In 1955, Al Kaline won the batting title at the still-green-behind-the-ears age of 20. He was exactly one day younger than Ty Cobb had been when The Peach nabbed the 1907 batting crown. Kaline was the toast of the baseball world that offseason, a handsome young ballplayer who was being called “the right-handed Ted Williams.” The world was his oyster, for those of you who like oysters.
In 1956, the 21-year old entered spring training with great expectations on his shoulders. Topping his .340 batting mark of the previous year was not out of the question, but Kaline shortly after Kaline reported to Lakeland he suffered an injury to his right shoulder that thwarted his throwing and batting. Though he was announced healthy to start the season on April 17, young Al was not himself. Two weeks into the season, he was hitting .195 and he would languish well below his high standards for several weeks. When he was asked about the low batting marks of Kaline and Harvey Kuenn, general manager Muddy Ruel was unconcerned. “They won’t stay there,” he told reporters.
One place Kaline stayed was in the lineup, even though he was inconsistent at the plate and frequently nagged by minor health issues. In April it was the shoulder, in May he was hampered with a sore foot, and in early July he was hit by the flu.
“In three days I lost seven pounds,” Kaline said of the flu bug that attacked his small frame.
But after the All-Star break (Kaline started in right field in the All-Star Game, batting sixth in the lineup directly behind Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra he singled once in three trips to the plate), the young Tiger perked up at the plate, helped by an adjustment made by manager Bucky Harris. The Detroit manager moved Kaline back one slot in the order to the cleanup spot. Almost immediately, the right-handed hitter took off, resulting in the hottest stretch of his career.
On the morning of July 26, Kaline was hitting a respectable .282 as the Tigers prepared to face the Orioles in the finale of a series at Briggs Stadium. Against his hometown team, Kaline lined a double in five trips to the plate. The next day the Senators came into town and he feasted on Washington pitching for four games, banging out seven hits and reaching safely in every game. A long homestand seemed to be just what Al needed, and as Detroit stayed home and hosted the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Athletics, and White Sox for a total of 14 games in the hot summer, Kaline continued to hit. Over a seven-game stretch, he had multiple hits in every game and lifted his batting mark to .307 while driving in 17 runs. The youngster was red-hot, and while the league was buzzing over the season that Mickey Mantle was having (the 24-year old Yankee center fielder was leading the loop in batting, homers, and RBI), Kaline went somewhat unnoticed, except by opposing pitchers and his own teammates.
“Maybe Kaline can’t repeat as the league batting champion,” Harris told The Sporting News, “but it looks like he’ll give someone a chase.” That someone was Mantle, and Kaline was far off his pace, but it didn’t stop him from pressing on.
In August, Kaline continued to pile on the hits and runs batted in, and as opponents realized the young kid was going to be a menace for years to come they started to give him more respect. Kaline was walked four times by the White Sox in one game, and he reached base via a walk or hit in 34 straight games during the dog days of summer. That would be the second longest on-base streak in Kaline’s 22-year career. When the Tigers went on an extended road trip, Al continued to pound the ball. At Fenway Park he rocketed a ball off Mel Parnell to deep center field that caromed in the triangle in that odd-shaped ballpark for a triple. Later in the game he punished Parnell further when he sent a pitch over the Green Monster in left field for his 24th home run. He was now fast approaching the figures from his batting title season, and his average lifted to .315 at the end of August.
There was no way to catch Mantle for the batting title in ’56, but Kaline showed off his ability to drive the ball for power as he hit 27 homers and drove in 128 runs, 26 more than in ’55. Over a 40-game stretch in late July and August, Kaline drove in an amazing 55 runs. He was a run-scoring machine. Though he’d started slow, in part due to injuries (which would hound him throughout his career), he’d showed determination and proved to his teammates that he was someone to count on, as he assumed the cleanup role and flourished.
“It disturbed me when his chin was dragging (when Kaline struggled early),” Harris said, “but It was encouraging that his fielding never suffered, and when he was tapped to help the team by moving to cleanup, he took up the job with success.”
Success would follow Kaline for two more decades as a ballplayer for the Tigers, and it’s still around him in his role as a special assistant to the general manager. Al Kaline has been determined since he was barely 21 years old.