Chasing 3,000: Detroit Tiger Al Kaline in 1974 (Part 4)

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

Al Kaline joined baseball’s 3,000-hit club in 1974, the final season of a legendary career spent exclusively with the Detroit Tigers. The story of his journey to get there concludes here.

(Click here for links to the first three parts of “Chasing 3,000: Detroit Tiger Al Kaline in 1974”.)

Kaline’s quest for 3,000 hits brought him back to where it all began on September 24. Baltimore wasn’t just where he and the Tigers began the 1974 season. Long before that, it was where Kaline began playing baseball as a young boy. It was where he first excelled at the sport, and now he had come back home for the last time as a major leaguer. The Tigers were in Baltimore for two games to wrap up a three-city road trip. Kaline appeared in each of the trip’s first six games and collected a total of seven hits, which brought his career total to 2,999.

Prior to leaving Milwaukee for Baltimore, Kaline was asked how he felt about being so close to his historic goal. Handling the spotlight comfortably was never a strong suit of Kaline’s during his playing days. He merely said,

"“I’d love to give you guys a story and say I’ll be in tears or something. But I don’t feel much of anything. It hasn’t hit me at all.”"

That was really just Kaline being Kaline. He actually hadn’t changed much since his days as an amateur ballplayer. Jim Henneman competed against Kaline on the Baltimore diamonds way back then. Later, he became a sportswriter in the city and is still active today. Upon Kaline’s induction into the Hall of Fame in 1980, Henneman wrote in The Evening Sun,

"“If Kaline had a trademark in those days, it was the unemotional way he conducted himself. He inspired no petty jealousies, unusual at that age, considering the extraordinary publicity he commanded. He was just one of the guys who loved playing baseball. He just did it better than anyone else.”"

Reaching 3,000

Orioles lefty Dave McNally took the mound for the Tuesday night game against the visitors from Detroit. He gave up Kaline’s first three hits of the season back on April 6. Before this series began, McNally said,

"“Some of us guys were sitting around talking in the middle of the season, and Kaline’s name came up. And for some reason, I got it in my mind that that he would get his 3,000th hit off me. He’s gotten 500 other hits off me, so one more isn’t going to make any difference. He always hit me well.”"

McNally exaggerated the number of hits that Kaline had tallied against him, but he also underestimated how well he’d actually handled his foe. Kaline hit .310/.398/.509  against left-handed pitchers in his career. However, he hit just .265/.333/.451 against McNally in 126 plate appearances, including those in this game. Whitey Ford and Jim Kaat were the only southpaws that pitched to Kaline more than McNally. The Orioles hurler got the better of the Tigers hitter in the first inning when Kaline grounded out to shortstop Mark Belanger for the third out. Kaline later acknowledged McNally’s comment and responded,

"“I know he says I’ve gotten a lot of hits of him, but he must remember more of them than I do. He’s a tough pitcher.”"

Tigers fans throughout Michigan were tuned into Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey’s radio broadcast. Harwell had paused when Kaline came to the plate that first time. He let listeners hear how loudly the crowd of 11,492 at Memorial Stadium was cheering for the Baltimorean wearing the grey Detroit uniform. It was a standing ovation. Kaline got another standing ‘O’ when he returned as the leadoff hitter in the fourth. Harwell had just handed the play-by-play duties over to Carey, and Carey had barely finished recapping Kaline’s previous at-bat when “Mr. Tiger” swung at McNally’s first pitch. In that amazing baritone voice of his, Carey exclaimed,

"“There’s a drive down to right field into the corner. It’ll be in for a base hit. Maybe extra bases. Al is digging for second. He’s in with a stand-up double. A two-base hit for Al Kaline. Hit number 3,000 in his fabulous career of 22 years a member of the Tigers. Listen to this standing ovation!”"

Kaline became the 12th big leaguer to join the 3,000 hit-club and the first American Leaguer since Eddie Collins of the White Sox in 1925. Prior to Kaline, the newest member of the club was  Roberto Clemente of the Pirates in 1972.  Kaline made history by becoming the first batter to get his 3,000th hit as a DH. Since then, George Brett, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, and Alex Rodriguez have followed suit. Of course, Kaline also became the second player to collect that many hits as a member of the Tigers, joining the illustrious Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. About his triumphant moment, Kaline said,

"“I don’t really remember much of anything at the time of the pitch. I knew it was a fastball….it was up a little bit and tailing off some…I’m just finally happy it’s over. It seemed like a big black cloud had been lifted from me as soon as I got it.”"

