The late Al Kaline was twenty years old when he won his only American League batting championship, in 1955. In wins-above-replacement-level-player terms, it’s the third best season by any twenty-year-old, with only Alex Rodriguez (9.4 WAR, 1996) and Mike Trout (10.5, 2012) passing Kaline’s 8.3.
In earthier terms, that season planted such extreme expectations upon him that Mr. Tiger eventually said it was the worst thing that could have happened to the man who finally became a Detroit icon for his play and his accommodating personality. Neither of which came simply to him, no matter what you think of the flood of tributes pouring forth upon and since his death at 85 Monday.
“Detroit’s Al Kaline looks like a man who plays with consummate ease as well as rare skill,” said Sports Illustrated in a 1964 profile, “but he is finding it hard to follow baseball’s toughest act: himself.” Kaline was the cover story in that issue, and the headline attached to a photograph of Kaline following through on a swing said, simply, “Enigma of the Tigers.”
By then the Hall of Famer struggled with injuries that kept him from posting many more than 140 games a season. Even in one of his eighteen All-Star seasons, this one during the period when fans were still bereft of the vote following the Cincinnati ballot box-stuffing scandal of 1957, this was a time when some sportswriters and enough Tiger fans called for the team to trade the right fielder who’d retire as a franchise demigod.
“This put the pressure on me,” Kaline told SI writer Jack Olsen of the beginning that culminated in that batting title. “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. They kept saying I do everything with ease.
“But it isn’t that way,” Kaline continued. “I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league . . . I don’t have the kind of strength that [Mickey] Mantle or [Willie] Mays have, where they can be fooled on a pitch and still get a good piece of the ball. I’ve got to have my timing down perfect or I’m finished . . . I’ll tell you something else: I’m not in the same class with players like Mays or Musial or Henry Aaron, either. Their records over the last five seasons are much better than mine.”
There have always been those players who make baseball look so simple that Joe and Jane Fan become deluded enough to think they can play it even half as well as Kaline did. Kaline himself was the first to admit that making baseball look simple required work, and lots of it. Marry that to the expectations a talent showing itself early inspires, and you might find a player despairing of ever being what he thinks people want him to be.
“In the first few years after he won the batting championship,” Olsen wrote, “Kaline went into frequent depressions over his inability to give the fans what he knew they expected. He would come into the clubhouse after a game and slump in front of his locker, speaking to no one.”
That actually earned Kaline a reputation for difficulty for awhile. But Kaline himself—who once earned Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s respect and a tip to use hand weights to strengthen his wrists for hitting—told Olsen he wasn’t exactly being a sulk during those first few post-title seasons.
“I was just quiet, and when a newspaperman came up to me and said, ‘Nice game,’ or something like that, I’d just say, ‘Thank you’,” he said. “I would never prolong the conversation, 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. I don’t like to make people mad at me, and if you talk too much you’re gonna put your foot in your mouth sooner or later.”
When Kaline had a terrific 1956 followup to his batting title season and pressed for a salary raise that might bring him at least next to then-Tiger Harvey Kuenn’s income neighbourhood, then-Tigers president Spike Briggs put his foot into his own mouth.
Briggs told a Detroit advertising club meeting, “Kaline thinks he’s as good as Mickey Mantle, and wants as much money as Mantle.” Except that Kaline thought and said nothing of either sort. It took the intercession of player development director John McHale to get Briggs to back off and hand Kaline $30,000 for 1957.
Under misinterpretation Tiger fans began booing Kaline and the sharp right fielder was, understandably, none too thrilled. He merely clammed up for a good while. Especially when the Tiger front office tried to impress upon him the idea that a little flash out on the field might go a long way. Asking Al Kaline to become a showman would have been something like asking Casey Stengel to become an undertaker.
“They told me to be more colorful, that I could bring more people into the ballpark if I was more colorful,” Kaline told Olsen. “But how could I do that? I could jump up and down on the field and make an ass out of myself arguing with umpires, but I’m not made up that way. I could make easy catches look hard, but I’m not made that way, either.”
He merely made himself a ten-time Gold Glove winner, and it wasn’t by reputation alone. Only two right fielders—Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente and sometimes-forgotten Jesse Barfield—finished with more fielding runs above average. He made near-impossible catches look simple, if not painless. He made throwing runners out look routine. He made hitting tough pitches look as natural as eggs on a breakfast plate.
His early 1964 slump didn’t worry his then-manager, one-time Brooklyn icon Charlie Dressen, one lick. “He’s not hitting now, but what does that mean? Nothing,” Dressen said then. “When a man is an established hitter like Kaline, you know what he’s gonna do. The pitchers are getting him out now, but later on in the season somebody’s gonna suffer.”
