Remembering Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger (1934-2020)

Few players have ever been more closely identified with a single team than Al Kaline. A bonus baby who debuted at age 18, and the youngest batting champion ever at 20, Kaline played every single one of his 2,834 professional games as a member of the Tigers, and remained part of their organization for 67 years. While he didn’t always have an easy time adapting to the expectations placed on him at such a young age, he aged with grace and humility, and became “Mr. Tiger.” In a career that ran 22 seasons, from 1953-74, he collected 3,007 hits and 399 home runs — yes, there’s a story to that missed milestone — and won 10 Gold Gloves as a right fielder. In 1980, he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and became the first Tiger ever to have his uniform number (No. 6, chosen in honor of Stan Musial) retired. After his playing career ended, he moved into the broadcast booth and then into an advisory capacity, most recently as a special assistant to general manager Al Avila.

On Monday, Kaline, who had recently suffered a stroke, died at the age of 85 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

“In my book he’s the greatest right-handed hitter in the league,” Ted Williams said of Kaline in 1955, the year he became the youngest player ever to win a batting title.

“I have always referred to Al Kaline as ‘Mister Perfection,’” Tigers manager Billy Martin, who managed Kaline from 1971 to late ’73, once said. “He does it all — hitting, fielding, running, throwing — and he does it with that extra touch of brilliancy that marks him as a super ballplayer.”

Most Games Played with Only One Team
Rk Player Team Years G Minors
1 Carl Yastrzemski Red Sox 1961-1983 3308 268
2 Stan Musial Cardinals 1941-1963 3026 303
3 Cal Ripken Jr. Orioles 1981-2001 3001 443
4 Brooks Robinson Orioles 1955-1977 2896 324
5 Robin Yount Brewers 1974-1993 2856 64
6 Craig Biggio Astros 1988-2007 2850 141
7 Al Kaline Tigers 1953-1974 2834 0
8 Derek Jeter Yankees 1995-2014 2747 463
9 Mel Ott Giants 1926-1947 2730 0
10 George Brett Royals 1973-1993 2707 318
11 Ernie Banks Cubs 1953-1971 2528 0*
12 Chipper Jones Braves 1993-2012 2499 466
13 Dave Concepcion Reds 1970-1988 2488 258
14 Tony Gwynn Padres 1982-2001 2440 175
15 Roberto Clemente Pirates 1955-1972 2433 87
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* Played in Negro American League

Kaline was born to Nicholas and Naomi Kaline on December 19, 1934 in Baltimore, and grew up in the working-poor neighborhood of Westport. His father made brooms and played semipro baseball, while his mother scrubbed floors and then worked in a pill factory. His two sisters quit school at age 15 to help support the family. At age eight, Al was diagnosed with osteomyelitis in his left foot, and had two inches worth of diseased bone surgically removed; he learned to run on the side of his foot, and played through constant pain throughout his career.

Nicholas, who like his father before him was a catcher, taught his son to throw a curveball and a changeup by the time he was nine. When he was 12, the younger Kaline went 10-0 on his neighborhood team. His parents understood that baseball could be his way out of a life of factories and smokestacks. “I asked my parents if they wanted me to do something, get a paper route or something, and they said, ‘Nope,'” Kaline recalled in 1995. “They always encouraged me to enjoy my youth because they said sooner or later you’re going to have to work for a living.”

At Southern High School, Kaline starred in basketball as well as baseball; a foray into football ended when he broke his cheekbone. With no place to put Kaline as a pitcher, his coach moved him to the outfield to take advantage of his strong, accurate arm. After his sophomore year (1951), he was selected to play in the Hearst Sandlot Classic, a showcase for high school talent played annually at the Polo Grounds from 1946-58, and backed by publisher William Randolph Hearst. Kaline went 2-for-4 in that game, highlighted by an inside-the-park homer and a peg to gun down a runner at third base. He was named the game’s MVP, and the next day attended his first major league game at Yankee Stadium.

Having already caught the attention of major league scouts, particularly from the Dodgers, Cardinals, Phillies, and Tigers, Kaline continued to improve as he rose through high school. In the spring of 1953, Tigers scout Ed Katalinas convinced him to sign with the team; Kaline figured he would have a chance to play more often with a club that had finished last in the AL with 104 losses in 1952. He received a $15,000 bonus and a deal for $20,000 in salary over three years, making him a “bonus baby,” a player who had to be kept on the major league roster for two years before being sent to the minors. He used the money to pay off his parent’s mortgage and fund his mother’s eye surgery.

