Chasing 3,000: Detroit Tiger Al Kaline in 1974 (Part 2)

In the summer of 1974, Detroit Tigers designated hitter Al Kaline got closer to joining baseball’s 3,000-hit club. This is the second part of the story of his journey to get there.

(Click here for part one.)

When June 1974 began, Al Kaline was only 94 hits away from 3,000. In an interview back in February, Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press  asked “Mr. Tiger” if reaching that vaunted milestone would be the biggest achievement of his career, which blossomed when he won the American League batting title in 1955. Kaline responded,

“I think it will be bigger than the batting championship. I was so young then. I knew everything was going right for me when I won the batting title. I was so lucky. I really didn’t think I even belonged in the big leagues. But 3,000 hits is something I can say I really did – there was nothing lucky about it.”

June

Kaline’s first challenge of the month was hard-throwing righty Nolan Ryan of the Angels. It was Ryan’s third season in the American League, but the game on June 1 was only the second time Kaline saw “The Ryan Express.” The first seven times that he pitched against the Tigers, then-manager Billy Martin sat Kaline. One of those games was the no-hitter that Ryan threw at Tiger Stadium in July 1973. Kaline went hitless when he finally got a crack at Ryan about a month after that. The Detroit designated hitter’s career was starting to wind down, but the Angels ace still held a measure of respect for him. Ryan said,

“He’s not the caliber of Rod Carew or Reggie Jackson anymore.  But you can tell he used to be. He has pride. He battles you. He’s a very competitive hitter. Some hitters, when they’re overmatched, will give in to the pitcher. Kaline won’t. When he’s overmatched, he won’t give up.”

Ryan almost threw another no-hitter against the Tigers on this Saturday night in Anaheim. He wasn’t completely dominant. He walked six through his first seven innings, including Kaline twice. Still, he took a no-no attempt into the top of the eighth. Leadoff hitter Eddie Brinkman reached safely on an error and took second on a wild pitch. Mickey Stanley delivered the Tigers’ first hit of the game, an RBI single. Two batters later, Kaline singled to left. Those were Detroit’s only two hits in a 4-1 loss. It was Ryan’s sixth straight win over the Tigers.

Kaline picked up three more singles over the Tigers’ next three games, all against the A’s at home. In a return matchup with the Angels that followed, Kaline went hitless in the series opener. Starting the second game for the Angels was 20-year old rookie Frank Tanana, a Detroit native who had pitched in a high school championship game at Tiger Stadium. This was the future Tiger’s first game at the ballpark as a pro. Of course, Tanana had been a Kaline fan in his younger years. After Kaline’s passing in 2019, Tanana said,

“He was one of my boyhood heroes along with Sandy Koufax. My dad, who had played minor league ball, told me that I had to play the game like Al Kaline because he is was so fundamentally sound.”

With two outs in the bottom of the first, Kaline singled to left field off Tanana. Willie Horton then hit a two-run home run. Tanana retired Kaline the next two times they squared off, but Detroit’s 5-2 victory marked the beginning of a nine-game hitting streak for Kaline. The veteran Tiger was impressed by the young Angels lefty. Later in the season, citing Tanana’s “great fastball, a real good curve, and good control,” Kaline predicted that he would be “a great pitcher – if he doesn’t hurt himself.”

It was a hot and humid Sunday afternoon in the Motor City on June 9, and the Tigers drew the biggest crowd of the season since the home opener. There were 42,491 fans on hand for Bat Day, and they were also going to see a pitcher who had handled Detroit’s bats quite well. Nolan Ryan was back. He struck Kaline out looking in the bottom of the first. The Angels took a 2-0 lead in the top of the third. In the bottom half, Gary Sutherland’s single got things started for the Tigers.

Kaline then ripped a “loud double” into left field. It was his first extra-base hit since a home run on May 10. Sutherland held at third. Ryan struck Horton out, but Jim Northrup singled to right. That scored Sutherland, and when Kaline saw that right fielder Leon Stanton misplayed the ball, he took off for home. Kaline collided with Angels catcher Ellie Rodriguez and missed the plate, but the ball bounced out of Rodriguez’s mitt. That allowed Kaline to hustle back and touch the plate for the tying run. Underneath a photo of Kaline and Rodriguez, a Long Beach Independent caption writer joked that the ol’ Tiger “felt every one of his 39 years” on the play.

