(Note: This is the sixth installment of By the Numbers. If you missed any of the first five, click on the ‘By the Numbers’ tag at the top of this page.)
No. 6 Al Kaline
Since the day he signed his first contract in 1953, no man has more identified with the Detroit Tigers than Al Kaline. As a young man growing up, I knew Kaline from the Sunday afternoon telecasts that were carried on the Fox affiliate in Toledo, Ohio. Kaline and his partner George Kell called the games in those days.
In the years since, I have known Kaline as an ambassador for baseball, and specifically the Tigers. Even today, if you make a trip to spring training, or frequent Comerica Park enough, you’re bound to see him there. He is by far the most accessible ballplayer I have ever seen, always willing to stop and chat with fans, to sign autographs, to work with and offer advice to the current players. “Mr. Tiger” has earned his nickname, and continues to do so.
Kaline signed as an amateur free agent out of Baltimore, MD when he was just fresh out of high school. He never played a day in the minor leagues. Kaline made his way into 30 games as an 18 year old outfielder that same season.
As a 19 year old rookie in 1954, Kaline showed why he was rushed to the big leagues. Finishing third in the Rookie of the Year vote, Kaline became the everyday right fielder for the Tigers and posted a .276 average. Even at that young age, Kaline was also beginning to earn the respect of the opposition, both at the plate, and with his strong right arm. Kaline gunned down 16 runners from right field that season.
At age 20, Kaline became a legend. After hitting just four home runs in 1954, Kaline belted 27 the next year. His RBI total jumped from 43 to 102. Kaline lead the lead with 200 hits and 321 total bases. He finished second in the MVP race, and lead the league with a .340 batting average. He became the youngest player ever to win a batting title, besting Ty Cobb’s previous record by one day.
If you look at Kaline’s body of work, his numbers stack up nicely against the game’s all-time greats. For 21 seasons, he wore the Old English D and did the game proud. Kaline never won another batting title after 1955, but he did finish in the top three five more times. He never again amassed 200 hits in a season, but he did have better than 3000 for his career.
Kaline never hit 30 home runs in a season, but he ended his career with 399, thanks to nine years of better than 20. Kaline had over 1500 career RBI, but only had three seasons of better than 100.
On defense, Kaline never lead the lead in any defensive category, but won 10 Gold Glove awards. He just once lead the league in doubles, yet hit almost 500 of them for his career. He never won an MVP, but finished in the top 10 in voting nine times. Kaline was an all-star 15 times, but never the games brightest star.
Such was his career than spanned more than two decades. Al Kaline was consistently one of the better players in the American League, but was probably never the best player in any given season. He was always mentioned with the best in baseball, but always mentioned after the names of Aaron, Mays, and Mantle.
Al Kaline was a very good player for a very long time. There is no shame in that. Before I saw his numbers, I had assumed that they were better, frankly speaking. I assumed I would find a player that had a few peak seasons that carried his overall numbers, like you may find with any number of Hall of Famers. What I found was that Kaline really never had those peak years. He remained remarkably consistent throughout his career.
In the years since he left the playing field, Kaline has stayed in the public eye. Perhaps it is his constant presence that has lead many to feel like he was a better player than he was. At the risk of offending some readers, it feels like Kaline was never the immortal one I had thought he was. What he was is not unlike what Craig Biggio was to the Astros; a very good player for a very long time. At the end of the day, you look up and he has Hall of Fame numbers.
Maybe I am selling him short. Maybe the era he played in was so saturated with great players having great seasons that Kaline’s get overshadowed. Maybe the whole story of his career cannot be told by the numbers alone. But maybe, Kaline was what his numbers say he was: a very good player for a very long time.
Either way, Mr. Tiger earned his nickname everyday that he played, and every day since. If his reputation as a player is enhanced by the kind of man he is, then so be it. Kaline has been the epitome of the kind of person we all hope every ball player becomes. He had great ability, he played a long, long time, and he is devoted to giving back to the game and its fans.