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

Al Kaline (Photo by: 1973 SPX/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
Al Kaline (Photo by: 1973 SPX/Diamond Images via Getty Images) /

In his final season playing for the Detroit Tigers, the legendary Al Kaline etched his name into the history books. “Mr. Tiger” joined baseball’s 3,000-hit club in 1974. The story of his journey to get there continues here.

(Click here for part one on Al Kaline’s quest to 3,000 hits. Click here for part two.)

Al Kaline had played a lot of baseball and collected a lot of hits by the time August 1974 rolled around. To be exact, he had played in 2,778 big league games and collected 2,950 hits. Reaching 3,000 hits became the goal for Detroit’s longest-tenured Tiger heading into 1974. Before departing for his final spring training back in February, Kaline talked to Jim Hawkins of the Detroit Free Press about what it was like to be in the range of a such historical number. He explained,

"“I never thought I’d get this close. I didn’t know how long I was going to play. When you get close to something, something you’ve worked so hard to do, never realizing you’d ever get there, and you realize it’s something so few major leaguers have ever done, it’s really something.When you look at the players who made it – and, what’s even more impressive to me, the players who didn’t make it, guys like Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, great players that I’ve seen and played against, some of the greatest players of all time, they didn’t even make it. And now, some how, some way, I’m sneaking in there. I’m doing it. I’m going to do it.”"

Kaline had earned the respect of both Williams and Mantle early on in his career. Mantle, who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in August 1974, once told ESPN’s Tim Kurkijan that he and his peers in the mid-1950s “couldn’t believe he was that good that soon”. Williams, a Hall of Famer who competed and managed against Kaline, also offered high praise. He once told Kurkijan,

"“I remember seeing him as a kid, and I knew he would be a great hitter the first time I saw him. He stood in that box like a guy who was ready to hit. He had great strength in his hands, and that’s something you must have to be a great hitter.”"

In 1974, a film based on Williams’ book The Science of Hitting, was released. (Williams’ Texas Rangers uniform is a clue that it was filmed no later than 1972, the last season he managed the Rangers.) Kaline was one of the major league stars who appeared in the film to demonstrate points that Williams wanted to make. “Mr. Tiger” was an example of the “beautiful rhythm of a classic swing”. Over a wonderful look at that swing, a narrator’s voice intoned,

"“He gets the rhythm going with hips, hands, and knees. He makes a balanced stride directly towards the pitcher, lets his hips open to lead the way, and follows through with quick hands and good shoulder action…He is under control, even after impact.”"


Kaline picked up one single in four at-bats against Jim Slaton of the Brewers in Milwaukee on August 1. Detroit won 2-0. The Tigers’ past and future were both represented in the game. Kaline’s long-time teammate Norm Cash hit what turned out to be the last home run of his career, and Ron LeFlore made his debut. When the story of LeFlore’s rise from prison to the big leagues was turned into the made-for-TV movie One In A Million in 1978, Kaline had a cameo role as himself. It was a part that he was born to play.

Against the visiting Orioles on August 3, Kaline singled in the bottom of the fourth, but was erased in a double play. He hit his eighth home run of the season in the sixth. His eighth-inning RBI single drove in the speedy LeFlore. All three of Kaline’s hits were off Ross Grimsley. If it seemed like he was a thorn in Grimsley’s side, he was the only thorn. The Orioles beat the Tigers 6-2. Kaline added a couple more hits, a single and a double, off Baltimore pitchers later in the series.

Jim Perry was one of Kaline’s teammates on the 1973 Tigers. Detroit traded the aging right-handed pitcher to Cleveland back in March. Perry had broken in with the Indians in 1959. In his big league debut, Kaline singled off him. On August 6 at Tiger Stadium, the two veterans were opponents once again. Coming into the season, Kaline had 26 hits off Perry in 92 at-bats. He singled and scored in the first inning. After his leadoff double in the third, Kaline scored on Bill Freehan’s three-run home run. Three Indians relievers, including future Tiger Milt Wilcox, held Kaline hitless the rest of the way. Cleveland won 9-7.

