American baseball player
Known as "Mr. Tiger," Albert William (Al) Kaline devoted his entire twenty-one year playing career (1953-1974) to the American League Detroit Tigers. Indeed, only Kaline and 1920s legend Ty Cobb played twenty or more seasons in a Detroit uniform. The Hall of Famer distinguished himself throughout his competitive years as a power hitter and gifted right-fielder. He appeared in fifteen All-Star games, won ten Gold Glove awards, and personified Tiger excellence during the 1968 World Series. On retirement, Kaline continued to serve as a television commentator for Tiger games.
Born in Baltimore to a sports-minded family, Kaline came by his baseball skills through his father and two uncles, who all played semi-pro ball. Though smaller than the typical player, the young Kaline overcame his
physical shortcomings by practicing harder and longer than his teammates. His early ambition aimed Kaline not toward the plate, but the mound: "I guess all kids interested in baseball first want to be pitchers," he was quoted in a 1955 Saturday Evening Post interview. But the thin teen was not suited for hurling balls at the high-school level, and concentrated on his hitting game instead. At Baltimore's Southern High School, Kaline batted .333, .418, .469, and .488, and was named to the all-Maryland high-school team each of his academic years. Kaline's family supported his goals, driving him from league to league. Kaline grew to a slender six-foot-one; by the time he graduated from high school, the young hitter was the object of scrutiny from baseball scouts.
From the Sandlot to the Stadium
One scout, Ed Katalinas, signed the eighteen-year-old Kaline to a $35,000 bonus "right off the Baltimore sandlots," as a Baseball Library.com article put it, "and Al never played one inning in the minor leagues." Drafted by the Tigers, Kaline made his professional bow midseason, on June 25, 1953, in the game that also marked his debut as a right-fielder. Kaline was given the modest task of a pinch-runner that day, but the young man soon began to make his mark. In fewer than thirty trips to the plate that year, Kaline collected seven hits, including a home run. He even hit a single off the great pitcher Satchel Paige .
Kaline's first full rookie year of 1954 was characterized by a relatively low .276 batting average. A highlight of that year was Kaline's first grand-slam home run, making him the second-youngest player to date to accomplish that feat. But by the 1955 season, Kaline had hit his stride, muscling up to 175 pounds and hitting.340. At age twenty, he was the youngest player to win an American League batting championship. But all the early acclaim didn't sit well with the soft-spoken hitter. "The worst thing that happened to me in the big leagues was the start I had," he was quoted by Sports Illustrated writer Jack Olsen in 1964. "Everybody said this guy's another Ty Cobb, another Joe DiMaggio. How much pressure can you take? What they didn't know is I'm not that good a hitter…. I have to work as hard if not harderthan anybody in the league."
Kaline's early reticence regarding his celebrity led some newspapermen to label the ballplayer as standoffish. But in Kaline's view, "I was just quiet," as he told Olsen. "And the guys who didn't know me would say, 'Look at this stuck-up kid.' But it was just my way. I don't talk much." Instead, Kaline let his bat do the talking. Known for his consistency, the right-hander averaged 150 hits per season. By 1959 Kaline had clinched the American League slugging championship when he compiled a .530 slugging percentage in 511 times at bat. Overall, Kaline's batting average for the year was .327.
For all his talent, Kaline was no stranger to adversity, beginning in 1954 when he ran into a wall chasing a fly ball and spent five days in the hospital. Kaline fractured his cheekbone in 1959. He also fractured his right collarbone diving for a catch on May 26, 1962, and was benched for two months, returning to play with a game-winning single. Showing no further break in his momentum, Kaline finished that abbreviated season with twenty-nine home runs and ninety-four runs batted in. But injuries continued to plague Kaline throughout his career, sidelining the hitter for some 200 games over fifteen years. In June 1967, for instance, Kaline broke his hand after jamming his bat into a bat rack after striking out. He missed twenty-eight games that season.
The Tigers on a Tear
Indeed, Kaline had missed much of the 1968 season nursing a broken arm while the Tigers were roaring to the top of the American League standings. But he recovered in time to take his place in the World Series, which pitted the Tigers against the National League St. Louis Cardinals. The "Cards" had taken the three of the first four games of the series, placing the Tigers in a precarious position. But in the seventh inning of Game Five, with the Cardinals leading three to two, the Tigers put men on all three bases. Kaline stepped to the plate and singled to center field, driving in two runs and earning the hitter a standing ovation. The single gave Detroit a five-to-three win. The Tigers rallied to take Game Six. The Detroit team went on to win the tiebreaking Game Seven, clinching the Tigers' first World Series victory in decades—and providing much-needed emotional lift for the city of Detroit following a year marked by racial strife and rioting.
