Most obituaries about Al Kaline today refer to him as “Mr. Tiger,” a nice-enough title and well-deserved. But that nickname rings a little off-key for Detroit baseball fans of a certain age.
Media from other cities might’ve called him “Mr. Tiger,” a compliment Kaline graciously accepted in his long retirement after a 22-year career that took him to the Hall of Fame.
But few people around here called Kaline “Mr. Tiger” when he played right field at Briggs and Tiger Stadium from 1953-74. He wasn’t a nickname type of player or personality, no “Sultan of Swat” or “Say-Hey Kid” or “Shoeless Joe.” Kaline was as understated and low-key as a sports superstar could be.
Even his last name sounded super straight -- ending in “line.”
Kaline was square in the best sense. Teammates gave him the most understated (and coolest) nickname possible: “Six,” after his uniform, No. 6.
Idol of Boomers
Along with Gordie Howe of the Red Wings -- No. 9, who died in 2016 -- Kaline was an idol of Michigan Baby Boomers and a prince of the Motor City in a bustling, optimistic era.
So those of us who grew up here in the 1950s and 1960s feel a special punch-in-the-gut ache today, the kind you get when you lose someone you felt you knew and admired all your life.
You flash back. You remember your first set of baseball cards – Topps, 1958 – and the Kaline card with the red background. (Oh, God, where is it now?)
You remember all the kids on the softball diamonds of Hansen Field in the 1960s shouting “I’m Al Kaline!” and trying to imitate his style -- that elegant, right-handed swing of the bat, that flowing, right-handed, full-body throwing motion from right field.
You remember taking your fiancé to the ball park to see him play in the 1970s and getting to know him when we both were members of the Detroit sports media during the 1980s.
Always in the game
You recall how Kaline was the Roberto Clemente of the American League, a smoothie who would waste no time or motion, playing the ball on the carom in the corner or charging a blooper behind the second baseman.
Kaline would scoop up the ball and fire directly to second or third base or home plate (but always to the right base!) to cut down that cocky rookie who dared to test his arm and stretch his luck.
Kaline’s statue in the Comerica Park outfield shows him fielding -- not hitting. But, oh, he could hit, too, with a classical batting stance, plenty of power, a hatred of strikeouts and knowledge of the strike zone.
Old story: Kid pitcher faces Kaline. Umpire calls ball one, ball two. Kid pitcher glares at ump, who calls timeout and tells him: “Son, Mr. Kaline will let you know when it’s a strike by doubling off the wall.”
Kaline rarely made a base-running mistake. And if he was on deck and a teammate was running the bases, he would remove the discarded bat from the home-plate area to keep it clear for a slide. Kaline got the little stuff right. His head was always in the game.
Kaline’s understated quality extended to his statistical hitting milestones. He achieved a major one by finishing with 3,007 hits. The 3,000th came in Baltimore, his hometown. But Kaline’s lifetime batting average was .297 (not quite 300) and his home-run total was 399 (not quite 400).
Had he finished his final game in Detroit of that frigid Wednesday afternoon in 1974, some Baltimore pitcher might’ve served up No. 400 to him in the late innings accidentally or on purpose.
But, after batting twice, Kaline left that game in the fifth, more than two decades after his first, which was in Philadelphia against the Athletics in 1953. How long ago was Al Kaline’s debut?
Other teams in the 16-team majors then included the Boston Braves, the St. Louis Browns, the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the original Washington Senators.
He Could Have Died in 1970
Kaline is gone at age 85 during a global pandemic in which thousands (more than 200 in Detroit, so far) are dying from the Covid-19 virus. Kaline had suffered a recent stroke, according to The Detroit News; it is not known if the virus contributed to his death.
Many years before, Kaline survived a near-death incident on the field in 1970 in Milwaukee when he swallowed his tongue in a collision with center fielder Jim Northrup.
As Kaline began to turn blue, Willie Horton ran over from left field, pried open Kaline’s jaws and cleared his air way so he could breathe.
An irony about this was recounted Monday by Los Angeles journalist Roy Firestone, who posted on Facebook.
According to Firestone, Horton had told Kaline years earlier: “Someday, maybe I’ll do something for this team or for you that will take your breath away.”
From the other coast came a Facebook post from a Boston fan named Scott Russell, who recalled Kaline’s last at-bat in Fenway Park, where Kaline was admired.
“We rose and gave Kaline a tumultuous, lengthy standing ovation,” Russell wrote. “When it became obvious that we were not going to cease cheering, he backed out of the box and acknowledged the crowd.”
But they had to force him. Which brings us to the melancholy moment at Tiger Stadium, the last home game of the 1974 season, the final day of Kaline’s brilliant career.
Not a curtain call guy
Only 4,671 of us paid to get in that day (lower deck, first baseline) and the only reason we were there was to give Kaline a final standing ovation and to say “Thank You.”
But Kaline was neither a glory-hound nor as self-aware as modern athletes about his public image. He batted twice and then let manager Ralph Houk remove him from the game.
“I didn’t realize at the time the fans came out to see me in my last time at-bat,” Kaline later told me, calling the moment “one of my most embarrassing.”
When Kaline was supposed to come out of the dugout to the on-deck circle, Ben Oglivie emerged instead as his pinch hitter.
The fans realized what had happened. Murmurs arose. Fingers pointed. The word spread. We booed, pleaded and shouted for Kaline, who remained in the clubhouse. So anticlimactic
Why bring that up now? Because, once again, we must miss a chance to say another goodbye to Al Kaline.
The current pandemic keeps us indoors, fearful and alone and it cancels – or at least postpones – public gatherings like memorials for dead heroes.
This will prevent – or at least delay – a proper goodbye for Kaline, the kind they gave Howe at Joe Louis Arena four years ago.
So we still owe Al Kaline that one last standing ovation. It’s worth waiting for. Until then, so long, Six.