Al Kaline was not only a great player, he had a reputation of being both humble and personable. Both qualities came to the fore when I interviewed the Detroit Tigers legend several years ago in Lakeland, Florida. Sitting on a stool inside the Tigers’ spring training clubhouse, Kaline not only took the time to answer my questions about his career, he did so graciously. One day after his death at age 85, here is our conversation.
David Laurila: What kind of hitter did you consider yourself?
Al Kaline: “I was basically a line drive hitter. I was a put-the-ball-in-play hitter who tried not to strike out. I moved the runners along if the situation called for it. I tried to be patient and get a good pitch — I didn’t want to get myself out by swinging at bad pitches — and I didn’t worry about getting two strikes on me. I felt that I could handle the bat well enough to hit with two strikes.”
Laurila: Not striking out was more important in your era than it is now.
Kaline: “Absolutely. Striking out was something… some of the power hitters were striking out 100 times, but otherwise very few guys were striking out 100 times. It was about putting the ball in play and making the other team make plays. So yeah, we didn’t strike out nearly as much.”
Laurila: Why do you think that was?
Kaline: “Guys now are a lot bigger and stronger, and they can hit the ball a lot further. Everybody knows that if they can hit 25-30 home runs, they’ll always find a job. Guys worry more about hitting home runs, and hitting for extra bases, than just getting on base.
“Another thing is the strike zone. That has a lot to do with how hitting has changed. It’s a much smaller strike zone now. It used to be armpits to the knees, and now it’s just above the belt to the knees. Hitters have a tremendous advantage compared to what it was like before. They don’t have to worry about swinging at that pitch around the shoulders with two strikes, which is a very tough pitch to hit.”
Laurila: Who taught you the most about hitting?
Kaline: “Actually, my dad helped me a lot. I was never a very big guy — I was always kind of frail — so I had to use my hands. I wasn’t very strong, so I made it a point to just hit the ball and use most of the field. When I first joined the team, I was what we used to affectionately call ‘a banjo hitter.’ Of course, when I got a little bigger and stronger, that changed a little bit. And once I knew more about my strengths and my weaknesses, I started anticipating a little bit more at the plate, which helped me drive the ball a little more.”
Laurila: You won the batting title when you were 20 years old. Did you truly understand hitting at that young age, or were you mostly just relying on raw talent?
Kaline: “Well, I knew that I could put the ball in play. Even when I joined the ball club at 18, I didn’t strike out a lot. I may not have been able to knock the fences down but I was able to put my bat on the ball. Of course, I learned an awful lot from the veteran players on the ball club, guys like Johnny Pesky and Steve Souchock. They’d help me quite a bit, and we had a third base coach who was very helpful, a guy named Billy Hitchcock.”
Laurila: Who was the toughest pitcher you faced in your career?
Kaline: “It’s pretty hard to answer that. I’ll try to answer it two different ways: When I was a really good player, probably Robin Roberts, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia… Bob Lemon, although I think I might have done OK against him. Later in my career, I’d say Nolan Ryan was pretty tough. Along with him throwing hard, you didn’t know where it was going.”
Laurila: Who did you hit well?
Kaline: “I don’t want to name them, but if they were left-handed I usually hit them pretty well.”
Laurila: I know you had a lot of success against Jim Kaat.
Kaline: “That’s possible, because I hit well against left-handers. The only bad part about it is that there weren’t that many of them back when I played. But I had confidence against left-handers. I was more patient against them, because I wasn’t afraid to get two strikes and knew they would eventually give me a good pitch.”
Laurila: He obviously wasn’t a lefty, but you faced Bob Feller a few times.
Kaline: “Yes, and fortunately for me Bob was pretty much at the end of his career by the time I faced him. But I loved that I did, just to be able to say that I did. He’s probably one of the two or three greatest pitchers who ever pitched. He didn’t throw quite so hard anymore, but he still had a great curveball.”
Kaline: “I’m not sure I faced [Joe Sr.] but yes, we were teammates at the end of his career. What makes it ironic is that I used to babysit Joe Jr. after I joined the ball club. Later on, young Joe had a forkball, which they call a splitter now. His dad, from what I remember, was just a fastball-slider-curveball pitcher. I don’t remember too much about Joe Sr…”
Laurila: Changing direction a bit, statistical analysis has changed the way that a lot of hitters are valued. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Kaline: “Statistics will always be a great, great part of baseball — probably more so than any other sport — but they don’t always tell the true value of a player. Some guys don’t have great statistics, but they do the dirty work that makes it easier for us players who are considered good, or even great, players. They get on base and move runners up, but they don’t get the glory we do because they don’t drive in the runs. Dirty work doesn’t get recognized as much as it should.”
Laurila: Who were the best “dirty work” guys you played with?
Kaline: “Well, Harvey Kuenn was great for me; he got on base a lot and moved runners. Dick McAuliffe was a great little player. I’d say those two guys probably did most of the work in front of me, getting on base and getting into scoring position.”
Laurila: One last question. How sad were you to see Tiger Stadium torn down?
Kaline: “You know, I spent my life and career there. Tiger Stadium, Briggs Stadium. It’s always tough to see the place you spent your whole professional career go away. But Comerica Park is a great ballpark. Even though there’s a lot of history at Tiger Stadium, there’ll eventually be a lot of history at Comerica. So yeah, it was sad to see it go. I kind of hoped they would keep a part of it — at least a section of it — so that people could take their kids and grandkids to see where Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, and Charlie Gehringer used to play. I got to play there, as well. I was blessed to play a great game, and to do it in Detroit.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.