Kaline’s injury issues only began with an osteomyelitis-plagued left foot that led to small bone removal surgery which compelled him to develop a way to run on the side of the foot. “On top of that,” Olsen wrote, “he has suffered more than the average number of injuries, among them depressed fractures of both cheekbones, two beanings and a broken collarbone. Baseball has not been a frolic through sylvan glades for Al Kaline.”
The Tigers’ 1964 general manager knew it. “Al Kaline has had more reason to jake it than almost any ballplayer I know, but I have never seen him give less than everything he had,” Jim Campbell told Olsen. “That’s the way he learned to play baseball, and that’s the only way he knows how.” Campbell also said oh, sure, he’d think about trading Kaline—for Hall of Famers Mays, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda of the Giants in the same deal, that is.
Olsen’s piece was titled inside the magazine, “The Torments of Excellence.” “Talking to Kaline,” he observed then, “is like making funeral arrangements.” The longer he played, the farther behind he left the old expectations and front-office animosities, the easier it became for him to be himself, around fans and players in his and opposing uniforms.
The only funeral arrangements Mr. Tiger ever made were in the 1968 World Series. His seventh-inning, bases-loaded shuttlecock of a single turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 Tiger lead, jerking them to a win, and they never looked back. Especially after Kaline flattened a service from Hall of Famer Steve Carlton into a two-run homer on a 3-for-4 day during a 13-1 Game Six rout, before Mickey Lolich out-pitched Bob Gibson to win Game Seven.
He’d also smash an eleventh-inning bomb off Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers in the 1972 American League Championship Series to break a one-all tie in a game the Athletics won in the bottom of the inning; then, in Game Four, his tenth-inning single set him up to score the tying run in what became a 4-3 Tigers win. It wasn’t enough to stop the A’s from winning Game Five.
Two years later, in his native Baltimore, Kaline swatted a leadoff double the other way, into the right field corner, against Dave McNally in the fourth inning for his 3,000th hit. His next time up, he smacked a game-tying RBI single off McNally. (The Tigers eventually lost the game.) Then he made good on a promise he’d made to retire after he got the hit. If he didn’t get it in 1974, he’d get it in 1975.
“I’ll retire now,” he said simply after the game.
Meaning after the season. Kaline took a year to get the game out of his system, then re-joined the Tigers as a broadcaster, which he’d remain for a quarter century to follow before moving into the front office as an advisor. In the interim, the ancient and short-lived battles dissipated completely. Kaline made fans feel warm and Tigers who followed him feel well enough endowed.
When the Tigers played their final game in Tiger Stadium (“Character, charm, and history,” Kaline once said was the Old Girl’s strength), on 27 September 1999, Kaline gave a rookie Tiger named Robert Fick the pre-game word: Fick would hit one out that night. In the bottom of the eighth, facing Kansas City reliever Jeff Montgomery with the bases loaded and one out, Fick ripped one off the right field roof.
A year earlier, while traveling around the country and spending some time outside Detroit with a friend, I got to take in a game at Tiger Stadium, copping a field-level seat down the left field line next to the foul pole, on a night the Tigers and the Reds wore throwback tribute Negro Leagues uniforms. I looked across to the right field roof on the facade of which were four retired uniform numbers: 2 (Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer), 5 (Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg), 6 (Kaline), and 16 (Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser).
Kaline’s 6 stood out especially because I’d seen him play often enough growing up, as a Met fan who’d watch the occasional Yankee game just to see the other teams and their big men, remembering how easy Kaline made baseball look—whether running a ball down and throwing a runner out from right field, whether stroking a hit or three with men on base (he has a lifetime .322 batting average in high-leverage situations and .311 with men in scoring position)—but not knowing how much work he did to make it that way.
I thought of that night in Tiger Stadium again when learning of Kaline’s death. Somehow, having the chance to see just one live game in the Old Girl, it felt like Kaline’s house, we were his guests, that Tiger fans were comforted knowing that he was there (still in the broadcast booth at the time), and that he might make even a traveling fan in his first and only Detroit visit feel at home.
“This fellow is amazing,” Stengel said of Kaline during the 1950s. “You ask yourself four questions. Can he throw? And the answer is yes. Can he field the ball? And you answer yes. Is he active on the bases? Yes, you’d have to say yes. And then, can he drive in the runs? The real test. And again you say yes. So he is an amazing fellow.”
Tell Kaline to his face that he was amazing and he’d have denied it under oath. And he’d have gone on trial for perjury.