In his final season as a major leaguer, Detroit Tigers legend Al Kaline etched his name into the history books. “Mr. Tiger” collected his 3,000th hit in 1974. This is the story of how the esteemed Hall of Famer reached that milestone.
When the 1973 regular season ended, Al Kaline was only “75 percent sure” that he’d return to the Detroit Tigers in 1974. It had been a disappointing year for Kaline. He appeared in fewer than 100 games for the first time since he was an 18-year old rookie fresh out of high school in 1953. His OPS+ was under 100, which hadn’t happened since his first full season in 1954. Kaline also hit .255, which knocked his career batting average below .300 for the first time since he reached that plateau in 1955, when he hit .340 to win the AL batting title.
The determining factor for Kaline would be the next Tigers manager. Billy Martin had gotten fired back in August, and replacement Joe Schultz was only meant to be an interim guy. Kaline wanted to know what a new hire’s plans for him and the team would be before he could make a decision. He didn’t have to wait long to find out. Ralph Houk, who had recently stepped down as Yankees manager, filled the Tigers’ vacancy prior to the World Series. Houk commented,
"“You see a Mickey Mantle and you see an Al Kaline, and you come to appreciate all the things that they can do. Kaline used to kill us. I dreaded to see him come to the plate. He could do so many things with the bat. I don’t mean the home run. He could hit to right field. He could move runners along. He could get on base.What I’m thinking about is what a great designated hitter he’d make. If you could keep this man fresh and healthy, so that he could swing for you all season – imagine how many games he could win for you.”"
Kaline liked that idea and began envisioning the grand finale of his career. He was within striking distance of a major milestone, and reaching it became his motivation for the upcoming season. The veteran Tiger admitted,
"“I definitely want to get 3,000 hits – and being the designated hitter is the only way I can get those 139 hits that I need…It’s the only thing I really want, other than playing on another winner. And that’s going to be really tough to do. If I get to 3,000 hits this year, I’m going to retire. If I don’t, then I’ll play again next year.I’m playing right now just to get those 3,000 hits. I know that’s a very selfish reason, but that’s the truth. I just hope I don’t let the team down trying to make it, because I know they’re going to play me. I don’t want to be a drag on the team.”"
In 1973, the first year of the designated hitter in the American League, Gates Brown and Frank Howard shared the Tigers’ DH workload. Kaline was a part-time outfielder and occasional first baseman. He was open to playing first base from time to time in 1974 to spell long-time teammate Norm Cash. However, Kaline did not want to play in the outfield anymore. The 10-time Gold Glove Award winner candidly said,
"“I think I’ve gone backwards as far as my speed is concerned. I’m not getting to balls that I used to catch. That’s really embarrassing to me. It hurts. I keep telling myself ‘I should have caught that ball’, but I know I can’t anymore. I don’t think my reactions have gone. I still think I know how to play the hitters. I think it’s just a matter of speed. I can’t outrun the ball anymore. I still go for the ball, thinking I’m going to get it, but I can’t get there…I’ve always excelled out there, and I think people tend to expect that. Without blowing smoke my way, I’d have to say I’ve been one of the top two right fielders in the American League since I’ve been around. Now, all of a sudden, I’m not even in the top 10 anymore. It’s hard to take at times, but I’ve tried to be realistic about myself. I just don’t do things I used to do.”"
The 39-year old Kaline appeared as the DH for the first time in a spring training exhibition game. The Tigers hosted the Cardinals in Lakeland on March 11. Taking the mound for St. Louis that day was 38-year old Bob Gibson, Detroit’s formidable opponent from the 1968 World Series. When Kaline took a moment that spring to talk about some of the great pitchers he’d faced in his long big league career, he picked Gibson as the best of the bunch. The future Hall of Fame hitter was ready to face the future Hall of Fame pitcher again, especially in a situation like this. Kaline said,
"“I’d rather break in against a guy like Gibson. You know he’s out there just trying to get himself in shape. That wasn’t the real Bob Gibson you saw today. Your first time at bat you always hate to get some young kid who’s trying like hell to impress everybody and make the club. You never know where that ball is going to be.”"
