Classy and underappreciated, Kaline deserves more recognition

Al Kaline played his entire 22-year career with the Detroit Tigers.

Al Kaline played his entire 22-year career with the Detroit Tigers.

Another Hall of Fame Weekend has come and gone, giving us a chance to observe 50-plus Hall of Famers as they sign autographs, ride in parades, and take their place on the induction stage here in Cooperstown.

One of the Hall of Famers who spent the weekend in our small village was the great Al Kaline. Unfortunately, given my hectic schedule of work activities at the Hall of Fame and Museum, I didn’t have the chance to talk to “Mr. Tiger.” This year’s weekend once again posted a shutout for me in my efforts to reach Kaline. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet or interview him—and that remains one of my great regrets. One of my goals is to eventually end the Kaline drought.

Although Kaline has eluded me on a personal basis, I’ve still had a chance to observe him from afar. And he has always impressed me with his demeanor, the calm and polite way that he interacts with fans and fellow Hall of Famers. He is quiet but dignified, the epitome of the way that a superstar should act. In a sense, he carries himself with a stately, almost regal quality, in much the way that a Roberto Clemente or Jackie Robinson once did. If the Detroit Tigers were forced to find a better representative here in Cooperstown than Kaline, I’m not sure that they would be successful in their search.

Perhaps because I’ve never been able to talk to him, I’ve felt less motivated to write about Kaline in past years. In fact, I’ve never written a full-length article about the Hall of Fame right fielder. Well, that changes today.

We all know that Kaline never played a day in the minor leagues, became a fixture in right field, and made his way into the 3,000-hit club, eventually earning election to the Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility. In researching Kaline’s career, I uncovered a few other tidbits that are not as well known, offering a more well-rounded picture of this subtle, understated superstar.

When Kaline ran over the ice cream girl
Kaline is no stranger to the village of Cooperstown. His first visit to town occurred way back in 1957, when the Tigers played in the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Giants. With an overflow crowd in attendance at Doubleday Field, ropes were set in place behind the outfielders, so as to allow some extra standing-room-only seats. At one point, Kaline began chasing down a long drive to right center field. He ran through the ropes and into the overflow section, knocking down a young girl who was selling ice cream. As Kaline recalls, ice cream was everywhere, but the girl was unharmed.

Learn to pitch from his father
As a youngster, Kaline was an accomplished pitcher. By the age of nine, he had already learned a full complement of pitches from his father: a fastball, curve ball and change-up. As a professional ballplayer, Kaline would put that arm strength to use as a right fielder and center fielder, but would never appear in a single game as a pitcher.

Advice from Teddy Ballgame
Late in Kaline’s debut season of 1953, Tigers manager Fred Hutchinson introduced Kaline to Ted Williams. He spent 10 minutes with the “Splendid Splinter,” and those may have been the 10 most important minutes of Kaline’s early career. Williams offered Kaline advice on how to better handle pitches low in the strike zone. He also advised the rookie about how he should approach his wintertime workouts, emphasizing such drills like swinging a heavier bat and taking time to squeeze a baseball in his bare hand.

A critical turning point in his career
The Tigers’ decision to hire Bob Scheffing as manager for the 1961 season revitalized Kaline. Coming off a lackluster season in which he hit only .278 with a modest 15 home runs, Kaline found himself at the crossroads. Scheffing approached Kaline during spring training, telling him that he wanted him to become more of a leader. Kaline responded to the challenge. Though he remained quiet, he decided to lead by example, becoming a role model for his younger Tigers teammates. Perhaps inspired by the Scheffing challenge, Kaline hit .324 and earned Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Yankees tried to get Kaline
After the 1964 season, several teams approached the Tigers about a possible trade for Kaline. One the suitors was the New York Yankees, who floated a suggestion in the press that they would be willing to send Roger Maris and another player to Motown for Kaline. The Tigers, however, rebuffed the offer, as they did all of the offers that came in for their franchise player.

Unselfish move before the World Series
In 1968, Kaline staggered through an injury-prone season, one that reached its low point when his right arm was fractured by a pitch from Oakland’s Lew Krausse. By September, Kaline was fully healthy, but he told manager Mayo Smith that he didn’t deserve to start in the World Series. Kaline felt that the other Tigers outfielders, who had stepped up and played well in his absence, merited starting roles against the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the kind of unselfish act rarely seen by ballplayers, who are usually the last to suggest that they should be benched. It was typical Kaline.

Smith listened to Kaline, but he came up with a better plan. He moved Mickey Stanley to shortstop, made Jim Northrup his regular center fielder, and cleared a swatch in right field for Kaline. Though he didn’t feel he belonged in the postseason plan, Kaline delivered bigtime, hitting .379 with two home runs against a vaunted Cardinals pitching staff. Kaline’s postseason performance, highlighted by a gaudy .655 slugging percentage, tends to get lost amidst the pitching heroics of Mickey Lolich, but it’s clear that the Tigers would have been hard-pressed to beat St. Louis without their star right fielder.

Still an impact player at 37 years old
As much as we tend to remember Kaline for 1968, he remained an effective player during the strike-shortened 1972 campaign that resulted in a divisional title. Nagging injuries limited him to 106 games, but when he did play, the 37-year-old remained highly effective. He batted .313 and put up an OPS of .849. The writers thought enough of his play to give him some back-of-the-ballot support for the American League MVP Award.

Stranger in the infield
Kaline’s last regular issue Topps card, which was part of the company’s 1974 set, is the only one that shows him in action. Somewhat curiously, it shows Kaline playing first base, and not right field, the position for which he was best known. In 1973, the year in which the card photograph was taken, Kaline played 36 games at first base and 63 games in the outfield. He also made a number of appearances as a DH.

Rumored for a managerial job
In the middle of the 1976 season, a rumor sprang up that Kaline would be named the first manager of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, who would begin their first season in 1977. Working at the time as a Tigers broadcaster, Kaline said he would gladly consider such an offer but quickly shot down the rumor, saying that no one from the Blue Jays had contacted him about the managerial position. Indeed, the rumor turned out to be false; the Blue Jays turned to Roy Hartsfield as their inaugural skipper.

Underrated superstar
All these years later, I’m amazed by how well the 80-year-old Kaline has aged—and also how underrated he remains. Other than perhaps Frank Robinson, I can’t think of a Hall of Famer who is rarely treated as a superstar—even though he clearly achieved such a level. Kaline continues to be overlooked, perhaps because he never played with the flash and dash of a Willie Mays and lacked the heroic backstory of a Clemente.

None of that stuff should matter. At the end of another Hall of Fame Weekend, Al Kaline deserves to be recognized as something special in baseball’s nostalgic fabric. Without question, he should be regarded as part of the game’s royalty.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.