The Tigers got to Ryan again in the fourth. Stanley doubled, and Sutherland singled. That put two on with one out for Kaline. He singled to center to drive in the go-ahead run. Sutherland and Kaline scored when Horton crushed a ball that landed deep in Tiger Stadium’s spacious center field for a double. Detroit beat California 5-3, which snapped Ryan’s personal winning streak against the Tigers. It was the last time that “Mr. Tiger” would face the future Hall of Famer. Kaline noticed a different Ryan this time around. He remarked,

“(Ryan) didn’t have the velocity he usually has. He threw a lot more breaking balls and and change-ups. Maybe he was trying to pace himself because of the heat. I know, right from the first inning, I didn’t think he was throwing that hard.”

Kaline picked up a single the next night as the visiting Rangers beat the Tigers 6-3 on June 10. The opener of the three-game series was most notable for being Texas manager Billy Martin’s first game back in town since Detroit general manager Jim Campbell fired him the previous August. Kaline collected 281 of his hits on Martin’s watch. When asked about his relationship with the controversial manager, Kaline said that he’d gotten along well with him. Martin, a Tiger teammate of Kaline’s in 1958, still respected the skillset that had made Kaline a star. He said,

“He’s in a rare category. There are a lot of good hitters in baseball, and a lot of good baserunners, and a lot of good outfielders. But there are very few who combined everything with a good throwing arm. He could do all of those things and there aren’t very many who could. Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle.”

It took a while for Kaline’s bat to heat up on June 11. David Clyde, a 19-year old pitcher, retired him to end both the first and third innings. The Tigers scored a couple runs off Clyde in the fifth, and Martin pulled him just before Kaline’s third plate appearance. The Detroit DH ended up with two singles and an RBI double off Texas relievers. The Tigers won 8-5. Kaline’s only hit in a a 7-0 victory the next evening was a solo homer in the fifth off Rangers starter Fergie Jenkins. The homer, Kaline’s third of the season, was a leadoff shot that began a five-run rally. He later made the third out in the inning.

The Royals arrived in Detroit for a three-game series beginning on June 14, and Kaline continued to collect base hits. In the series opener, he picked up an RBI single and a double against righty Steve Busby. Like Nolan Ryan, Busby had no-hit the Tigers a season earlier on a day that Kaline had off. This time, Busby and the Royals again beat the Tigers. It was a 4-3 score. Detroit bounced back with an 11-9 walk-off victory the next afternoon. Kaline contributed a pair of doubles that knocked in a total of three runs. His ninth-inning double drove in the first run in the Tigers’ five-run, come-from-behind rally. It was the first time all season that he had more than one extra-base hit in a game. The series finale took place on Father’s Day. Mark and Mike Kaline’s dad walked, scored a run, and singled. Detroit fans saw a 4-3, 11-inning, walk-off win.

Observing Kaline’s at-bats throughout the series was Royals rookie third baseman George Brett. It was Brett’s first time playing in Tiger Stadium. The future Hall of Famer had four hits of his own in the three games. When the Tigers and Royals played the final big league game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in September 1999, Brett was on hand. He and Kaline, both in full uniform, presented the teams’ lineup cards at home plate before the game. Like Kaline, Brett collected 3,000 hits and 300 home runs all while playing for only one team. He became as synonymous with Kansas City as Kaline was with Detroit. Both baseball ambassadors became good friends.

Fergie Jenkins is a Hall of Fame pitcher who befriended Kaline and became a frequent golf partner. In 1974, they were still competing on the baseball field. Jenkins had collared Kaline with an 0-for-4 night on June 17 in Arlington. It didn’t seem to hurt the Tigers, who led the Rangers 4-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. An ill-timed, four-run Texas rally sent the game to the 10th inning. With one on and one out in the 10th, Kaline got another shot at Jenkins. This time, “Mr. Tiger” delivered a two-run home run to left. Kaline’s fourth round-tripper of the year was the margin of victory in a 6-4 Tigers triumph. He said,

“I’ve been playing all this time, but it’s still a fantastic thrill to get a game-winning homer like this one tonight. The home run was particularly satisfying because our dugout was pretty down after they came back like that…

Fergie made a mistake. He had been getting me out with no problems all night, but came in with a high slider, the same pitch I got a homer off him in Detroit.”