Kaline hit Gibson’s first pitch to left field for a single. Later in the game, he lofted a fly ball to the left field wall that was caught, and he was also able to beat out an infield grounder for a single. In between plate appearances, Kaline cheered on his teammates the way he used to do when he had days off in past seasons. Houk also had him keep a watchful eye on the Detroit outfielders. Assessing his first day as the Tigers DH, Kaline said it was a pleasant experience. He was looking forward to continuing the experience in the regular season. He explained,
"“You hit better when you’re doing it every day. When you’re up there regularly, you develop more confidence, and more important, your rhythm. It’s tough to hit on a now-and-then basis. I’ve never considered myself real strong, so timing is very important to me.”"
The Tigers opened the 1974 season in Kaline’s hometown of Baltimore. He was one of the city’s best amateur baseball players when Detroit signed him as a “bonus baby” in June 1953. By debuting with the Tigers that month, Kaline actually beat the Baltimore Orioles to the major leagues. The current Orioles franchise was in its final season of operating as the St. Louis Browns in 1953. Meanwhile, that year’s Orioles team was a minor league team in the International League.
Kaline appeared in an Opening Day lineup for the first time in 1954. The Tigers’ opposition that day was the AL’s brand new Baltimore Orioles, and Kaline’s single was just the eighth hit of his career. Two decades later, his quest for the 3,000th hit would begin against the Orioles’ Jim Palmer, the 1973 AL Cy Young Award winner. The righty had handled Kaline quite well over the years. Coming into the season, Kaline had just seven hits off Palmer in 36 at-bats. The Orioles ace held “Mr. Tiger” in high regard, however. He commented,
"“I remember the first time I faced him. It was my first major league start. The first time up, I struck him out on three pitches. The next time up, he hit a home run.I like to watch him hit – even against us. He’s got a good rhythm, a picture swing. Other hitters could learn a lot just by watching him. The thing about Kaline is, he’ll not only hit your mistakes, he’ll hit your good pitches too. He’s one of the smartest guess hitters I’ve ever seen. He waits for his pitch. He’s a very disciplined hitter. And when he gets his pitch, he rarely misses.”"
Palmer made sure that Kaline did not get ‘his pitch’ on Opening Day. Hitting in the cleanup spot, the Tigers’ new DH went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a bounce out back to Palmer. He walked once. Despite nine hits from the rest of the Tigers lineup, Detroit lost 3-2. It was the 2,688th game of Kaline’s career and his 21st Opening Day start. As a designated hitter for the very first time, though, it was a game unlike any that he’d ever appeared in before. He said,
"“I felt good…no complaints. I stayed on the bench through most of the game, but when it got chilly later on, I came back into the clubhouse and tried to stay loose.I was just swinging at bad pitches. I knew how he was going to pitch me up high, and I went for his pitches anyway. I guess I was just too anxious.”"
Kaline was eager to bounce back the next day. With teammate Norm Cash along for the cab ride, he arrived at Memorial Stadium half an hour before the Tigers bus. Dave McNally, a lefty that he’d seen plenty of times over the years, got the start for the Orioles. Kaline singled off McNally in the top of the first. One down, 138 to go. Jim Northrup, who had walked ahead of Kaline, advanced to third on the hit. Kaline was able to take second on the throw to third. Neither scored. When Kaline came up in the third, he had two runners on. He singled up the middle to drive in Aurelio Rodriguez with the first run of the game. Northrup, trying to go first-to-third, was thrown out at third. Kaline took second on the throw, but was subsequently stranded.
The Tigers’ 1-0 lead eventually became a 2-2 tie. McNally was still in there for Baltimore in the 10th inning. With two outs, Northrup doubled. Orioles manager Earl Weaver left it up to his starter to decide whether or not to intentionally walk Kaline. In between at-bats in this game, Kaline hung out in the trainer’s room and swung a bat. The preparation was about to pay off. McNally opted against the free pass. “Mr. Tiger” then delivered a clutch base hit to left that drove in Northrup with the go-ahead run. However, Kaline was thrown out trying to stretch his single into a double. John Hiller retired the Orioles 1-2-3 in the bottom half to pick up the first of his 17 relief wins that season. The final score was Detroit 3, Baltimore 2.