McNally quipped that the fastball was “75 mile an hour smoke”. Kaline said that he was proud to have gotten his 3,000th hit off the “tough” McNally, who may have been surprised to learn that it was only the 29th hit that the legendary Tiger ever got off him. The double, the 498th and last of Kaline’s career, was a solid smash, but he admitted,

"“I almost forgot to run. The ball was really curving foul. It was plenty fair when I hit it, but I didn’t think it was going to make it. When I got to second base, I said a little prayer of thanks for letting me play all these years and get all those hits. Once I got this close, I knew I’d get the hit some time, but I’m glad I got it here. I knew I had a lot of friends and relatives in the stands, and I would have hated to disappoint them.”"

By the time Kaline reached the bag, a congratulatory message with a big “3000” had already lit up the scoreboard. Belanger and second baseman Bobby Grich came over to offer congratulations as time-out was called. Kaline trotted over to the front row seats near the Tigers dugout on the first-base side. That’s where his parents, Nicholas and Naomi, were sitting. Years later, in his Hall of Fame induction speech, Kaline fought back tears when he talked about how supportive they had been when he was just an amateur on the ballfields around Baltimore. Prior to this game, Nicholas told a reporter that he was hoping his son would get the last hit that he needed, but the elder Kaline added,

"“…After he gets it and quits, it’s going to take the interest (in baseball) out for us.  It means almost as much to me as it does to him. I’m just his proud father. I don’t know any other way to describe it.”"

Following a moment with Mr. and Mrs. Kaline, Al presented the bat and ball to American League President Lee McPhail, who was tasked with sending them off to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The player, parents, and president posed for a picture together and were photobombed by Tigers general manager Jim Campbell. The break in the game lasted about three minutes. Kaline took his place on second base again and play resumed, but he went no further. The Tigers were unable to add to the 1-0 lead they’d taken back in the third inning.

Detroit was down 2-1 when Kaline came up in the sixth with runners on the corners and nobody out. He singled up the middle to drive in Ron LeFlore with the tying run. Hit number 3,001 moved him ahead of Hall of Famer Clemente and into 11th place on the all-time list. In 1974, Kaline bypassed 11 hitters whose plaques hang in Cooperstown. As of the beginning of 2021, Kaline is in 31st place. Current Tiger Miguel Cabrera is 134 hits away from joining the 3,000-hit club and 142 hits away from passing Kaline.

The Tigers led 4-3 in the seventh when Kaline batted again. The Orioles had just made a pitching change, and the incoming Bob Reynolds got Kaline to fly out to right to end the inning. Baltimore came back to win 5-4. Like the true team player that he was, Kaline said he was sorry that he and the Tigers couldn’t get the victory, which “would have capped it perfectly”.

The visitors’ clubhouse in Memorial Stadium was a flurry of post-game activity. In addition to talking to the press, Kaline spent time signing autographs and posing for pictures with well-wishers, and socializing with friends and family who attended the game. He also found time to call his wife. Louise couldn’t make the trip due to a surgery she underwent in a Detroit hospital the day before, but she listened to Ernie and Paul on the radio. Eventually, Kaline and Freehan were pretty much the last ones hanging out.

Meanwhile, teammate Joe Coleman got a kick out of becoming part of a trivial oddity. He and his dad, also named Joe, were the only father-son pitching duo to each give up some of Kaline’s hits. The original Joe gave up three while pitching for the Orioles in 1954, Kaline’s first full-season in the big leagues. The sequel gave up a dozen between 1967 and 1970 before the Washington Senators traded him to the Tigers.

Six More Hits For No. 6

Kaline was back in the Tigers lineup again the next evening. After a couple of hitless at-bats, he singled off the Orioles’ Ross Grimsley to begin the top of the sixth. Kaline took second base on Freehan’s single and scored on rookie Reggie Sanders’ single. That bumped Detroit’s lead to 4-1, but Baltimore rallied in the bottom of the ninth to win 5-4. It was the last time that Kaline played in his hometown. Before the game, Kaline chatted with President Gerald R. Ford, the Michigander who rooted for the Tigers while growing up in Grand Rapids. Kaline said,

"“He called to congratulate me and said he had been pulling for me. He said when I got those three hits in Boston (on September 18), there was no question I’d make it this year. The President said he was very happy for me and that I’ve been a credit to the game and to the young people of this country. He invited me to come see him whenever I’m in Washington.”"

