It wasn’t as simple as Kaline made it look

2020-04-08 AlKaline

Hall of Famer Al Kaline, observing a spring training 2014 Tigers workout. “I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league,” he once said of playing the game he made look simple.

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.

Al Kaline, RIP: Mr. Tiger was a pussycat

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Hall of Famer Al Kaline (left) with Fred Hutchinson, his first major league manager. Hutch introduced the lad to Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who introduced him to wrist strengthening that enhanced his formidable enough hitting–but Kaline’s glove and arm were equal.

Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, whose career ended before Andy Messersmith shattered the reserve era once and for all, once turned down a salary raise because he believed he didn’t earn it. He still became the first Tiger to sign a six-figure single-season contract in due course.

A year ago, a teammate of Kaline’s on the 1973 Tigers told me during a telephone interview about how Kaline—who died today at 85—became a team leader without big talk or big noise.

“Al Kaline was extremely soft spoken,” said Bill Denehy, the former Mets pitcher whose third of three major league seasons was in Detroit. “Any time we had a team meeting, any time we had anything that, you know, caused the team to get together to give their opinion . . . Al would sit at his locker and vote just like he was—Bill Denehy. He wasn’t someone who would complain, he wasn’t someone who really wanted to put his opinion out there, he was the ultimate team player.”

Kaline signed with the Tigers right out of high school for a $35,000 bonus. Under the once-infamous Bonus Baby rule of that era, such players had to be kept on major league rosters for two seasons before they could be farmed out for real seasoning. Of all the players impacted by that bonus rule, Kaline was one of only three to become Hall of Famers. (The others: Sandy Koufax and Harmon Killebrew, though Killebrew was the only one of the three to see minor league time after his bonus period expired.)

The son of a Baltimore broom maker and a scrubwoman, Kaline used his bonus to pay off his parents’ mortgage and for his mother to undergo eye surgery. “They’d always helped me,” he once told a reporter. “They knew I wanted to be a major-leaguer, and they did everything they could to give me time for baseball. I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.”

Kaline was in a Tiger uniform the week after his high school graduation. By the time he became eligible to be sent to the minors, in 1955, it was the last thing on the Tigers’ mind: he was about to become the American League’s batting champion. He developed a near-picture swing, partially on Hall of Famer Ted Williams’s advice, Williams having suggested he try squeezing rubber balls and moderate small weight lifting to build his wrists.

What Denehy considered the ultimate team player on the Tigers proved it on the final day of his major league career, against the Orioles. Coming in having hit in thirteen of his previous eighteen games, including the one that gave him 3,000 lifetime, Kaline also hadn’t hit one out since that September 18. His next home run would be the 400th of his career.

It never came.

Kaline batted twice against the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar, striking out and flying out, while also playing through a badly ailing shoulder. When his next turn to hit arrived in the fifth, Kaline put baseball ahead of a notch on his resume. He told manager Ralph Houk to take him out, which Houk did, sending Ben Oglivie up to pinch-hit against Baltimore reliever Wayne Garland.

The tiny Tiger Stadium crowd booed lustily. “I was sitting there in the clubhouse,” Kaline remembered, “and I could hear them booing. I really felt sorry for Ben. It wasn’t his fault.” Houk, for his part, empathised with Kaline. “With a hitter as great as he is,” he told reporters, “you don’t send him back out there when he says he’s had enough. I think I owed Al that much.”

When Kaline became the (still) youngest batting champion (at 20), he tied for second with Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle in the American League’s Most Valuable Player voting. That wasn’t the only thing he had in common with the Yankee legend. Kaline dealt with osteomyelitis, too, but in his left foot, requiring removal of some bone and forcing him to learn to run on the side of the foot, something that plagued him along with numerous other injuries in his career.

Writing The Cooperstown Casebook, Jay Jaffe ranked Kaline the number seven right fielder who ever played the game, including that his 155 defensive runs saved lifetime are second only to fellow Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente among right fielders. Yet when Kaline became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1980, fans and the Detroit press hammered the Tigers yet again over Kaline’s early exit in that final game.

Kaline also faced questions over it even then. “That was one of my most embarrassing moments,” he said long afterward. “But you have to understand that I didn’t realize at the time the fans came out to see me in my last time at-bat.”

He had nothing for which to apologise. A man who puts baseball ahead of his own potential milestone and knows when it’s time to sit down is entitled to dispensation.

“When you talk about all-around ballplayers, I’d say Kaline is the best I ever played against. And he’s a super nice guy, too,” said the Orioles’ Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, during Kaline’s final season, Robinson just so happening to be a super nice guy himself. (“Around here,” Brooks Robinson Day MC Gordon Beard said, “people don’t name candy bars after Brooks Robinson—they name their children after him.”)