On June 25, 1953, Kaline made his major league debut, flying out in a pinch-hitting appearance against the A’s Harry Byrd. He played sparingly, getting just two more plate appearances before collecting his first hit, off the White Sox’s Luis Aloma, on July 8. He didn’t make his first start until September 16, one of just four he’d make all season, all in center field. On September 26, he hit his first homer, off the Indians’ Dave Hoskins. In all, he drew just 30 plate appearances in 30 games for a 94-loss team.

When Steve Souchock, who had closed the 1953 season as the Tigers’ regular right fielder, broke his wrist playing winter ball, Kaline received more time than expected at the position during spring training. The 19-year-old bonus baby won the starting job, and while his overall numbers that season were meager (.276/.305/.347, with four homers), he hit .331/.359/.424 in August and September. It was a portent of things to come, for in 1955, Kaline broke out, hitting .340/.421/.546 with 27 homers and 102 RBI. He made the first of 13 consecutive All-Star teams, and won the AL batting crown, beating Ty Cobb by a single day for the title of the youngest batting champion ever. Additionally, he led the league in hits (200), and finished second in both OPS+ (162) and WAR (8.3, Baseball-Reference version), albeit well behind Mickey Mantle in both categories. It wasn’t Mantle but Yogi Berra that Kaline lost out to in a tough, three-way AL MVP race, though he edged the Indians’ Al Smith by one point to finish second.

As age-20 seasons go, only Alex Rodriguez (9.4 WAR in 1996) and Mike Trout (10.5 in 2012) have surpassed Kaline’s showing, but long before WAR, that season created expectations and comparisons that he struggled to live up to.

“The worst thing that happened to me in the big leagues was the start I had,” Kaline told Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen (who commented that “talking to Kaline is like making funeral arrangements” in the same piece) in 1964:

“This put the pressure on me. Everybody said this guy’s another Ty Cobb, another Joe DiMaggio. How much pressure can you take? What they didn’t know is I’m not that good a hitter. They kept sayin gI do everything with ease. But it isn’t that way. I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league… I don’t have the kind of strength that Mantle or Mays have, where they can be fooled on a pitch and still get a good piece of the ball. I’ve got to have my timing down perfect or I’m finished… I’ll tell you something else: I’m not in the same class with players like Mays or Musial or Henry Aaron, either. Their records ver the last five seasons are much better than mine.”

Whew. Kaline never did win another batting title, though he had 10 finishes in the top 10; six of those were in the top five, three of them as runner-up. Instead he settled in as the AL’s best player this side of Mantle. From 1955-63, only Willie Mays (82.4), Mantle (73.0), Hank Aaron (72.5), Eddie Mathews (63.2) and Ernie Banks (55.2) outdid his 53.5 WAR. Six times in that span, he ranked among the AL’s top three in WAR, and only once did he miss the top 10. From 1955-67, the period covering all of his All-Star seasons, he hit a combined .307/.385/.509, tying for 10th in the majors in OPS+ (142) and ranking ninth in homers (299), eighth in batting average, and sixth in WAR (75.0). Aside from leading the AL in slugging percentage in 1959 (.530), he didn’t top the circuit in any major category, but almost invariably he was among the league leaders in slash stats. Only once in that 13-year span did his OPS+ slip below 120.

Kaline wasn’t quite the equal of Mantle, and the Tigers let him know it. After a stellar follow-up to his breakout in 1956 (.314/.383/.530, 27 HR, 128 RBI, 6.6 WAR), he asked for a raise from his $20,000 salary, pushing him close to teammate Harvey Kuenn’s $32,000 as the team’s highest-paid player. Instead he was offered just $3,000 more; he sent the contract back unsigned. Team president Spike Briggs turned the action into a very public controversy, telling a group at a Detroit advertising club “that Kaline thinks he’s as good as Mickey Mantle, and wants as much money as Mantle,” words Kaline never said. Eventually, player personnel director John McHale interceded, and Kaline got his $30,000, but he heard boos from the fans in working-class Detroit, and shied away from media.

“Kaline got booed here,” said Detroit News columnist Joe Falls in 1995. “They wanted him to be Mickey Mantle, and he would never be Mickey Mantle.”