The Tigers began their six-game, season-closing homestand on September 26. When Kaline had last appeared at Tiger Stadium, on September 15, he was still eight hits short of 3,000. “Mr. Tiger” successfully reached that historic milestone, and now he had another one in sight. Kaline was sitting at 399 home runs. He proclaimed,

"“I’d like to hit another home run. I only need one more for 400, and that’s what I’ll be going for the rest of the year. I think, the rest of the year, you’ll see me be more aggressive at the plate, now that I’ve got that 3,000th hit behind me.”"

Kaline certainly earned the standing ovation he got from the 7,636 hardcore fans in Detroit who were on hand for the Thursday night contest. Exactly 21 years earlier, Kaline had hit his first big league home run, off Dave Hoskins of the Indians. With number 400 now top-of-mind, all that Kaline was able to muster at the plate was a first-inning single. He did reach safely on a Boston error later in the game, which the Red Sox won 5-3.

Sunday, September 29 was Al Kaline Day at Tiger Stadium. It was the second time that the team had set aside a day to honor its biggest star. The first one was in 1970. All 21,178 fans who braved the cold and windy conditions this time around were given a commemorative “Al Kaline 3,000-Hit Club” poster. Even Kaline’s former teammate Dick McAuliffe, who was playing for the other side that day, asked if he could have one. (You can still find one of the posters on eBay from time to time.) Before the game, Kaline addressed the crowd momentarily. Fittingly, the sun broke through for the only time all day just before he spoke.

As part of the pre-game ceremony, Tigers owner John Fetzer presented Kaline with 3,000 silver dollars, a gift that the esteemed veteran player said was a shock. His teammates came up with an awesome gift. They commissioned legendary artist Leroy Nieman to do an oil painting of Kaline. Other teams had sent gifts too, but Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe discovered that the Red Sox, the Tigers’ opponents that day, did not. Detroit would simply have to avenge what Gammons called “a shocking lack of class” by defeating their visitors from New England.

In the bottom of the first, Kaline popped out to shortstop Rick Burleson. The Tigers had just tied the game 2-2 when Kaline came up in the second inning with one on and one out. He singled to center to drive in Eddie Brinkman with the go-ahead run. The lead didn’t stick. The Red Sox were up 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth, but then the Tigers rallied for four runs on five hits. Kaline’s RBI single that inning was a knockout punch for Boston starter Roger Moret. It was the DH’s 21st hit of the season against Red Sox pitching, the most he had against any opponent that year. Kaline walked in his last plate appearance in the eighth but was lifted for pinch-runner Ben Oglivie. Detroit defeated their visitors from New England 7-4. Kaline humbly said,

"“I’m just glad we won today. The last time I had a day, we lost. It was very refreshing that so many people showed up on such a bad day.”"

It turned out to be the final Tigers victory that Kaline participated in. The game was particularly special for one young man from Coleman, Michigan. His name was Vern Ruhle, and he was the Tigers starting pitcher that day. Kaline had gotten an RBI single in Ruhle’s first big league win in Boston on September 19. Now, on this inspirational day, the right-handed rookie threw his first complete game as a major leaguer. Ruhle commented,

"“He’s always been my idol as a ballplayer. He’s the greatest. When I started out in Little League ball, I was a center fielder, and so was Kaline at the time. I remember the first time I came to Tiger Stadium with my Little League team. We sat in the bleachers, and Kaline hit a home run to the opposite field. I’ll never forget it.”"

Aside from the pre-game honors and the team’s win, there was sad news in the Detroit sports community that day. Long-time sportscaster Van Patrick died. On radio and TV, Patrick was the voice of the Tigers for the first seven seasons of Kaline’s career. During that time, the “bonus baby” blossomed into a star by winning a batting title and collecting his first 1,047 hits.