“There aren’t too many guys who are good ballplayers and nice guys, too,” Robinson continued. “Your attitude determines how good you’re going to be — in life as well as in baseball. He’s got a great attitude.”

So much so that Kaline began getting applause in opposing ballparks around 1969-70, something that didn’t go unnoticed by him. “This makes a guy feel good,” he told The Sporting News in 1970. “Most of it is for being around so long. I’ve stood the test of time. And I haven’t done anything to embarrass the game or myself.”

Kaline’s humility was as legendary in Detroit as his playing consistency. He missed five weeks in 1968 with a fractured forearm, then saw limited time when he returned. He even questioned whether he belonged in the World Series when Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup, who’d gotten most of Kaline’s plate appearances in the interim, had run the distance.

That’s when then-manager Mayo Smith devised his gambit of moving Stanley from center field to shortstop, displacing good glove/spaghetti bat Ray Oyler, and shifting Northrup to center field, enabling Kaline to take his usual post. Kaline’s two-run single in Game Five yanked the Tigers from the brink of elimination and he finished the Series with a 1.055 OPS.

That was the man who said after the Tigers clinched the pennant in the first place, “I don’t deserve to play in the World Series.”

Kaline became a respected commentator on Tigers’ game telecasts, working with play-by-play man George Kell and then, after Kell retired from the booth, Ernie Harwell. He did that for two decades to follow before he was moved to the Tigers’ front office in an advisory role. More than that, making friends among just about everyone who met Mr. Tiger seemed to come second nature to him.

He had numerous admirers even among his opponents. “I like to watch him hit,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer once. “I like to watch him hit even against us. He’s got good rhythm, a picture swing. Other hitters could learn a lot just by watching him. The thing about Kaline is that he’ll not only hit your mistakes, he’ll hit your good pitches, too.”

Yet the Tigers honoured him with one of only six statues around Comerica Park by having him seen with a glove, rather than a bat in his hand. It depicts Kaline making a leaping, one-handed catch, very much like the catch he made scaling above the old Yankee Stadium right field, field-level scoreboard, to take a homer from Mantle in 1956.

Kaline was as elegant an assassin shooting down runners from right field as he was at the plate. “He was the only fielder,” tweeted actor/baseball fan Jeff Daniels, “who could make the ball come to him.” Not long ago, though, Kaline lamented contemporary outfielders doing less work on their throwing than he and his contemporaries did.

“The outfielders really need to be practicing making long throws because sometimes you can go several games before you have to make a long or hard throw,” he told a writer.

They don’t do it at all. Today the outfielders play long catch before the game, and they work on the outfield walls when they go to another ballpark but they don’t regularly practice throwing home like we did when I played. They just don’t do it. Throwing in game conditions is a lot different then just playing long catch in the outfield. In a game you have to move your feet a lot faster and you don’t have time to set up and throw . . . I don’t know why they don’t practice throwing home at least once every series just to get used to game situations as you possibly can.

Two years before that robbery against Mantle, Kaline threw White Sox baserunners out in three straight innings. The bad news was the White Sox still slapping the Tigers silly in that game, a 9-0 win with sixteen White Sox hits. Typically, Kaline refused to call for fireworks on his own behalf. “That was a pretty fair day,” he said of his three kills in three innings. “I liked it.”

Kaline had only one more enduring marriage than with the Tigers—with his wife, Louise, his high school girl whom he married after the 1954 season and whom he loved for her beauty, her brains, and for her ability to talk baseball. One of their two sons played in the Tigers organisation briefly.

When baseball changed the name of its annual sportsmanship/community involvement award to the Roberto Clemente Award, Kaline was the first to win the award under that name. Fittingly. Both men had 3,000 hits or more and howitzers for throwing arms. But Kaline has just one up on Clemente: his was the first uniform number (6) retired by his franchise.

Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” tweeted longtime Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years.”

Always felt that to be a slam-dunk HOFer you had to have an ego and be selfish, always knowing how many W’s or HRs you were away from Cooperstown,” tweeted Claire Smith, a Hall of Fame baseball writer herself. Then I met #AlKaline Billy Williams, Sandy Koufax, Phil Niekro — gentlemen & gentle men. “R.I.P. Mr. Tiger.”

In numerology, 6 means, basically, family, home, harmony, nurturing, and idealism. It sounds like a thumbnail sketch of Kaline himself. If we have to say farewell on the day this gentleman and gentle man went to the Elysian Fields, the date is only too appropriate, too. The sixth.