Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger. Happy Birthday!

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Al Kaline….80 years old. Unbelievable! But, then again, Al Kaline has had an unbelievable life. It couldn’t have happened to a better person.

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Al Kaline has been my hero since the days I sat with Grandpa at a squeaky Grundig table radio. We listened to Van Patrick, George Kell and the legendary Ernie Harwell, all unable to conceal their enthusiasm for the laser-guided rocket arm and sweet swing of the youngest player to EVER win a major league batting championship. How could they help it? The young Tiger phenom moved on from humble beginnings in life, and on the ball field, to epitomize Detroit Tiger Baseball and later become a first year select Hall of Famer in 1980.

In this day and age, where player salaries can resemble Third World social service budgets, it is refreshing, almost cathartic, to honour this 80 year old icon who played the game for something other than money. Al never earned more than $100k per year during his 22 year career. He actually turned down his first $100k contract in 1971. Al’s explanation was, “ I really hadn’t had what I considered a good year in 1970”. “I wasn’t going to try to gouge somebody just because I had been around for a while”.

“I wasn’t going to try to gouge somebody just because I had been around for a while”.

I had the pleasure of meeting my boyhood idol after a Sunday double header at the old Briggs Stadium. I was a guest of Reno Bertoia who was playing third for the Washington Senators those days, sandwiched between two stints as a Detroit Tiger. Reno, a neighbour of mine, was from Windsor, Ontario, a short tunnel bus ride from downtown Detroit. Reno out-hit and out homered Al that day but I forgave him when he introduced me to #6 outside the Tiger clubhouse. A dream came true when Mister Kaline signed my ball and tapped the brim of my little league cap. What happened to that ball is another story, one that my younger brother probably would like to forget! A disappointment to this day. I admit to another, more personal disappointment. I have always wondered why Al would not come back, even years after retiring, just to hit home run #400. I remember more than one instance of Ray Lane calling a long fly ball to left, just twisting foul in front of that wretched pole. Damn!

Of course, I emulated my own game in every way imaginable, to how Al played. I learned to use some of the same off-season strength training exercises. Used the same batting stance. (Hey, I was a kid after all.) Wore the same number. To this day I wear #6, though the unknowing think it’s because I play shortstop. At this very moment, I am sitting in the study next to my “Kaline Shrine” as our family has been accustomed to call it, and feel privileged to be writing about both the player and the person. This was the man who paid off his parents’ mortgage and his mother’s surgery with his first contract. A star who signed a ball for a wide-eyed 11 year old Canadian kid from Windsor. A gentleman who made such an impression on me that I would sometimes stop, think, and ask myself, “What would Al Kaline do?”. Not only on the diamond ……… but also in life.

A big thank you to Jim Hawkins and his book entitled, “Al Kaline, the Biography of a Tiger Icon”,  for supporting information. Al Kaline turns 80 on December 19th. The same birthday as my grandson, Jamieson. 

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