The Orioles arrived at Tiger Stadium on September 30 for the last series of the regular season. The Tigers lost the opener 12-6. Kaline singled off Ross Grimsley in the bottom of the first. It was his eighth hit of the year against the Baltimore righty. Nobody gave up more hits to Kaline in 1974 than Grimsley, although Pat Dobson of the Yankees (7) and Reggie Cleveland of the Red Sox (6) came close. Kaline had never faced either Grimsley or Cleveland before ’74. A studious approach paid off. Back in mid-March, as Kaline was getting acclimated to being a full-time DH, he saw how his new role could benefit him. He explained:

"“I find myself studying the pitchers a lot more because I don’t have to worry about going to the field. I know what they throw, how they throw it, and when they throw it. Before, I was worried about sitting down, getting my breath, and other things in general. Now I can concentrate on hitting.”"

Kaline had begun his final season by facing Jim Palmer of the Orioles on Opening Day. Now, on October 1, the two would square off once again. Palmer was the first and the last of nine future Hall of Famers that pitched to Kaline in 1974. “Mr. Tiger” went 19-for-62 (.306) against them. Of the bunch, only Oakland’s mustachioed relief ace Rollie Fingers put a zero in Kaline’s hit column that season. In his career, Kaline was 157-for-558 (.281) against pitchers that are now enshrined in Cooperstown with him.

Palmer held Kaline hitless in his first three at-bats. Baltimore led 6-4 when he came up in the eighth inning with Gary Sutherland on first base. Kaline’s single knocked Palmer out of the game. It was the last of his 3,007 hits. Both Tigers advanced on a fielder’s choice. Sutherland scored on a sacrifice fly, and Kaline scored the last run of his career on Dan Meyer’s bloop double to left. That tied the game, but the Orioles bounced back with a run in the top of the ninth. Kaline returned to the plate with two outs in the bottom half. On third base, the speedy Ron LeFlore represented the possible tying run. Reliever Bob Reynolds struck out Kaline looking to end the game. With their 7-6 win in the season’s penultimate game, the Orioles clinched the AL East Division title for the fifth time in six years. Their streak was interrupted only by Kaline and the 1972 Tigers.

The End Of The Line

Wednesday, October 2 was Kaline’s final day as an active major leaguer. It began with the news that he had been named American League Player of the Month for September. The award was a nice way to honor a fine veteran player for a major accomplishment, but September really was a productive month for a player who had reached the twilight of that career. In 27 games that month, Kaline picked up 30 hits, which was his highest monthly total of the season. He also drew 14 walks and struck out only six times.

It was a cold afternoon in Detroit. The Tigers had been pretty lousy. Not many people felt like going to the ballgame. The paid attendance was listed as 4,671. Of course, those on hand would only be seeing Kaline at the plate. He didn’t play in the field at all in 1974. If anyone was hoping that the 10-time Gold Glove Award winner would make even a cameo appearance in right field, Kaline had already shot that nostalgic idea down. A couple of days earlier, he declared that taking his old position one more time “wouldn’t mean that much” to him.

Those dedicated rooters at Tiger Stadium that day gave Kaline a standing ovation when he came to the plate in the first inning. The fans could at least hold on to the hope that they’d see their long-time hero hit his 400th home run in his farewell performance, although that was going to be tough. Orioles lefty Mike Cuellar was on the mound. Kaline had only hit one home run off him, and that was back in 1969. There’d be no such luck this time. Cuellar struck him out looking.

Kaline got another standing ‘O’ in the third. There were two on, and the Tigers were up 2-0, Kaline lined out to left fielder Al Bumbry. As he walked back to the Tigers dugout, nobody there had any idea that they were watching No. 6 make his final exit. They found out the hard way in the fifth inning. With two outs, John Knox, the Tigers’ second baseman, was at the plate. If he reached base, Kaline would be up. However, Kaline wasn’t the Tiger who came to the on-deck circle. It was Ben Oglivie, who was announced as the pinch-hitter after Knox singled. Oglivie was showered with boos. After the game, Kaline said,

"“I was sitting in the clubhouse, and I could hear them booing. I really felt sorry for Ben. It wasn’t his fault.”"