Kaline also oddly described the slider as a “very generous” pitch that he was happy to see. Texas skipper Martin, to his chagrin, agreed with Kaline that it was a mistake pitch. Jenkins didn’t want to talk to reporters about it after the game, but following Kaline’s death in 2020, he chuckled at the memory of giving up the two home runs that season. Although that was the only year in which they faced each other, Jenkins called Kaline “one of the best.” He added,

“The thing was, even on the bench, you could see he talked to the players and he had a sense of the way he carried himself as a professional athlete. He was a true professional.”

Kaline’s nine-game hitting streak was snapped the next day. After a couple hitless days, he got back into the groove in New York against his former teammate, the Yankees’ Pat Dobson. Facing the righty for the second time in the season, Kaline singled twice, but wasn’t involved in the scoring in the 3-2 Tigers win on June 21.

The Tigers’ road trip continued with the season’s second visit to Baltimore, Kaline’s hometown. When the Tigers and Orioles met on Opening Day, Kaline was 139 hits away from 3,000. After collecting 65 hits through his first 62 games, he had 74 to go. Kaline, who sat out the series opener, admitted that without the DH rule, he wouldn’t have been able to maintain a consistent presence in the Detroit lineup. He’d been in all but five of the Tigers’ games. Kaline was back in his familiar three-hole in the batting order on June 25, which was the 21st anniversary of his big league debut. He celebrated with a third inning triple off Mike Cuellar, his first triple since 1972. Willie Horton followed with a single to drive Kaline in. The Tigers beat the Orioles 2-0.

Afterward, Kaline was in a reflective mood. He said he hadn’t realized the significance of the date until Tigers radio announcer Ernie Harwell brought it up to him. Kaline reminisced about leaving home for the first time to join his new ball club from Detroit, but also talked about what it might be like when there were no more road trips or ballgames left. He commented,

“I was a skinny, real shy guy. Had never been away from my home here in Westport (a neighborhood in South Baltimore) more than three or four days (but) for tournaments in New York and Johnstown (Pennsylvania)

After I get 3,000 hits, retirement is going to be with mixed emotions, because it will mean the end as a player. Baseball owes me nothing. I owe it all to baseball. But I just think after 22 years, I will have played long enough. You can’t go on forever. I want to be able to stay at home with the family a little more.”

Kaline continued his journey toward 3,000 hits the next day with an eighth-inning double to center off the Orioles’ Ross Grimsley. It was the 2,928th hit of his career, which moved him past Hall of Famer Al Simmons on the all-time list. (Simmons got 186 of his hits as a Tiger in 1936.) That was the good news. The bad news was the scare that Kaline gave the Tigers. As he tried to stretch the double into a triple, Kaline was thrown out at third by a “perfect peg” from the Orioles’ excellent center fielder Paul Blair, who won the seventh of his eight Gold Gloves that season. Kaline also got tangled up with third baseman Brooks Robinson on the play. The result was that Kaline had to be helped off the field. He explained,

“Brooks fell on my knee as he fell across the bag for a tag. I was worried when it happened, but I’ll be all right.”

Detroit trainer Bill Behm didn’t think that Kaline wouldn’t have a problem with the knee. Still, the 5-4 loss hurt less in comparison. Kaline didn’t miss any time, though. He was back in the lineup the next evening when the Tigers returned home. He picked up a couple hits against the Brewers, including a double, but Milwaukee won 5-1. Kaline’s RBI triple in the seventh inning off the wonderfully named Bill Champion on June 28 bumped a Tigers lead to 7-4. It was the last triple of Kaline’s career. It was also his 2,931st hit, which moved him ahead of Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Kaline later scored in the inning, and the Tigers went on to win 9-7.