The Tigers trailed the Indians 2-0 in the bottom of the seventh the next evening. Consecutive singles by Eddie Brinkman, Jerry Moses, LeFlore, Gary Sutherland, and Kaline made it a 3-2 game in favor of Detroit. It was Kaline’s second single of the night. The 3-2 score held up as the final, which was a nice way to wrap up what started out as a somber day. Two members of the 1968 Tigers were no longer Tigers. Cash, Kaline’s teammate since 1960, was released. Jim Northrup, his teammate since 1964, was peddled to the Montreal Expos. Before the game, Kaline told reporters that he didn’t want to talk about it, because he felt like he was “in the same boat as the two guys that left”. After the game, he didn’t mind talking – talking about hitting. He said,

"“You always feel good when you get a hit and drive in the winning run. (But) you try to stay on a level keel. You don’t want to get too high or too low.I’m seeing the ball real good. I’m hitting the ball hard, and I have been since the All-Star Game. If I keep it up, I think I have a chance to get it (the 3,000th hit) before the season ends.”"

Kaline continued on in pursuit of number 3,000. His first-inning double on August 8 was his 100th hit of the season. His fifth-inning single was the 2,962nd hit of his career. With that, “Mr. Tiger” passed a former Tiger, Sam Crawford, on the all-time list. “Wahoo Sam”, who also played for the Reds, picked up 2,466 of his hits while wearing the Olde English D. Neither of Kaline’s hits factored into the scoring as the Tigers picked up a 4-3 win over the Indians. He and his teammates hopped a plane for Texas after the game.

Things got off to a nice start for Kaline on August 9. He homered to left field in the first inning off the Rangers’ Jackie Brown. It was his ninth of the season, but that was as nice as things got. He went hitless in his next five at-bats, and the Tigers lost 4-3 in 14 innings. Meanwhile, one of Kaline’s biggest admirers, a guy from Grand Rapids named Jerry, had a much nicer day. Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States that afternoon. In a conversation with United Press International sports editor and columnist Milton Richman, Ford had named Kaline as his favorite baseball player, citing the Tiger’s status as “a good team man”. Likewise, Kaline, who had often visited Ford in Washington, spoke highly of the incoming president.

Future Hall of Famers Kaline and Fergie Jenkins met one last time as opponents the next day. Kaline doubled in the first inning. Jenkins later struck him out and also walked him the Rangers’ 5-4 win. Kaline sat out the finale of the three-game series in Arlington, which comprised an entire road trip. The Tigers returned home for three games with the Royals. Kaline’s only hit was a double in a 6-2 loss on August 13. Before the game, he received the Mr. Enthusiasm Award from the Center Line Booster Club.

After the Royals series, the Tigers hit the road again. This time, the destination was the West Coast. It was a quirky period in the schedule. When the grind of constant travel is combined with the physical and mental grinds that players go through over the course of a long season, it can be especially grueling on older players. Kaline was asked how he was doing. He replied,

"“I’ve held up very well. It’s very surprising, because I didn’t think I would. I lift a lot of weights with my legs, do a lot of running and exercises. I have to work harder to stay in shape than I did when I was playing (in the field), because I don’t want a pulled leg muscle. I don’t need one of those.Mentally, it’s been rough, especially when I’m not hitting. I got upset when I went through that stretch just before the All-Star break because I couldn’t go and do anything out on the field. I wasn’t doing anything to help the team.”"

Kaline picked up hits (a double and three singles) in all three games in Oakland. He also walked once, drove in a run, and scored three times in the series. The Tigers took two of three. In Anaheim, the Angels held him hitless in the two games he appeared in. Detroit was shut out in each of them. The Tigers began a nice 12-game homestand against the Rangers on August 23. In the opening game, Kaline led off the seventh by bouncing a ground rule double into the left-field stands. He was now 30 hits away from 3,000. He scored on Jim Nettles’ two-run homer. Those were the Tigers’ highlights in the 5-2 loss.

On August 27, the Angels led the Tigers 6-3 when Kaline doubled in the sixth. It was still 6-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Aurelio Rodriguez led off with a single. Two batters later, Gates Brown‘s two-run homer cut the deficit to 6-5. LeFlore singled and stole second. With two outs, Kaline laced a single to left to drive LeFlore in with the tying run. Marv Lane walked. Freehan hit a blooper to right field. Kaline rounded third, determined to score the winning run. Instead, right fielder Bob Oliver threw him out at the plate. The game continued. Kaline drew a leadoff walk in the 12th inning. John Knox came in to pinch-run, but only got as far as second base. The Angels won 7-6 in 13 innings.

