Here’s all you need to know about Al Kaline, the baseball player: He has a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
And this is what you really need to know: He was a better person.
Want proof? By most standards, statistical or otherwise, the Hall of Famer he’s most comparable to as a player is Roberto Clemente. By any standard, the Hall of Famer he’s most comparable to as a person is Brooks Robinson.
Enough said? Thought so.
Known in Detroit as “Mr. Tiger” and in Baltimore as a very proud native son, Al Kaline passed away April 6 at the age of 85 — and there’s enough sadness to stretch from here to Michigan and back. Trust me, he would be embarrassed as well as overwhelmed by the kind of attention he never sought, but handled with humility.
Occasionally in this business, when you’ve been around long enough, situations like this can get personal. This is one of them, so hopefully you will bear with me.
Fortunately I’m among those who witnessed Kaline’s “coming out years” on the sandlots of Baltimore back in the early 1950s, when Al was a four-year All-Star at Southern High School. Unfortunately too many of those observations came from 60 feet, 6 inches, which was not a good vantage point for a soft-tossing left-hander.
The thing about Al, though, was he was like a quiet assassin. He just seemed to beat you with such grace and dignity that it almost didn’t hurt. (Almost the key word here.) It’s kind of like you were getting beat by royalty. We were, and in all honesty, we knew it.
“For those who played around Baltimore in the early 50s, Al was by far the best player — and the best athlete,” said Carroll Fitzgerald, my teammate, a three-sport star at Calvert Hall and probably the second best center fielder (Kaline’s high school position) at that time. “What most people didn’t know was that he could have played Division I basketball. On top of it all, and most important, he was a great guy.”
Little would either Al or I know that our career paths would crisscross for the rest of our lives. When he got his 3,000th hit, it came in Baltimore in front of family, friends and high school teammates and opponents. It was a pretty cool celebration. By happenstance, I happened to be the official scorer on duty that night, and I have to admit, I’ve never been more nervous in the chair than I was that night. Somewhere there’s a box score recording that hit, with the notation, that has my name on it. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy. Duh!
A couple of weeks later, the Orioles were in Detroit for the final game of the season and of Kaline’s career. There were fewer than 5,000 people in the stands. Al was the DH, it was a brutal day, cold and windy, Ben Oglivie pinch-hit for him and got booed, and Al went quietly into history, almost unnoticed. Given the circumstances that he had already announced his retirement and in his mind having been only a part-time player as a DH, it’s probably how he preferred. You have to remember, the DH was in its infancy then, and who knows if he might have been able to prolong his career, my guess is Al figured the DH was a fad that wouldn’t last — and besides, that wasn’t his schtick.
We can talk about the good old days all we want, but that would never happen today. And I have to admit that one of the best stories I never wrote, and one I surely missed, was not doing a wrapup of Al’s career that day. Duh!
Covering his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1980 helped make up for it.
Sometimes, it seems, Kaline’s qualities as a player get overshadowed by his reputation as a person. Which is a wonderful compliment, but doesn’t do justice to his career. In his second full year, at the age of 20, Kaline became the youngest player ever to lead the league in hitting, posting a .340 average.
It was about that time that, on a road trip to Boston, he got an invitation from Ted Williams, who had called Al “the best right-handed hitter in the American League,” for a private sit-down chat about hitting.
“It was like getting a phone call from God,” Kaline would relate late in his career. “For some reason, Ted took a like to me and had a lot of interest in my career.”
But Kaline’s career was not about hitting. It was, as the saying goes, about the whole enchalada. He was the complete package, which is how the late Ed Katalinas, the scout who signed him (there was no draft in those days) envisioned Kaline.
“To me he was the prospect a scout creates in his own mind and then prays that someone would come along to fit the pattern,” Katalinas said.
In other words, Kaline fit the mold of a complete player.
The peripheral skills were obvious at the high school level and didn’t take long to play out in the big leagues either. The earliest indication came when on July 7, 1954, at the age of 19.5, in the 99th game of his career, Kaline threw out a baserunner in three successive innings — one at home plate, two at third base. He was on his way to 10 Gold Gloves. (Clemente had 12, by the way.)
When he retired after that 1974 season, Kaline had 399 home runs to go with his 3,007 hits and .297 career average. Except for a lost home run in a game eventually rained out early in his career, ironically in Baltimore, he would have been the first American League player ever … like as in history at that time … to hit 400 home runs and record 3,000 hits. Nobody ever asked, or checked, whether or not he was the only one with 399 and 3,000.
The utmost respect one gets in any profession is the kind that comes from your peers. In that department, Kaline was always among the league leaders.
“When I came to the big leagues [with the Washington Senators in 1966], I met the team in Detroit,” Hank Allen recalled. “The first night I was there, while [the Tigers] were taking infield/outfield practice, and Al was throwing from right field, [manager Gil Hodges] pulled me over and said, ‘Watch that guy out there — if you emulate him, you’ll always do things right.’
“From that day on, especially as I got to know him as a player and a friend, I’ve considered him Esprit De Corps. He was always one of my favorites.”
Dave Dombrowski has been around the game a long time, one of the game’s most respected executives, and he knew all there was to know baseball-wise about Al Kaline.
“He’s one of the most respected men in the game,” said Dombrowski, who became an extremely close friend when he became the general manager for the Tigers in 2002.
“I knew all about Al as a player, and later when he worked on television,” Dombrowski said, “but it wasn’t until I got to Detroit to know him personally and we became very good friends and our families became very close. Al was a wonderful man, a great friend. Everybody who got to know him was blessed.”
Dombrowski also got to realize and appreciate how deeply Kaline was connected to baseball, something his friends knew from an early age. It’s almost like he was born to be in a uniform.
“He loved to put the uniform on and being around the guys and they loved being around him,” Dombrowski said. “He was a legend. He loved the Tigers, the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.”
Kaline spent his entire 22-year career in Detroit, spent another 25 years working in the television booth and then moved into a front office job in an advisory capacity.
“My wife [Louise] once asked me why I was still working,” Kaline told me during one of our last conversations, “and I told her, ‘This is not work, the owner likes me and I get to watch games.'”
Part of the deal was he got to put on the uniform in spring training. And he did it as long as he could.
After leaving Detroit, Dombrowski stayed in close contact with Kaline.
“I called him last week and we talked for awhile. I asked him how he was doing and he said, ‘Not so good.’ For Al to say that, it told me a lot,” Dombroswski said.
A lot more than Dombrowski — or any of us — wanted to hear. Baseball lost one of its true greats. A lot of people lost an even better friend.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of the Detroit Tigers