The Tigers and Brewers wrapped up the month with a Sunday doubleheader at Tiger Stadium on June 30. Kaline doubled and scored the first run of the game in the fourth. Milwaukee had taken a 4-1 lead by the time he singled to lead off the eighth. But, Kaline did pass another Hall of Famer on the all-time list with that single. His 2,933rd hit gave him one more than Deadball Era star “Wee Willie” Keeler. The 4-1 score held up as the final, and Kaline’s day was done. He sat out the nightcap, finishing with 27 hits in a productive June.

July

Kaline picked up three hits against the Yankees early in July to get the month started off right. With teammates Gene Lamont and Gary Sutherland on the corners and two outs in the bottom of the fifth on July 1, Kaline singled to right. That drove in Lamont to tie the game 1-1. New York right fielder Bobby Murcer bobbled the ball, and so Sutherland attempted to score. Murcer threw him out at the plate. Detroit went on to win 4-3. Kaline singled in the midst of a four-run, fifth inning rally the next day, but wasn’t involved in the scoring. The Tigers won that one 4-2.

On July 3, Kaline’s leadoff walk in the sixth inning started a five-run rally. He himself scored on Jim Northrup’s three-run bomb. When Kaline came up with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the game was tied 6-6. Sparky Lyle was on the mound for the Yankees. The lefty fireman had been facing the veteran Tiger in key late-inning situations since 1967. Kaline had three hits and five walks in 20 plate appearances against Lyle coming into 1974. “Mr. Tiger” came through in the clutch here by legging out an infield hit. Youngster John Knox came in to pinch-run. Northrup followed with a walk-off homer to make it an 8-6 final. Lyle had the last laugh the next day. Kaline pinch-hit against him in a game the Tigers trailed 6-4. There were runners on first and second with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Lyle struck Kaline out to end the game.

Against the White Sox at home on July 6, Kaline picked up a couple more hits. The first was a single in the fifth off starter Wilbur Wood. Along with Detroit’s Mickey Lolich and Oakland’s Vida Blue, Wood was one of the American League’s best left-handed pitchers in the early 1970s. Kaline handled him quite well, hitting .393/.473/.557 in 74 plate appearances. Kaline also singled off reliever Terry Forster in the sixth. Chicago edged Detroit 9-8 in the end.

The Tigers were in Minneapolis to face the Twins on July 8. Exactly 21 years earlier, Kaline got his first big league hit, an eighth inning single off Luis Aloma of the White Sox. Back in April, he told Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press that he couldn’t remember anything about that first hit. On the anniversary of that occasion, Kaline got his 2,939th hit. It was an RBI single in the third off the Twins’ Bert Blyleven. That was the only hit Kaline got off the future Hall of Fame righty in their 11 meetings. It also bumped him up on the all-time list past Hall of Famer Jake Beckley, whose career covered the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The Twins spoiled the day with a 6-2 win.

Kaline went hitless in his next six games. He walked twice and reached on an error once, but the slump dropped his batting average by 20 points. Kaline felt that a slump could be the result of mental fatigue. He revealed,

“I’ve been lucky to keep my sanity. There’s so much idle time to kill between games that you find yourself sitting around, thinking of what you did or didn’t do to help the ball club. At least that’s the kind of mind that I have. I worry about going bad and blame myself if we don’t win.”

It was against Minnesota pitching that Kaline went into his slump, and it was against Minnesota pitching that he broke out of it. He singled in a 5-3 Tigers win over the Twins on July 18 and followed that up with a pair of singles in a 7-5 Twins win the next day. Those were his last hits before the All-Star break.

Kaline and John Hiller, the savior of the Tigers’ pitching staff that season, represented Detroit on the American League All-Star team. It was the 18th time that “Mr. Tiger” was named to an All-Star team and the first time since 1971, when the Midsummer Classic was played at Tiger Stadium. When the earliest fan voting totals had been announced in mid-June, Kaline was among the leading vote-getters in the AL outfield. Because he hadn’t played at all in the field, he found that both “amusing and a little embarrassing.” Ultimately, the Tigers’ no. 6 finished sixth.