For Kaline, the game turned out to be the beginning of another nine-game hitting streak. His first one, in June, had also started against Angels pitching. Watching from the visitors’ dugout was Frank Robinson, Kaline’s DH counterpart on the Angels. Like Kaline, he’d won a batting title in his days as an outfielder, and he also appeared in Ted Williams’ film The Science of Hitting. They’d been opponents since 1966, and Robinson, a future Hall of Famer himself, said,

"“Just as a pure hitter, I’d say he’s one of the top five or six I’ve ever seen. He’s a good hitter, and you don’t have to be a power hitter to be a good hitter. He has no weaknesses and he’s tough with men on base. One day, I’m sure, he’ll be voted into the Hall of Fame.”"

Detroit native Frank Tanana returned to the Tiger Stadium mound on August 28. The Angels rookie struck Kaline out in the first inning, and retired him again in the fourth and the sixth. Kaline’s fly out to right in the fourth was the 10,000th at-bat of his career. The game was a battle of left-handed pitchers. Veteran Tigers ace Mickey Lolich had given up only one run in nine innings of work. Tanana, the future Tiger, was firmly in control of the Detroit lineup. When he went back to work in the bottom of the ninth, he’d scattered six hits, struck out 10, and walked nobody. The only blemish on Tanana’s night had been Eddie Brinkman’s game-tying home run in the eighth.

Kaline led off the bottom of the ninth. On Tanana’s second pitch, “Mr. Tiger” hit the sixth (and final) walk-off home run of his career. It was described in UPI’s game report as “a rocket that landed in the upper deck in left” and “one of the hardest he’s hit in perhaps a couple years”. The Tigers triumphed 2-1. Kaline talked about his mindset at the plate in that fateful moment. He acknowledged that Tanana had been giving him trouble and pitched him differently every time up. (On the Tigers’ last trip to Anaheim, the young hurler held Kaline hitless in a 1-0 shutout.) With that in mind, Kaline remarked,

"“If I was thinking that much about getting a hit, I sure wouldn’t have tried for a home run. The percentages aren’t in your favor if you try for a home run instead of a single.Believe it or not, I was trying to hit the ball there. I was just hoping I could get a ball I could handle.”"

When the Tigers beat Tanana at Tiger Stadium back in June, he didn’t have any family in attendance because he didn’t know he’d be pitching until that day. This time, it was different. More than a hundred friends and family members, Tanana’s guests, saw Kaline, one of his boyhood heroes, beat him. That had to sting. Asked for comment afterward, Tanana spewed, “I haven’t got a (expletive deleted) word to say”. Any hard feelings weren’t long-lasting. The two bonded later in life. Kaline was doing color commentary on the Tigers’ TV broadcasts when the team traded for the pitcher in 1985. After Kaline’s death, Tanana spoke about their relationship. He commented,

"“It was my delight to pitch against him and then when I retired, we were members together at Oakland Hills Country Club and became dear friends. He was amazingly humble and always so nice to me. Towards the end of his life, he began to come to bible studies and chapel on Sundays at the ballpark and he came to know the Lord. We are all going to miss him. He was a wonderful man.”"

Kaline doubled off Oakland’s Ken Holtzman and scored in the Tigers’ 10-5 loss on August 30. His RBI single off Vida Blue in the sixth inning the next day knocked the A’s lefty out of the game. Kaline later scored during the six-run rally that propelled the Tigers to a 7-3 victory. The hit sent him into September two dozen hits short of 3,000.


The Tigers’ series with the A’s carried over into September. Oakland ace Catfish Hunter started the finale between the two teams on September 1. Four days earlier, he’d won his 20th game of the season. Hunter went on to win the 1974 American League Cy Young Award. Kaline singled off him in the third. His RBI double in the fifth cut an A’s lead to 4-2. Detroit went on to lose 5-3. Kaline’s hits were his third and fourth off Hunter in 1974. The last time the future Hall of Famer Tiger had notched four hits in one season off the future Hall of Famer righty was 1966, and Kaline had gotten a minimum of four plate appearances against Catfish in each season since.