The game-winning hit had to be extra special for Kaline, who said he had family in the stands. As he admitted, that always got to him. Northrup and Kaline, teammates since 1964, posed for a celebratory photo in the Tigers locker room afterward. The mood was jovial. Kaline, according to Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press, was “grinning like a school kid on the first day of vacation”. About his conquest of McNally, the Tiger hero said,
"“In a situation like that, I try not to think about what the pitcher may be throwing me. I just try to concentrate on what I have to do. I was worried that he’d pitch around me, and I didn’t want to get caught chasing a bad pitch. I wanted to make sure he threw me a strike before I swung. He did – and I hit it.”"
The Tigers and Orioles met for a Sunday doubleheader on April 7 to wrap up their season-opening series. By the time Kaline led off the second inning in game one, Baltimore was already up 5-0. Ross Grimsley, the O’s starter, was making his American League debut after three years with the Reds. Kaline welcomed him to the AL with a single to left, the Tigers’ first hit of the day. The score was still 5-0 in the top of the ninth when Northrup and Kaline singled off Grimsley with two outs. The Tigers could only muster one run in the inning, though, and lost 5-1. Kaline went hitless in the nightcap, but he was still a factor in the outcome. Leading off the 10th in a 4-4 tie, Kaline drew a walk. He came around to score the go-ahead run in the four-run rally that gave the Tigers an 8-4 comeback win.
New York ruined Detroit’s home opener on April 9. The Yankees held Kaline hitless and won 3-0. He singled twice off righty Mel Stottlemyre and scored a run in the Tigers’ 4-1 win over the Yankees on April 11. Stottlemyre, a long-time foe of Kaline’s, was pitching in his final season. It was a very short homestand for the Tigers. A four-game series at Fenway Park in Boston, where Kaline had hit well throughout the years, was next.
On April 12, a cold Good Friday afternoon, Kaline hit his first home run of the season in the top of the eighth. It was a two-run shot off reliever Reggie Cleveland to cut a Red Sox lead down to 6-3. Facing another AL newcomer that he’d never seen before, “Mr. Tiger” walloped it. Cleveland joked that the poor baseball “would have been out of Yellowstone Park”. It was the 387th homer of Kaline’s career. He got one more at-bat against Reggie in the top of the ninth with two on and two outs. Boston was still up 6-3. Kaline represented the possible tying run, but he grounded back to the mound to end the game.
Kaline picked up his first double of the season the next day, and he added another double and a single on Easter Sunday. Both games were Tigers losses. Reggie Cleveland returned as a starter for the Red Sox in the series finale on April 15, which the Tigers won 1-0 on Cash’s home run. Kaline found Reggie to be more of a challenge this time around. He was hitless, with just “three light taps”, according to Clif Keane of the Boston Globe. Cleveland used his changeup, or “change of pace”, as it was known back then, to get the better of Kaline in the eighth after being down 3-1 in the count. Kaline recalled,
"“I was braced to knock a fat pitch out of the park. But he threw me a change, and I was off-balance and took it (for a strike). I decided to wait for the next pitch, and I was sure it would be a fastball. But it was another change of pace, and I hit it back to the mound. Two change of pace pitches to me in a row is a record. So you give a man credit for having fooled me.”"
In an Opening Day rematch, Jim Palmer and the Orioles visited Tiger Stadium on April 17. Kaline had two of the Tigers’ five hits off Palmer. Both were singles, but Kaline’s second of the day was the 2,874th hit of his career. That moved him ahead of his fellow Baltimorean, Babe Ruth, on the all-time list. The Babe was just the first of the Hall of Famers that Kaline would pass on his way to 3,000.
Kaline’s leadoff double in the bottom of the eighth against the Brewers on April 20 went for naught in a 3-1 loss. The next afternoon, Milwaukee and Detroit took a 5-5 tie into extra innings. With two outs in the 14th inning, Northrup doubled. Kaline was up next. His sixth-inning single may have seemed like a distant memory. Kaline bounced reliever Tom Murphy’s pitch back toward the mound. Murphy botched an attempt to barehand the ball, and it rolled toward second base. Shortstop Robin Yount also tried to barehand it, but the ball bounced over his hand into shallow center. Northrup was prepared to stop at third, but cruised home with the winning run. Kaline was surprised by Murphy’s misplay. He observed,
"“If (Murphy) had caught the ball there would have been no question. It would’ve been a routine play. But he doesn’t land square when he follows through. He falls to the first base side. When I saw he had touched the ball, but hadn’t caught it, that’s when I really started digging. Once it got past the pitcher, I didn’t think they had a chance to get me.”"
