One word you almost always encounter when you read something about Al Kaline is underrated. The former Tiger outfielder and Hall of Famer is famous for being unappreciated.
Sure, Kaline has a plaque in Cooperstown, but he’s not who many baseball fans think of when they list the top outfielders in baseball history. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente, and – in recent years Ken Griffey Jr. – they all pop to mind. But somehow, Kaline is glossed over.
But when it came to playing right field, few in baseball history were ever the peer of Detroit’s #6. In several ways, Kaline revolutionized defensive play in right field and turned it into an art form. Few people are still around who got to see him ply his trade in the outer regions of the outfield, and there are even fewer videos of him in action, but for those who did get to watch Kaline play defense, they some something special.
There have been several outfielders in baseball history who have gotten accolades for their defensive prowess: Tris Speaker played so shallow that several times he served as the pivot man on double plays at second base; Willie Mays made unbelievable catches by utilizing his speed and incredible instincts; the graceful Clemente showed off his amazing range and powerful throwing arm; and Jim Edmonds made daring diving catches to rob enemy hits. Kaline was no less efficient, but he was often less flashy. A guiding philosophy he learned as a boy growing up in Maryland helped him become one of the greatest right fielders the game has ever seen.
“I studied the game, [and] studied techniques,” Kaline said in an interview with David Faulkner for his book, Nine Sides of the Diamond: Baseball’s Great Glove Men on the Fine Art of Defense. “The point was that I practiced how I played.”
Kaline spent countless hours as a young player going through defensive drills to perfect his timing. Eventually, he became so skilled at setting himself up in perfect position to field base hits and catch fly balls, that he earned the ultimate compliment from the opposing team. They rarely ever ran on him. Sure, Kaline was blessed with a great right arm, but he also worked his tail off to be sure that he fielded baseballs in a way that he could get them out of his throwing hand as soon as possible. It was that practice that helped the Detroit star earn respect in the American League as the premier right fielder in the league.
“A lot of guys shy away from [practice] because they think they’ll get tagged as hot dogs or showboats, never realizing that what it’s all about is doing things right.”
In the outfield during spring training or before a regular season game, Kaline took shagging flies and fielding the ball very seriously. There was no time for being casual and flippant with his attitude. The game of baseball was his passion and his craft. For Kaline, fielding and throwing the ball correctly every time wasn’t an option. It was the only way. As a result, he won 10 Gold Glove Awards.
The plays that Kaline became most famous for were his ability to get to the wall and catch the ball despite the dangers inherit with crashing into a hard object. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were no padded outfield walls, and in fact, when Kaline debuted in the early 50s, most ballparks didn’t even have a warning track. As a result, the smart outfielder had to use his brain to prevent injury.
“I could count my steps and now right where I was when I was coming into a wall,” Kaline remembered. “I deliberately tried to relax when I went into walls so I wouldn’t be stiff and wind up breaking an elbow or something.”
Despite his skills with the wall, Kaline did suffer a few injuries crashing into them during his career. But more often, he won the battles and took many home run balls away in right field at Tiger Stadium. One catch in 1957 in a game against the New York Yankees saw Kaline step on the top of the wall, dig his other cleat two feet higher in the screen, and fully extend his upper body to snare a ball that would have cleared the screen by several feet. It was an amazing athletic achievement and it partly inspired the statue of Kaline that stands deep in right-center field at Comerica Park.
Kaline’s signature move was his play on balls hit into the right field corner (what became known as Kaline Corner). Charging the line hard to get the ball, Kaline would field it with his gloved left hand and then with his momentum carrying him toward the stands, twirl to his left, turning his back (and the large navy blue #6 on his uniform) toward the infield. Thus he would be in perfect position to rifle his throw with his right arm. Many times he would catch a runner trying to stretch a single into a double, or – in what became a common tactic he employed – Kaline would fire the baseball behind an unsuspecting runner who was content with a single, but had strayed too far off the bag. As a result, Kaline racked up 170 outfield assists in his stellar career.
Among right fielders as far as defense, Kaline rates among the very best to ever play the position. Clemente, Dwight Evans, Andre Dawson, Dave Parker, and current star Ichiro Suzuki are others who have been singled out for their ability with the leather. Who the best was it hard to say, but no one ever studied and practiced outfield play more than “Mr. Tiger” did.