Kaline’s next hit was off another future Hall of Famer. In the opener of a doubleheader on September 3, Kaline was hitless in his first three at-bats against the Indians’ Gaylord Perry. The 35-year-old Perry had only been in the AL since 1972, but he handled Kaline well. When Kaline led off the ninth inning with his 11th home run of the season, it was only his fourth hit in 18 at-bats against Perry. In his career, “Mr. Tiger” hit 20 homers off pitchers who are now enshrined in Cooperstown. Perry was the last of those hurlers that he took deep. Alas, Kaline’s run was the extent of the Tigers’ scoring in a 5-1 loss.

There was no fanfare at the time, but the game was the 2,807th of Kaline’s career, which broke Ty Cobb’s franchise record for games played. To this day, nobody has appeared in more Detroit Tigers games than Al Kaline. In the nightcap of the doubleheader, he contributed an RBI double and scored a run. Detroit salvaged a split but needed 11 innings to get the 5-4 win. The day marked the last time that Kaline had at least one hit in both games of a doubleheader, something that happened 128 times in his career.

Two former Tigers teammates were next on Kaline’s hit list. He had an RBI single against Jim Perry in a 5-4 loss to the Indians on September 4. Two days later, he singled twice off the Yankees’ Pat Dobson in the Tigers’ 6-2 loss at Shea Stadium. New York stopped Kaline’s nine-game hitting streak on September 7. He went hitless in both ends of a doubleheader, the last twin bill of his long career. Kaline did contribute a couple of walks and a sacrifice fly in the first game. He didn’t strike out in either. Striking out was something that Kaline didn’t do much. Until he accumulated 75 in 1974, he’d never struck out more than 66 times a season. He once said,

"“You have to discipline yourself. Wait. Don’t swing at bad pitches. Wait for the pitcher to make a good pitch for you to hit. You’ve got three strikes. You might as well use them up.I put the ball in play a lot, so I figured as long as you’re going to do that, you might as well wait for a good pitch. I’ve never been afraid of striking out, so I knew I could wait for my pitch.”"

Kaline and the Tigers feasted on the Yankees 11-3 the next day. In the first inning, his sacrifice fly drove in the first run of the game. In the third, he singled and scored on Freehan’s grand slam. Kaline walked and scored in the fifth. He drove in a run on a groundout in the sixth. He added an RBI single in the eighth off long-time rival Sam McDowell. The lefty had been pitching against Kaline since 1962, mostly as an Indian. Kaline had modest success against “Sudden Sam” over the years, but in 1967, after a particularly frustrating strikeout against McDowell, Kaline broke the little finger on his right hand when he slammed a bat into a rack in the dugout.

The Indians held Kaline hitless in two games in Cleveland. In his last at-bat at Municipal Stadium, on September 12, the sparse, but enthusiastic group of 3,570 gave him a standing ovation that lasted “at least a minute”. Kaline tapped a grounder to the mound, and fans booed as pitcher Milt Wilcox made the putout to end the game. The Indians won 12-6. The Brewers’ Jim Slaton shut the Tigers out 3-0 in Detroit on September 11. Kaline picked up two of the five hits that Slaton yielded. The next day, Kaline singled, was hit by a pitch, and scored two runs. The hit was the 2,988th of his career. He passed Hall of Famer Sam Rice on the all-time list. Detroit beat Milwaukee 9-7 in 10 innings.

Against the Yankees at home on September 14, Kaline ripped an RBI single off former teammate Dobson in the third. That cut a New York lead down to 6-3. That was still the score in the fifth when Kaline came up with a runner on. Dobson gave up Kaline’s 12th home run of the season. It was the 398th of his career and the last of the 226 homers that “Mr. Tiger” hit at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. The Yankees later took the lead and were up 10-6 in the seventh when Kaline doubled off the top of the fence in left field against reliever Dick Tidrow. He missed his second homer of the game by inches. The visitors from the Bronx beat their Motown hosts 10-7 and outhomered them 4-3. The next day, Kaline had an RBI single in a 10-2 loss to the Yankees.

On September 17, the Tigers began an eight-game road trip in Boston. Kaline was eight hits shy of 3,000. He led off the sixth with a single off Red Sox lefty Bill Lee. The Tigers trailed 3-2 at the time. Freehan singled. Reggie Sanders’ sacrifice bunt advanced the runners. Leon Roberts delivered a big single to knock in both Kaline and Freehan. Detroit took a 4-3 lead, which became a 5-3 win. After taking another step toward reaching his goal, Kaline confidently said,

"“I don’t feel any pressure as of yet because there are enough games left, and I have a little leeway. If I needed 12 hits in the last 14 games, maybe there would be a little pressure. This way, though, all I need is seven hits in 14 games. That shouldn’t be too difficult.”"