Kaline thought the play would result in a first-and-third situation for the next Tiger up. Instead it was a 6-5 Detroit victory. The walk-off single was the 2,877th hit of his career. With that, “Mr. Tiger” moved past Hall of Famer Mel Ott. At the time, that was good for 20th on the all-time list. Like Kaline, Ott debuted as a teenager and never played in the minor leagues. He made his name as a player with the New York Giants and later became a Tigers broadcaster (radio and TV). During Ott’s three seasons in the Detroit broadcast booth, 1956 through 1958, Kaline collected 534 hits.
Against the Twins at home on April 24, Kaline contributed an RBI double and scored a run in a 8-4 win. He added a couple singles in an 8-2 loss to the White Sox in Chicago on April 26. On the mound for the White Sox the next day was lefty Jim Kaat, a native of Zeeland, Michigan. Before turning pro, Kaat was a teenage Tigers fan who soaked up newspaper coverage of Kaline’s run for the AL batting title in 1955. He had been pitching against Kaline since 1960. Overall, Kaline had gotten the better of Kaat in their encounters. Leading off the bottom of the second, Kaline picked up another hit off the veteran southpaw. (The single up the middle was the 2,881st of his career, which moved him past Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch.) Kaat had become an opponent, but he always remained an admirer. After Kaline’s passing in April 2020, the former pitcher said,
"“He was the toughest hitter I ever faced. You couldn’t intimidate him inside…He had great plate coverage. He would hit an outside pitch to right-center. He was just on every pitch I threw.”"
Following Kaline’s single, the Tigers tried to execute the hit-and-run with Willie Horton at the plate. Horton struck out, and the in-motion Kaline was a dead duck at second. Kaat struck Kaline out in the top of the third. In the top of the fifth, Detroit had just tied the game on an Eddie Brinkman home run. Kaat bounced back to get the next two hitters, but then he walked Mickey Stanley. Kaline was up, and that was it for Kaat. Chicago skipper Chuck Tanner called on righty Rich Gossage. The young “Goose” was still a year away from developing into one of the best relievers of his era. Kaline singled off him and later came around to score. The Tigers’ 4-run rally gave them a 6-1 lead, which ended up as an 8-3 win.
Kaline picked up a pair of singles in the opening game of a three-game series in Kansas City on April 30. He also scored a run in the Tigers’ 7-2 drubbing of the Royals. That gave him 23 hits and a slash line of .295/.345/.385 for April.
As the series with the Royals continued into May, Kaline added three more singles in the next two games, which were 2-1 and 9-7 Detroit victories. A second inning single on May 1 was the 2,885th of his career, which moved him past Hall of Famer Zack Wheat on the all-time list. A brief slump then set in. Kaline went hitless in his next four games (although he did walk three times). That was part of an overall dreary week. Kaline sat out one game due to a strained hand, one game was rained out, and the Tigers also had a scheduled off-day mixed in.
Kaline snapped an 0-for-17 string on May 10 in the fourth inning against the Red Sox when he slammed Reggie Cleveland’s first pitch into the left-field stands at Tiger Stadium. It was his second home run of the season, and both had come at Reggie’s expense. This one was bigger. It was a three-run shot that turned a 2-0 Boston lead into a 3-2 Detroit lead. Kaline may have been fuming because Cleveland had brushed him back in the second inning. Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe suggested that “it didn’t help” matters for the Red Sox. Kaline singled off him in the sixth, but wasn’t involved in any further scoring. The Tigers needed a walk-off double from Ben Oglivie, who they had acquired from Boston, to put the Red Sox away 6-5. Kaline picked up two more hits the next day in an 8-5 loss.
The Tigers arrived in New York on May 14 for the first of two games with the Yankees. It was a different setting than usual, however. The brief series would be played at Shea Stadium, home of the National League’s Mets. Yankee Stadium was being remodeled that year, and Shea became the temporary home of the Yankees. It would soon become the 20th ballpark that Kaline got a hit in. (He said Shea looked nice.) New York Times columnist Dave Anderson was interested in talking with Kaline about his quest for 3,000 hits and his approach at the plate. Kaline told him,
"“It was 139 (hits to go) at the start of the season. Now it’s down to 109. I’m a different hitter than I used to be. I’m not as aggressive with the bat. I’m more cautious now. The secret of being a good hitter is to wait for your pitch, and then hit it – and to bear down. Ty Cobb once told me, ‘Always bear down, because there’ll come a time when you won’t be able to bear down’.”"