Kaline's fielding skills in the outfield were unsurpassed. He "made playing right field into an art form," wrote a contributor to BaseballLibrary.com. "Never a wasted motion, never a wrong decision." Kaline once played 242 consecutive games without a single outfield error. In a 1994 wire article for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, George Puscas recalled the artistry of Kaline's glovework: "The best throw I ever saw was one Kaline made from the rightfield fence down the line to home plate, on the fly, to nail a Yankee runner.… Yankees poured from the dugout not to protest the call, but to applaud Kaline." Only Kaline and Joe DiMaggio, added Puscas, "are viewed as the near-equal of all the outfield greats who proceeded them."
But it was his batting that won Kaline the most acclaim. He celebrated his 2,500th hit in June, 1970. Four years later, on September 24, 1974, Kaline tallied his 3,000th hit in his hometown, Baltimore. By now a senior member of the Tigers organization, Kaline continued to play out the 1974 season. When it was over he retired, having logged 3,007 hits, 399 home runs, and a .297 lifetime average. He was also one of the highest-paid ballplayers of his day, earning $92,000 per year by 1970.
|1934||Born December 19, in Baltimore, Maryland|
|1949-53||Named to all-Maryland baseball team all four year of high school|
|1953||Signs with the Detroit Tigers|
|1953||Professional debut, June 24|
|1968||Hits game-winning single in World Series Game Five|
|1974||Makes 3,000th career hit|
|1974||Retires from play after twenty-one seasons|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1955||Youngest winner of American League Batting Championship|
|1955||First of fifteen All-Star Game appearances|
|1955||Runner-up, American League Most Valuable Player|
|1955, 1963||Named Player of the Year, Sporting News|
|1957||First of ten Gold Glove awards|
|1959||American League slugging champion|
|1963||Runner-up, American League Most Valuable Player|
|1968||Detroit Tigers clinch World Series championship|
|1968||Lou Gehrig Memorial Award|
|1980||Named to Baseball Hall of Fame|
Could this soft-spoken slugger possibly have accomplished more? No less an authority than Ted Williams thought so. The legendary hitter included Kaline among the greats—like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle —who might have reached Williams's legendary batting average. "I used to think that Al Kaline could hit .400, or Mantle," wrote Williams in his autobiography. "But Mantle missed the ball too much … And time ran out on Kaline and Mays."
|DET: Detroit Tigers.|
Where Is He Now?
A longtime television commentator, Kaline has also parlayed his playing experience into other fields. He served as an instructor in Tigers spring-training camps and was a board member of the organization. In 2001, Kaline was named by owner Mike Ilitch to a special board established to improve the status of the struggling franchise. The 2002 season marked Kaline's fiftieth year as an employee of the Detroit Tigers. At the same time, Kaline found a new outlet for his competitive instincts. An avid golfer, he splits his time between courses in suburban Detroit and Lakeland, Florida. "This is my game now, and I love it," he told Florida Golf Monthly. "I love to play in competition. I get nervous, but it feels good to get nervous again, and I can handle it."
Staying close to his game, Kaline joined the Detroit Tigers broadcast team and served as a commentator, along with fellow teammate George Kell, for many years. In 1999 he once again donned his uniform to mark the end of an era—the last day of 90-year-old Tiger Stadium, which had been closed in favor of a new ballpark in Detroit. Detroit Free Press writer Steven Crowe attended the September ceremony and reported that Kaline's introduction sparked a 76-second standing ovation. Showing uncharacteristic emotion, the hitter "stepped back from the microphone, cleared his throat, took his hat off, lowered his head," noted Crowe. Then "Mr. Tiger" recovered and "delivered a superbly fitting and brief farewell."
Hirshberg, Al. The Al Kaline Story. New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1964.
Nicholson, Lois. From Maryland to Cooperstown: Seven Maryland Natives in Baseball's Hall of Fame. Tidewater, 1999.
Williams, Ted. My Turn at Bat. New York: Fireside, 1988.
Butler, H. C. Saturday Evening Post (September 3, 1955).
Crowe, Steve. "Bringing down the House Again." Detroit Free Press (September 28, 1999).
Olsen, Jack. Sports Illustrated (May 11, 1964).
Puscas, George. "Al Kaline's Star Rose at 20, Kept Soaring." Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service (April 3, 1994).
"Al Kaline." BaseballLibrary.com. http://www.pubdim.net/baseballlibrary/ (October 31, 2002).
"Al Kaline." National Baseball Hall of Fame. http://www.baseballhalloffame/org/ (October 31, 2002).
Florida Golf Monthly. http://www.floridagolfing.com (November 7, 2002).
Sketch by Susan Salter