Al Kaline earned the monicker “Mr. Tiger.” He played 22 seasons with Detroit, broadcast games for 28 years, and worked in the front office for over a decade. As of 2015, Al Kaline has been a Detroit Tiger for 62 years. As a player, Kaline made 18 All Star games, won 10 Gold Gloves, won the 1955 batting title, joined the 3,000 hit club, and won the 1968 World Series. Few Major League players were as successful on the field or as loved.
Future legend Al Kaline grew up in a poor Baltimore household. Despite suffering osteomyelitis, Kaline developed into a first rate baseball player by high school. He was a poor student, but teachers passed him assuming he would play baseball. Although anecdotal, the willingness of his teachers to ignore his scholarly shortcomings demonstrated Kaline’s talent level and skill set. The Detroit Tigers rewarded their faith by signing Kaline for $35,000. He debuted on June 25, played 30 games, batted .250, and never set foot in the minors. At first, Kaline wore #25, but asked for #6 at season’s end. The number remains Kaline’s to this day.
Kaline enjoyed a successful rookie campaign with his new number. He batted .276 with four home runs, 43 RBI, and .652 OPS. The first year player finished third in the 1954 Rookie of the Year vote behind New York’s Bob Grim and Philadelphia’s Jim Finigan. Unfortunately, the Tigers were not a very good club. They collapsed in the early fifties and did not return to prominence until the following decade.
Despite the Tigers’ struggles, Kaline emerged a superstar in 1955. He became the youngest batting champion in history with a .340 average. The right fielder’s success marked the first batting crown for a player in his age 20 season since Ty Cobb in 1907. Kaline also led the league with 200 hits and 321 total bases. He added 121 runs, 27 home runs, 102 RBI, and a .967 OPs.On April 17, Kaline became the 13th player in history to hit two home runs in one inning. In 2007, Magglio Ordonez joined him as the only Tigers to achieve this feat. Kaline made his first of 18 All Star games in 1955 and finished second to Yogi Berra in the MVP race.
Mr. Tiger finished third in the 1956 MVP balloting behind Berra and Mickey Mantle. Mantle won the Triple Crown while Kaline batted .314 with 27 home runs, 128 RBI, 327 total bases, and .913 OPS. He also led the league in outfield assists and made the All Star Game for the second year in a row. Kaline would not miss another mid-season classic until 1968. From 1957 to 1960, Kaline batted .302 with 81 home runs, 337 RBI, and .850 OPS. He led the league in slugging (.530), OPS (.940), and intentional walks (12) in 1959. In 1957, he won his first Gold Glove. Between 1957 and 1967, Kaline won the Gold Glove every year except 1960. On top of this, Kaline finished with MVP votes every year from 1954-67 except 1960. Unfortunately, Detroit did not come close to winning a pennant during this stretch.
Kaline’s Tigers finally contended in 1961. The team won 101 games, but managed to finish eight games behind Berra and Mantle’s Yankees. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs for Yankees to lead the league. Meanwhile, Kaline led the league with 41 doubles. He also hit .324 with 19 home runs, 82 RBI, 190 hits, seven triples, 302 total bases, and .909 OPS. While Norm Cash and Rocky Colavito led the Tigers offense in 1961, Kaline’s presence proved invaluable. He suffered a major injury which limited him to 100 games in 1962. As a result, Detroit failed to contend after a bright 1961 season.
Despite missing 1/3 of the 1962 season, Kaline finished sixth in the MVP race. Meanwhile, the Tigers did not recover to contend until 1967. Between 1962 and 1967, Kaline batted .298 with 145 home runs, 501 RBI, .387 OBP, .519 slugging, and .906 OPS in a pitching dominant era. He topped 25 home runs four times during this stretch and knocked in 101 runs in 1963. Injuries hampered the Tiger in 1965 and 1967. In 1967, he broke a bone in his hand after slamming his bat into the team’s rack. Kaline missed a month and Detroit missed the pennant by a single game.
Injuries limited Kaline in 1968 as well. A broken arm limited the right fielder to 102 games, but the Tigers managed to win the pennant with 103 wins. Kaline batted .287 with 10 home runs, 52 RBI, and .820 OPS. Tiger manager Mayo Smith needed Kaline’s bat and glove on the field, so he moved outfielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop. Starting shortstop Ray Oyler batted .135 for the season. The move allowed Smith to place his best offensive squad onto the field. Stanley represented an offensive upgrade at shortstop. The outfield consisted of Jim Northrup, Willie Horton, and Al Kaline. All three delivered in the clutch with Kaline slapping the key hit with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of Game 5. Overall, he hit .379 with two home runs and eight RBI and 1.055 OPS against the Cardinals. Detroit won the World Series in seven games.
The Tigers did not repeat as World Champions and Kaline played six more seasons with Detroit. From 1969-74, Kaline batted .277 with 85 home runs, and .795 OPS. He made his final two All Star teams in 1971 and 1974 and finished 24th in the MVP race in 1972. In 1970, he collided with Northrup in the outfield and swallowed his own tongue. Alertly, Willie Horton cleared Kaline’s airways and saved his life. That same year, Kaline turned down a pay raise because he felt he did not warrant it. In 1971, he did become the first Tiger to earn $100,000. Detroit returned to the postseason in 1972, but fell to the A’s in five games. Kaline batted .263 with a home run and RBI against Oakland.
Kaline played only two more seasons after the 1972 ALCS. He appeared in only 91 games in 1973, but won the Roberto Clemente Award for his character and efforts on and off the field. The following year, Kaline decided to retire. On September 24, he doubled off Baltimore’s Dave McNally for his 3,000th hit. Kaline was the 13th player and second Tiger behind Ty Cobb to reach that plateau. He finished with 3,007 hits, batted over .300 nine times, and finished with a .297 average. Additionally, Kaline scored 1,622 runs, had 498 doubles, 399 home runs, 1,582 RBI, .376 OBP, .480 slugging, 4,852 total bases, and .855 OPS. Kaline did not know that he had 399 home runs and that he was one home run away from becoming the first American League player with 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. During his era, players did not pay as much attention to stats. Otherwise, he would have played one more year.
Following his retirement, Kaline moved to the broadcast booth. He worked alongside George Kell for 20 years. In 1980, he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Three years later, Kell entered Cooperstown giving the Tigers a Hall of Fame broadcast booth. Kaline broadcast games until 2002. He sometimes stumbled over his words, but his honesty and humility created a new generation of fans and increased the respect his older fans already espoused. By the end of his tenure, Kaline openly criticized the team on the field. He was the only person in Detroit with the gravitas to openly criticize the team while working for it. Perhaps for that reason, the Tigers promoted Kaline to the front office and he has served as a special assistant ever since.
Al Kaline earned the nickname “Mr. Tiger.” He joined the Tigers as an 18-year-old teenager and never left. The 18-time All Star was one of the game’s best all around players. He retired after knocking his 3,000th career hit and moved to the broadcast booth. Afterward, Kaline entered the third phase of his Tiger career as a special assistant. In the end, Kaline is the most beloved player in Tiger history.