Kaline would need to bear down against a former teammate, Yankees starting pitcher Pat Dobson. As a rookie reliever for the Tigers in 1967, Dobson got credit for his first big league win after a clutch Kaline hit triggered a game-winning, ninth-inning rally. Kaline hadn’t faced Dobson too many times as an opponent. He only had one hit in 11 at-bats coming into 1974, and Dobson retired him in their first two encounters in this game. Then “Mr. Tiger” struck back against the ex-Tiger. His RBI single in the fifth gave Detroit a 3-1 lead. The Tigers beat the Yankees 5-2 in the first of the two matchups.
In the next game, Kaline came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a 5-5 tie. His seventh-inning single had knocked starter Dick Tidrow out of the game. Yankees relief ace Sparky Lyle was now on the mound. Kaline walked, much to the fury of Lyle, catcher Rick Dempsey, and New York manager Bill Virdon. All three vehemently disagreed with home plate umpire Jim Odom that the last two balls called were out of the strike zone. Lyle claimed that the ball four pitch was “right down the pipe”, and Dempsey concurred that it was “a perfect pitch”. Lyle ranted on and blurted,
"“I threw two sliders that should’ve struck Kaline out. If he was a rookie, he would’ve been called out.”"
To Kaline’s credit, he did finish his career with an above-average 11% walk rate and walked more (1,277) than he struck out (1,020), so he may have gotten the benefit of a doubt from an umpire who respected the veteran’s batting eye. Kaline’s free pass forced Mickey Stanley in with the go-ahead run in the 6-5 Tigers win.
Kaline picked up three more singles over his next five games, and then Houk moved him from cleanup to the three-hole in the Tigers lineup. That was where Kaline had spent much of his career. Ultimately, he ended up with 1,705 of his hits batting third. In his return as the Tigers’ third-place hitter on May 22 in Milwaukee, “Mr. Tiger” responded with a three-hit night. The first was a single to right to lead off the third. He came around to score the first of the Tigers’ two runs in the inning. Those runs tied the game at 2-2. Kaline broke the tie in the fifth when he singled to left and drove Eddie Brinkman in. In the seventh, Kaline singled and scored on Willie Horton’s home run. The Tigers went on to beat the Brewers 6-4.
When Kaline singled off the Indians’ Fritz Peterson at Tiger Stadium on May 24, it didn’t have an effect on the outcome of the game, a 3-1 Cleveland win. It was, however, the 2,900th hit of Kaline’s career. He was now 100 hits away from the magical number of 3,000. He resumed chipping away the next day with two more hits against the Indians. He singled Stanley home in the bottom of the first to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead. The Indians led 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Stanley and Kaline led off the inning with back-to-back singles. Horton clubbed a three-run home run, and Detroit came out on top 5-4.
The Tigers’ first West Coast road trip of the season began in Oakland on Memorial Day. Kaline singled twice in the series opener, but the A’s trounced the Tigers 12-2. The next day, Detroit faced righty Catfish Hunter, a future Hall of Famer that Kaline had trouble with. Coming into 1974, he was only 10-for-45 against Catfish in the regular season. In the 1972 American League Championship Series, Hunter had been especially tough. Kaline went hitless in six at-bats against him in Games 1 and 4. On this occasion, Kaline singled off Hunter in the sixth and scored a run. Thanks to a pair of homers from unlikely hero Gary Sutherland the Tigers beat the A’s 3-1.
Kaline singled off the Angels’ Bill Singer on May 31 in Detroit’s 5-3 loss in Anaheim. That gave him 22 hits for the month of May, although 21 of them were singles. The home run off Reggie Cleveland on May 10 was the lone exception. With 2,907 hits under his belt, Kaline’s quest for 3,000 would continue into June. The next pitcher standing in his way was Nolan Ryan, who had no-hit the Tigers one season earlier.
(To be continued…)