Tigers sweep the remainder of the games and win their first world championship since 1945. Kaline's team leadership and professionalism that year won him the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, given annually to the individual in the game who best exemplifies the skills and integrity of the legendary Yankee first baseman.

Kaline continued to win awards and honors. On 2 August 1970 the Tigers held an Al Kaline Day attended by over 40,000 spectators at Tiger Stadium. Kaline, always community spirited, requested that all money donated that day be used to buy baseball equipment for Detroit's underprivileged children. In 1971 he became the first Detroit Tiger to make $100,000 a year, but he returned $8,000 to the management after a lackluster season, claiming he had not earned it. The next season, although he continued to struggle with injury and age in his twentieth season, he recovered in September to hit .316 and almost single-handedly to lift the Tigers into the 1972 playoffs. The Tigers lost the American League Championship Series to Oakland.

Kaline began the 1974 season as the Tigers' designated hitter and on 24 September cracked his 3,000th hit. The line-drive double made him the first American League player to reach that plateau since Eddie Collins and Tris Speaker in 1925 and the first player to do it as a designated hitter. Kaline finished the season with 3,007 hits, good for eleventh on the all-time list to that date. He became the Tiger leader in games played, home runs, walks, and put-outs, and only Ty Cobb had more hits and runs batted in. So respected was Kaline's consistency and professionalism that in 1980 the sportswriters of America made him only the tenth player elected into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. That year the Detroit Tigers made him the first Tiger to have his uniform, number 6, retired. In 1976 Kaline teamed with another former Tiger great, George Kell, to work as a color commentator for Detroit Tiger television broadcasts. He maintained that job until his retirement in June 2001. He subsequently became assistant to the vice president for team affairs.

Throughout Kaline's career the Detroit management tried to encourage him to be more colorful, hoping it would attract fans to the ballpark, but that was not his style of play. Some critics claimed Kaline never lived up to his early potential. He never won another batting crown, never led the league in home runs or in RBI, was never named the league's Most Valuable Player. But for twenty-two years he was the model of reliability in a professional ball player. He averaged almost 150 hits a year, hit 20 or more home runs 9 times, and hit .300 or better 8 times. In 1959 he led the league in slugging (.530) and in 1963 was again named the Sporting News Player of the Year. He retired among the all-time leaders in games played, at bats, hits, home runs, and total bases.

The two major biographies of Kaline are Al Hirshberg, The Al Kaline Story (1965), and Hal Butler, Kaline (1974). Kaline is a major figure in Butler, Sports Heroes Who Wouldn't Quit (1973); Cynthia J. Wilbur, For the Love of the Game: Baseball Memories from the Men Who Were There (1992); and Detroit News, They Earned Their Stripes: The Detroit Tiger All-Time Team (2000). Particularly informative is Patricia Zacharias, "Al Kaline—The Detroit Tigers' 'Mr. Perfection,'" Detroit News (10 Aug. 2001). Kaline is also in The Baseball Register (1969), Current Biography (1970), and Total Baseball (1995).

Patrick A. Trimble