Still, he continued to excel on both sides of the ball to such a degree that right field in Tiger Stadium became known as Kaline’s Corner. In 1957, when Rawlings introduced the Gold Glove awards for fielding excellence, Kaline joined Mays and Minnie Minoso as inaugural winners, chosen to cover both leagues. After Rawlings began awarding separate sets for each league, Kaline missed out only once over the next decade. Based upon the voting of managers and coaches, the hardware often was handed out based on reputation, but the metrics back Kaline’s trophy case: via Total Zone, his 153 runs above average is in a virtual tie with Brian Jordan for third among right fielders, behind only Roberto Clemente (205) and Jesse Barfield (161), though Jason Heyward (147) could eventually overtake him.

In 1959-60, Kaline did take a detour to center field after Kuenn was injured, but the second of those seasons was a down one, in which he hit for just a 107 OPS+ with 2.6 WAR. He rebounded the following year to hit .324/.393/.515 (138 OPS+) and set a career high with 8.4 WAR thanks to off-the-charts defense (+29 runs).

Noted more for his prolific ability to hit line drives, Kaline never clubbed 30 homers in a season. He set a career high with 29 in 1962, albeit in just 100 games; he missed nearly two months, from late May to late July, due to a broken right collarbone, suffered while making a diving catch. His .593 slugging percentage would have been the league’s second-highest behind Mantle, but he fell 50 PA short of qualifying.

By the mid-1960s, as Kaline passed into his thirties, his left foot became more troublesome, and he missed more playing time. From 1965 onward, he played in 140 or more games in a season just twice: in ’66 after undergoing offseason surgery, and in ’74, his final season. Still, when he played, he was particularly potent. In just 131 games in 1967, he hit for a career-best 176 OPS+ (308/.411/.541) with 7.5 WAR. He missed 26 games that year due to a fluke injury, a broken bone in his hand, suffered when he slammed his bat back into the rack. Though the Tigers went 15-11 in his absence, they lost out to the Red Sox by a single game in a wild four-team AL race. That was just the second time in Kaline’s career that the team finished fewer than 10 games out of first; in 1961, they had won 101 games but still finished eight behind the Yankees.

All of that changed in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” With a staff led by Cy Young winner Denny McLain, who won 31 games, and a lineup that included All-Stars Bill Freehan at catcher and Willie Horton in left field, the Tigers moved into first place for good on May 10 and won 103 games, 12 more than the runner-up Orioles. Kaline hit .287/.392/.428, but in that offense-suppressed year, that was good for a 146 OPS+. Unfortunately, he did it in just 102 games, missing nearly six weeks due to a left forearm fractured by a Lew Krausse pitch on May 25. In his absence, Jim Northrup played well in right field, so manager Mayo Smith squeezed Kaline into the lineup at first base, a position he had never played before, and occasionally used him off the bench.

Kaline didn’t complain; on the contrary, he said publicly that he wasn’t sure that he deserved to be in the starting lineup for the World Series against the defending champion Cardinals. In one of the most daring managerial gambits in memory, Smith moved center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop to replace light-hitting Ray Oyler, despite the fact that Stanley had never played the position professionally until late in the season; Smith and Cash had noticed that the tireless, slick-fielding center fielder stood out when taking infield grounders early before games. Northrup moved over to center, returning right field to Kaline, who hit .379/.400/.655 with a Series-high 11 hits, including two homers and eight RBI.

Kaline’s two biggest RBI came in Game 5. With the Tigers trailing three games to one, and down 3-2 in the seventh inning with one out and the bases loaded, Kaline hit a bloop single to center field off Joe Hoerner, scoring two runs and putting Detroit ahead to stay; they never trailed again in the Series. In Game 6, Kaline went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer off Steve Carlton and four RBI in all, keying a 13-1 rout. He went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts in Game 7, but lefty Mickey Lolich, pitching on just two days’ rest, out-dueled Bob Gibson with his third complete game of the series as the Tigers won 4-1. The championship helped heal a city torn apart by riots the year before.

Kaline didn’t play quite so regularly over the next few seasons, averaging 132 games and 525 plate appearances per year from 1969-71, but remaining effective enough to post a 129 OPS+ while averaging 3.2 WAR per year. The best of those seasons was 1971, when he hit .294/.416/.462 for a 144 OPS+ and made the AL All-Star team for the first time since ’67; the game was played in Tiger Stadium. After the season, Kaline became the first Tiger to sign a contract worth $100,000. He had reportedly turned down a pact worth that much the year before, on the grounds that he hadn’t had what he considered a good season; at that point, he had settled for $95,000. “I was hoping I’d be able to bounce back and earn it,” Kaline said . “I don’t know if I actually deserve $100,000 off what I did this year. But at least I feel better about it.”

