Hi friends. While I Didn’t Start This Blog to Write the Obits, it is once more necessary for me to write one. It was just hard luck that Yogi Berra passed on within weeks of the first edition of this blog. In the years since, I’ve said goodbye to such men as Dick Inberg, Jim Bouton and Don Larsen. The blog was out of order for nearly 3 months, and what was my first real piece after the repairs were done? An obituary for White Sox’ broadcaster Ed Farmer. My broadcast partner Jim Lucas said I was “good with death,” so on the air he had me say goodbye to Jim Valvano, Roy Campanella and Don Drysdale. Yesterday, the game lost one of Cooperstown’s elder statesmen. Al Kaline, 85, whose health had been in decline for a year, passed away in his Michigan home yesterday.
Kaline was a Baltimore native. In his boyhood, he suffered osteomyelitis, as Mickey Mantle did, and lived with what he called “a toothache in the foot.” None of his family before him finished high school. He signed with the Tigers the day after graduating from high school, and without a single stop in the minors, he joined the big club. This was mandated by the “bonus baby” rule that pre-dated the draft, saying a player getting a bonus of more than $4,000 would have to spend two full years in the bigs before going to the minors. Kaline was just 20 in 1955 when he won his only career batting title. That was harder to do 65 years ago, facing only 7 other baseball teams and for that reason only facing the best pitchers available. This was no .301 batting title either. Kaline hit .340, outdistanced the field by 21 points and was 12 days younger than Ty Cobb when the Georgia Peach claimed his first title. Through 65 years of baseball since, no man so young has earned a batting crown. Also in 1955, Kaline was voted as an All-Star for the first of what would be 18 times. To his credit, after not being chosen between 1968 and 1970, he surged back and was named an All-star in 1971, when the game would be played in Detroit for the first time in two decades. His last All-Star turn was in his final year in the game, 1974.
He didn’t physically terrify people as the immortal Ty Cobb did. But Kaline’s bat was dangerous enough to make lesser pitchers wish it wasn’t their turn. He finished second in batting 3 times, and twice came in second for an MVP award. He topped .300 9 times and finished with a lifetime .297 average, just a point behind Mickey Mantle.
Kaline only reached one World Series, but it was a winner and an excellent series. The Tigers, down 3 games to 1 against the Cardinals surged back, winning game 5 in Detroit, then games 6 and 7 in St. Louis. Denny McClain won 31 games while Mickey Lolich was the World Series superhero. Kaline lost 5 weeks early on with a broken arm, but he was there when he was needed. In the 7 games he hit .379, notching 11 hits and 8 RBIs. Among the 11 safeties were two home runs, 2 two-baggers and a 2-run single in game 5 when all seemed hopeless for the Tigers. From being down a run, the home team found themselves ahead a run thanks to the man who would come to be known as “Mr. Tiger.” They never looked back.
Another future Hall of Famer, ace Baltimore pitcher Jim Palmer said : “I like to watch him hit. I like to watch him hit even against us. He’s got good rhythm, a picture swing. Other hitters could learn a lot just by watching him. The thing about Kaline is that he’ll not only hit your mistakes, he’ll hit your good pitches, too.”
Kaline collected just over 3,000 hits and stopped with 399 home runs at age 39. He didn’t make the sort of mistake many athletes in many sports have made by playing too long and being remembered as less than what they were. As great as his bat was, his statue behind the left center field fence at the stadium in Detroit shows him leaping to make an astonishing catch in the outfield. His defense was such that he collected 10 gold gloves.
After baseball, Kaline got to work with another Hall of Famer, George Kell in the Tigers’ tv booth. Too little is known about Kell’s ability behind the mic, but if there’s a recording of Kell and Kaline, stream it. How can you miss. Kaline’s final season as a broadcaster came in 2001, after which he became a special assistant, a title he held until the end. He survived the firing of Dave Dombrowski who had gotten him the special assistant’s job back in 2003.
R I P Al Kaline.