Justin Verlander and Al Kaline. Credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports
No Detroit Tigers historical list could ever be complete without “Mr. Tiger.” With all apologies to Harry Heilmann, who was another Tigers’ great in right field–there are perhaps just two faces on the Tigers’ Mt. Rushmore–Ty Cobb and Al Kaline.
Albert William “Al” Kaline was one of the few greats of Major League Baseball that never played an inning in the minor leagues. The boyish Kaline made his major league debut on June 25, 1953, just weeks after graduating from Baltimore’s Southern High School.
There are certain numbers that you can blurt out to Detroit sports fans and they’ll immediately utter a name back to you. Number 9–Gordie Howe. Number 20? Barry Sanders. Number 11, Isiah Thomas. Number 19–“The Captain.” It’s perhaps hard to believe, but Number 6 wore Number 25 during his first half-season in Detroit before switching to #6 for the rest of his 22-year career.
Al really came into his own in 1955, posting a league leading 200 hits and .340 average, finishing second to Yogi Berra for the AL MVP. This was also the season in which Kaline began his long 13-year All-Star streak (18 appearances in all).
The Tigers were a lousy franchise during the 1950’s, but Kaline kept fans coming to Briggs Stadium. Not only did he hit for power and average, he rarely struck out. In fact during his early days, Ted Williams had this to say about Kaline:
"In my book, he’s the greatest right-handed hitter in the league. There’s no telling how far the kid could go."
As great as he was at the plate, he may have been even better defensively. A ten-time Gold Glove winner, Al Kaline had one of the best arms of any right fielder in baseball history. Not only was he accurate with his throw, he had a precise system for positioning himself properly to get the most out of his cannon arm.
Amazingly, Tigers’ fans did not always think of “Mr. Tiger” so highly. I have an old Sports Illustrated from Tiger Stadium’s last year that reprinted an article from 1964 describing how Al Kaline had been struggling, and how it was grating on Detroit fans and media.
"…Al Kaline, the best all around ballplayer the Tigers have had since [sic] Charley Gehringer, is finding himself disliked. Not long ago he stepped to the plate in a home game to the accompaniment of a Shostakovich symphony of boos and catcalls… ….While these hostilities were being ventilated, a kindly and gifted sportswriter, long addicted to the wonders of the Tigers and their star rightfielder, was stomping about the windswept press box announcing to all who would listen, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Al Kaline can go take a jump. I’ve had 10 years of Al Kaline and that’s enough!’ -Jack Olsen, Sports Illustrated, May 11, 1964"
Yikes, our Tiger fan ancestors were dicks! Keep in mind that in 1964, Kaline had just two sub .300 seasons after he broke out in 1955–and one of those seasons, 1957, he finished at .295! For the record, Kaline finished 1964 at .293 with 17 homers–a season many players today would kill for. I guess it’s true when it’s said that you never appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
Though Al’s average would stay mostly under .300 the rest of his career, he was always great in right field. Kaline had a lot of injuries, which really hampered his playing time–never playing a full 154- or 162-game season. One of those seasons was 1968 when he missed the final two months of the regular season because of a broken arm.
Mayo Smith famously made room for the veteran in right field during the World Series by moving Mickey Stanley to shortstop, and benching light-hitting Ray Oyler. While many of the Tigers struggled at the plate, Kaline hit .379 and had a key bases-loaded single in Game 5 with the Tigers trailing 3 games to 1. The hit drove in two runs to turn a 3-2 deficit until a 4-3 lead Detroit would never relinquish. They went on to win the next two games in St. Louis to win it all.
On Sept. 24, 1974, just about a week before his final game, Al reached the 3,000-hit plateau (the last Tiger to do so) in his hometown of Baltimore. He finished with 3,007 hits, a .297 average, 399 homers, and 1,583 RBIs. Al Kaline was elected to the Hall-of-Fame on his first ballot with 88.3 percent of the vote in 1980 and was the first Tiger to have his number retired by the franchise. As great of a player as he was, imagine if he could have stayed healthy.
Of course Al’s story didn’t end there. For children of the 1980’s-90’s who never saw Al play, he was a part of our childhood along with George Kell. The duo called Tigers’ games on Channel 4 for many, many years. While I enjoy Mario and Rod on Fox Sports Detroit–there was only one Tigers’ TV pairing for me, and that was George and Al.
Today, the 79-year-old Mr. Tiger is as much a staple of Comerica Park as a hot dog. Motor City Bengals salutes our all-time Detroit Tigers right fielder!