The Tigers, now in the AL East, won 90 games in 1969 and 91 in ’71, but finished second both times, well behind the Orioles. They finally made it back to the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1972 season, which featured one of Kaline’s late-career seasons (.313/.374/.475, 149 OPS+). The team won the AL East by half a game over the Red Sox because MLB didn’t ensure that each team played an equal number of contests, an injustice that nonetheless benefited Kaline.

Kaline’s most notable work in the ALCS against the A’s came in extra innings. In the opener, his 11th-inning homer off Rollie Fingers put the Tigers up 2-1, but Lolich (still pitching) and reliever Chuck Seelbach faltered, and the A’s rallied to win. In Game 4, with the Tigers down 3-1 in the 10th and facing elimination, Kaline singled and came around to score the game-tying run in what became a series-tying 4-3 win. Alas, he went 0-for-4 in the deciding Game 5 as Oakland advanced.

Kaline battled injuries in 1973, and set career lows in games played (91), OPS+ (96), and WAR (0.5). He became a full-time designated hitter the following year, enabling him to stay in the lineup; his 147 games played and 630 plate appearances were his most since 1961, and he made his final All-Star team. On September 24, 1974, he collected the 3,000th hit of his career, off the Orioles’ Dave McNally in Baltimore — a full-circle moment.

In the aftermath, the 39-year-old right fielder announced his retirement at season’s end. At that point, he was sitting on 399 home runs, but even while playing regularly during a homestand at Tiger Stadium, his aching left shoulder prevented him from getting number 400. In his final game, he pulled himself after two plate appearances, a move he later regretted. “It was one of the worst, if not the worst, decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he told the Detroit News‘ Lynn Henning in 2015. Kaline felt he had let down not only the fans who wanted to see him try to reach the milestone, which would have made him the first AL player to reach 3,000 hits and 400 homers, as well as his replacement Ben Oglivie, who drew boos from the crowd through no fault of his own. “Sometimes when you make bad decisions you don’t realize how it might hurt other people,” he said.

Kaline followed through on his plan to retire, and finished with numbers that still impress, even if he slipped below .300 late in his career, finishing at .297/.376/.480. He’s 31st in hits (3,007), 28th in total bases (4,852), 27th in plate appearances (11,596), and 18th in games (2,834, a franchise record). His 92.8 WAR is 29th overall among position players, and seventh among right fielders, as is his JAWS (70.8).; his 48.8 peak WAR is eighth. His 399 homers are a franchise record; he surpassed Hank Greenberg’s 307 in 1968.

After sitting out a year following his retirement, Kaline returned to the team as a television analyst, joining future Hall of Famer George Kell in the booth. He spent a quarter-century in that capacity, eventually working with Ernie Harwell, Jim Price, and Frank Beckmann. Before the 2002 season, Dave Dombrowski appointed him to the role of special assistant, a job he retained even after Dombrowski was fired in 2015, and replaced by Avila. He continued to attend nearly every home game, and was still on the team’s masthead in that capacity at the time of his death. He developed bonds with generations of young Tigers players, and remained accessible to reporters and fans. “Count stars in the sky and you begin to approach the number of hands he shook in 67 years of Detroit baseball grandeur,” wrote Henning in his wonderful tribute.

Given his membership in the 3,000 hit club and his sterling reputation, Kaline sailed into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, receiving 88.3% of the vote in 1980; the writers also elected Duke Snider that year, while the Veterans Committee added Chuck Klein and Tom Yawkey. “If there is one accomplishment of which I am particularly proud,” he said at his induction ceremony, “it is that I have always served baseball to the best of my ability, never have I deliberately done anything to discredit the game, the Tigers, or my family. By far, being inducted into the Hall of Fame is the proudest moment of my life.”

By all accounts, Kaline was more than just a Hall of Fame player. His grace and humility made him a civic icon and a Hall of Fame human being.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Neils-Henning Orsted Joc Pederson
4 years ago

Well done, Jay.
Terrific overview of Kaline the ballplayer and Kaline the man. I would only add that he cared a great deal about the integrity of the sport, as articulated here:

4 years ago

I absolutely hate when HoF players get on their high horse about the 80s-90s steroid guys. Every single one of them played with guys who used, and they did nothing about it. Hell, Eck and Goose played with McGwire and Canseco, and steroids were at least as prevalent in the latter half of Kaline’s career as they were in the 90s.