Rather than spend the final weeks of the regular season bemoaning an awful regular season, culminating with the trade of one of the faces of the franchise, I thought it might be far more enjoyable to take a look at some Detroit Tigers-related Hall of Fame artifacts. As you might know from some of my earlier articles, there are roughly 40,000 three-dimensional objects contained in Cooperstown, but only 10 to 12 per cent can be displayed at any one time. That’s the reality for any museum worth its salt; the exhibits and floors can showcase several thousand artifacts at a time, but the limits of space and money, along with the concern for the preservation of the artifacts, make it impossible to give every item its full share of display time.
Over the next month or so, we’ll take a look at five Tigers artifacts that are currently in permanent storage in the Hall’s basement facility, but recently were taken out so that they could be showcased in what is called an “Artifact Spotlight.” For anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, the Hall displays a few artifacts in one of its rooms, with a staff member providing some insight and background information, before they are then taken back to the temperature and humidity-controlled storage.
What finer place to start than with a key artifact from the great Al Kaline, perhaps the most iconic living player in the history of the franchise. Back in 1980, the Hall of Fame and Museum received a game-used bat that belonged to Kaline. He had used it 19 years earlier as part of his efforts in playing the 1961 All-Star Game.
One of the striking features of the bat is its relative lightness. According to Hall of Fame records, the bat weighs 32.5 ounces and carries a length of 34.5 inches. These numbers were consistent with the measurements of most major league bats of that era. By the early 1960s, most hitters had already begun to understand the important of lessening the bulk and mass of the bat so as to increase bat speed. Kaline, like Ted Williams, realized that smaller, lighter bats increased quickness through the strike zone.
While we know its measurements, there does remain some mystery to the bat. That’s because there were two All-Star Games in 1961. (The Players Association, or what existed of it in the years prior to Marvin Miller, previously advocated for two games a year so as to increase the pension benefits for the union.) Unfortunately, we don’t know which of the two games the bat came from. But we do know that the bat was productive. In the first All-Star Game, held on July 11 in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Kaline went 1-for-2 with an RBI after replacing Mickey Mantle in center field. In the second game, staged at Fenway Park on July 31, Kaline did even better. Starting in right field and remaining there for the entire game (remember those days?), Kaline picked up two hits in four at-bats. He also added a stolen base for good measure.
Kaline was only 26 in 1961, but had long since established himself as one of the best all-round players in the game. He had been named an All-Star in six seasons, won three Gold Glove Awards, and received MVP votes over seven consecutive seasons. But his play had suffered in 1960, his batting average dropping to .278 and his OPS to .781. Those might have been acceptable numbers for other players, but for Kaline, they were his worst since 1954, when he was still only 19. The Tigers expected more. So did Kaline.
In 1961, Kaline bounced back with a .324 batting average and a .909 OPS. What really set him apart in 1961 were two other tangible factors: he would lead the American League in doubles with 41 and would show unprecedented versatility, appearing at all three outfield positions and making a flawless cameo appearance at third base. We tend to forget that Kaline had the speed to play center field; manager Bob Scheffing played him there 22 times in 1961, despite the presence of Billy Bruton on the 25-man roster.
Another change to Kaline’s game in 1961, far harder to diagnose, involved the intangible factor of leadership. Scheffing, having just taken over the helm of the Tigers that spring, wanted Kaline to establish himself as more of a forceful leader, particularly in the clubhouse. That was a difficult task for Kaline to embrace given his natural shyness and quiet nature, but he responded to Scheffing’s challenge. Kaline still remained quiet most of the time, but when he felt that something needed to be said, either about players’ effort or their simple willingness to act properly as teammates, he spoke up about it. Kaline picked his spots, but when he spoke, others listened. Clearly, his Tigers teammates noticed and respected the change.
By season’s end, Kaline had completed the transition from background clubhouse figure to full-fledged leader. The American League also recognized him as its Comeback Player of the Year. Remarkably, Kaline would not incur another off year for the rest of the 1960s and into the early 1970s. (Even in 1968, when he missed a ton of games with a broken arm, he still posted an OPS of .820, which was very good for the Year of the Pitcher.) He didn’t start to tail off until 1973, when his batting average sank to .255. But then again he was 38 years old and nearing retirement.
The 1961 season remains one of the hallmark campaigns of Kaline, a season in which he made two All-Star games, dutifully responded to his manager, and imposed his leadership skills. Thankfully, the Hall of Fame will always be able to recognize that season in the form of his All-Star Game bat.