There would be no more ovations at Tiger Stadium that day for “Mr. Tiger”. There would be no curtain call for the beloved performer who fans had been watching on that stage since he debuted as an 18-year-old in 1953. Later in life, the way his departure unfolded still stuck with Kaline. In 2015, as if the older and wiser man was picking up the conversation where his younger self left off, a remorseful Kaline told Lynn Henning of The Detroit News,

"“It was my fault. It was one of the worst, if not the worst, decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Sometimes when you make bad decisions you don’t realize how it might hurt other people.”"

When Kaline returned to the dugout after his last at-bat, he told Ralph Houk that he’d had enough. Houk was in his first and only season as Kaline’s manager. As the Yankees skipper for 11 seasons, he had seen the Tigers star many times from the vantage point of the opponent’s dugout. Pitchers on Houk’s New York staff gave up 156 of Kaline’s hits, including 28 in 1961, a season in which the Tigers and Yankees were entangled in a pennant race. Houk said that he’d come to admire his veteran hitter’s “physical ability” and “high degree of competitiveness that made him rise to the occasion”. About Kaline’s decision to leave the game, he remarked,

"“I have enough respect for Al to do what he wanted to do in a game like this. With a hitter as great as he is, you don’t send him back out there when he says he’s had enough. I think I owed Al that much.”"

Afterward, Kaline revealed that he had a sore left shoulder, and that was the reason why he’d taken himself out of the game. He said he aggravated it three days earlier against the Red Sox, and it was still bugging him. On the road trip before that, he’d played in Milwaukee with a slightly pulled hamstring. He’d hurt his knee playing basketball the previous offseason, and that flared up from time to time throughout the year. This time, though, the shoulder was one sore body part too many. Kaline stated,

"“I didn’t know if I should play or not. Everybody wanted to have me hit my 400th home run, but no way could I swing hard enough to hit a home run. I could have played (longer), but I could only punch the ball.”"

Kaline missed out on becoming the first American League player to reach 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. Instead, Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox nailed that achievement in 1979. In the waning days of his career, Kaline had clearly expressed that hitting one more home run was a goal, but decades later he spoke of it differently and treated it as if it wasn’t a big deal. In 2015, he told Henning,

"“Back in those days, statistics weren’t as important. You didn’t have ESPN. And I didn’t realize 400 homers would be quite such a milestone.And, really, statistics are a great conversation piece, but I’ve never been a stats guy. Eras in baseball are all different. The game changes so much. I knew how many great hitters had hit 400 or 500 home runs, and to me it wasn’t like I was in their class.”"

Detroit went on to lose Kaline’s final game 5-4. The Tigers’ all-time record in games in which his name appeared in the box score was 1,486-1,340. The 1974 team finished in last place with a 70-92 record. It was the only time in Kaline’s career that he played for a cellar dweller. “Detroit Breakdown” wasn’t just a title of a song by The J. Geils Band that year, it was an apt description of what was happening to the Tigers. Mickey Lolich, who had won 25 games three years earlier, was a 21-game loser in 1974.

Kaline, though, performed admirably in his swan song season. He appeared in 147 games. It was the first time since 1966 that he’d been in over 140. His 630 plate appearances put him over 600 in a season for the first time since 1964. He finished with 146 hits, second on the Tigers behind Gary Sutherland’s 157. The 39-year-old Kaline led the team with 71 runs, 28 doubles, 64 RBI, 65 walks, and 217 total bases. He had a 107 OPS+ and a .262/.337/.389 slash line. Kaline also led Tigers hitters with a career-high 75 strikeouts. It was only the second time he’d finished atop Detroit’s leaderboard in that category. The first time was 1955, when he struck out 57 times en route to winning the AL batting title.

The end of the 1974 season brought Kaline’s career, spent exclusively with an Olde English D on his cap, to a close. While talking with reporters after that last ballgame, “Mr. Tiger” summed up what he had done in Detroit by saying,

"“I think I played as long as I could. I think I went out on a good note, getting my 3,000th hit. I wish I wouldn’t have gotten hurt so much, but that was something I had no control of.I probably could have hit more home runs, but I didn’t try for them. I knew what I could do and tried to stay within myself all the time.”"

Kaline received a couple of nice accolades after the season. During the American League Championship Series, he was presented with the Joe Cronin Award, named after a Hall of Famer and given to a player for a significant achievement. The Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America picked him as Tiger of the Year. Of course, those honors paled in comparison to the one that was bestowed upon Kaline in August 1980 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.