The Tigers DH carried that good feeling into the game on September 18, but Juan Marichal struck him out in the first inning. Kaline got him back in the third by singling to right. It was his third hit of the year against the future Hall of Famer, who was pitching in his only season as an American Leaguer. The Red Sox turned to reliever Reggie Cleveland shortly after. Kaline doubled to center off him in the seventh. He faced Reggie once more in the top of the ninth. With one on and one out, Kaline hit his 13th home run of the season into the net that was hanging atop the famed Green Monster in left field. It was his 30th homer at Fenway Park, the most he’d hit at any ballpark that wasn’t Tiger Stadium. It was also the 399th of his career. Detroit lost 8-5, though.

It was the last three-hit game of Kaline’s career and a big step closer to 3,000. The Fenway faithful showed their admiration by cheering him throughout the night. Reggie Cleveland, who gave up six of Kaline’s hits and four of his home runs that season (along with four walks), had never faced the long-time Tiger before 1974. He admitted that Kaline “owns me”. A befuddled Cleveland lamented,

"“I’ll drive Al to the airport to make sure he leaves…I know that I’ve given him four high pitches this year, and he hasn’t disappointed himself. He’s knocked them all out of the ballpark. If I get another chance at him in Detroit, I’ll roll the ball to him.”"

Before he left Boston for the last time, Kaline added an RBI single off Luis Tiant in the first inning on September 19. That opened the scoring in a 3-1 Tigers win. Kaline played in more games (179) and got more hits (218) at Fenway than he did at any other opponent’s ballpark. As he stepped in to face Tiant in the eighth inning for his final at-bat there, the 12,290 in attendance gave him a standing ovation. An appreciative Kaline said that it was “very, very nice” and acknowledged that the fans in Ted Williams’ old stomping grounds “have always been good to me”. Tiant struck him out.

The Tigers’ road trip continued in Milwaukee. The Brewers held Kaline hitless in the series opener, but six others in the lineup did enough to lead the Tigers to an 8-5 victory. Kaline’s sacrifice fly in the first inning on September 21 gave the Tigers a quick 1-0 lead. The Brewers ended up winning 6-2, and Kaline’s only hit was a single in the fourth inning. In the series finale, he singled and scored in the Tigers 6-5 win. The seventh-inning single was the 2,999th hit of his career. Kaline almost got his 3,000th that night. In the ninth inning, he drove a ball to County Stadium’s warning track in left-center, 362 feet away. He said he was trying for a base hit and groused,

"“I thought maybe that ball had a chance to hit against the fence, but obviously it didn’t. I think if I had pulled the ball more, the wind might have helped it.”"

The fans in Milwaukee would’ve loved seeing Kaline get that historic hit that night. In the first inning, the small, but supportive crowd of 5,126 booed Brewers starter Clyde Wright when he walked Kaline after nearly hitting him in the head with a pitch in the first inning. Kaline had to drop to the ground to avoid a couple of other close pitches later in the game. He said that between Wright and reliever Eduardo Rodriguez, he saw mostly sliders or slow curves instead of fastballs, but all he was looking for was a strike. Kaline enjoyed talking about the daily hitter vs. pitcher battles that he took part in for so long. He once said,

"“If pitchers make good pitches, you’re not going to do much with them. If you’re able to handle their mistakes, you’ll do all right. I look for certain pitches off certain pitchers, but only after I’ve faced them awhile. You can’t do that all the time…I don’t go up looking for the breaking ball that often. You can’t adjust if they give you a fastball. It’s easier to hit a breaking pitch if you’re looking for a fastball than it is to hit a fastball if you’re looking for a curve.”"

On the verge of 3,000 hits, Kaline told reporters that he’d like to get the historic hit in front of the fans in Detroit, but didn’t think he would. The Tigers’ road trip had one city left. They were returning to where they opened the 1974 season, and Kaline was returning to where it all began for him as a baseball player. He had chased his 3,000th hit all the way back to Baltimore.

(To be concluded.)

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