The 1974 All-Star Game was played at Three Rivers Stadium, home of the National League’s Pirates. The last time an All-Star Game had been played in Pittsburgh, at the defunct Forbes Field in 1959, Kaline was the AL’s starting center fielder and hit a home run. Remarkably, he was recovering from a fractured cheekbone at the time.

In his final appearance as an All-Star, Kaline pinch-hit for pitcher Gaylord Perry of the Indians in the fourth inning. The crowd of over 50,000 welcomed him with a “swelling ovation.”  The AL led 2-1. There was a runner on first with two outs, and Ken Brett of the host Pirates was on the mound. With the count even at 1-1, Kaline popped up a slider that catcher Johnny Bench of the Reds, another future Hall of Famer and friend of Al’s, caught in foul territory. The NL beat the AL 7-2.

Kaline went 12-for-37 (.324) in All-Star play, including a single in front of the hometown fans in 1971’s classic. (Note: from 1959 through 1962, there were two All-Star games played. In the first three of those years, Kaline played in both games.)  The All-Star break gave him to pause and reflect on his time as a big leaguer. He said,

“For me, it’s like a dream come true. It’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s given me everything I have in life. Everything. That challenge on the field has been my whole life. I think people need a challenge.”

The Red Sox were in Detroit when the season resumed on July 25. Kaline was ready to start hitting again. He knocked his fifth home run of the season off Roger Moret in the fourth inning. It was the 391st homer of Kaline’s career. That cut the Boston lead down to 11-1. Yes, it had been a bad day for Tigers pitching. Kaline picked up a pair of singles off reliever Dick Drago in the seventh and ninth innings, but the Tigers got thumped 12-4. Red Sox first baseman Carl Yastrzemski joined Kaline in the 300-home run club in the second inning. The future Hall of Famer would go on to notch his 3,000th hit in 1979. Like Kaline, Yaz did all his work at the plate for just one team.

Kaline picked up a pair of singles in a 6-3 win in Cleveland on June 28. The Tigers’ venerable No. 6 hit his sixth home run, a two-run shot, in the first inning the following day. That set a wonderful chain of events in motion. Detroit’s next two hitters, Bill Freehan and Mickey Stanley also homered.  After two more Tigers reached base safely, Eddie Brinkman hit a three-run homer. It was the seventh time in AL history (and first time for the Tigers since 1950) that a team hit four home runs in one inning. “Mr. Tiger” and his boys were the first foursome to do it in the first inning of a game. (Since then, Tigers teams in 1986, 2013, and 2020 have thrilled fans with four-HR innings). Kaline’s jack was his only hit of the game, but he later walked and scored in the Tigers’ 8-2 victory.

After the game, an excited Kaline shouted “Hey, we’re in the record books!” to his fellow Tigers. It was a slider from Indians starter Fritz Peterson to Kaline that began the Detroit parade of round-trippers. Kaline said,

“You never know what’s going to happen. I never thought of it being a record at all…

It wasn’t too bad a pitch, but I was looking for the ball in. They got me out on some inside pitches the day before, so they just kept throwing me in.”

It had been a long day for Kaline against Reggie Cleveland at Fenway Park on July 30. Kaline walked in the first inning, but Reggie sent him right back to the bench in his next three at-bats. The Red Sox led 5-3 going into the top of the ninth. Gary Sutherland singled off Cleveland to begin the inning. Kaline then tied the game with a huge two-run homer. The Tigers added a couple more runs later in the inning and won 7-5. Kaline noted,

“Every home run I’ve hit off Boston this year has been on balls up around my eyes. I’m known as a high-ball hitter, but no other club seems to pitch me this way other than Boston. Reggie was throwing great…but he hung a changeup in my eyes. It was a bad pitch.”

Before leaving Boston, Kaline doubled off Luis Tiant and scored, but the Tigers wrapped up July with a 5-4 loss. Tiant was one of the toughest pitchers Kaline had faced over the last 10 years. In 50 at-bats before 1974, he had only gotten nine hits against the Cuban righty. “El Tiante” had racked up 14 strikeouts in that time frame. July had been a rough month for Kaline. He only added 17 to his hit total. With August looming, Kaline needed only 50 more hits to reach 3,000. There were 60 games left on the Tigers’ schedule.

(To be continued…)