Al Kaline Biography
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Kaline was a “bonus baby,” signed for enough money that the rules of the time required that he be carried on the major league roster. He spent the rest of the 1953 season in Detroit, playing in 30 games and coming to the plate 30 times, pinch-hitting and coming in on defense. He had 7 hits in 28 official at-bats for a .250 average with one home run.
The youngster was scheduled for more bench duty in 1954, but Niemann was hurt, others played poorly, and Kaline ended up as the regular right fielder. He played 138 games and hit .276 with 4 HR and 43 RBI. The offense was unimpressive, not surprising for a 19-year old playing every day in the American League, but he did impress with his range and arm on defense. He impressed enough people to finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting, and 23rd in AL MVP voting with four points.
Kaline then exploded on the league in 1955, leading the AL in hits and total bases and becoming the youngest player ever to win a batting title by posting a .340 average. He was just one day younger than Ty Cobb when the Georgia Peach won his first as a young Tiger. It would be the only batting title Kaline would win, though he was often a contender. He finished second in 1959, 1961, and 1963.
Detroit was gathering some good young talent, and getting back into contention. Harvey Kuenn and Frank Lary were joining Kaline to push the team into the first division. Kaline started winning Gold Gloves for his outfield play, and in 1959 shifted to center field, a move that became official when the Tigers traded Kuenn for Rocky Colavito. Then veteran Bill Bruton came and took over center, with Kaline moving back to right and the strong-armed Rocky in left field. It wasn’t an optimal alignment, but in the mid-1960s the Tigers started spitting out young outfielders and the talent base ripened.
Kaline was a solid, consistent player, not a standout in any one area but excellent all-around. He hit for solid averages, good power, and had good speed. He was also an excellent defensive outfielder, winning ten Gold Gloves. His problem was that he was injured and missed time nearly every season. He had a childhood bone disease that caused a deformity in his left foot, resulting in constant nagging pain. In 1959 he missed three weeks with a fractured cheekbone. In 1962 he broke his collarbone making a game-saving catch, and missed two months. Another year it was a rib, another a broken thumb. Kaline played in 150 games in just three seasons, 140 in ten seasons. He did play 100 games in 20 seasons, including 19 consecutive.
Kaline was generally popular with Tiger fans, but took some heat in the press for not leading the team to a pennant. In 1967 Detroit was part of a four team race to the wire, with their right fielder hitting .308 with 25 HR and 78 RBI, but could not come out on top. In 1968, the Tigers rode a 31-win season from Denny McLain to a pennant, though Kaline played just 102 games. He hit .287 with 10 HR and 53 RBI, good though not star material. He volunteered to manager Mayo Smith to come off the bench in the World Series, but Smith had another idea: since shortstop Ray Oyler hit just .135 for the season, he would play gifted center fielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop, move right fielder Jim Northrup to center, and play Kaline in right. It was a crazy, ridiculous idea, but it worked as the Tigers won the World Series from the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. Kaline hit .379 in the Series, with 11 hits in 29 AB including two home runs with 8 RBI.
That World Series performance cemented Kaline in Tiger history. The teen sensation and longtime All-Star was now a legend, and Tiger fans would brook no criticism. The talent base was aging but enjoyed a last hurrah in 1972 with an AL East division championship. Kaline had just 278 at-bats for the year, but went 22-for-44 down the stretch as the Tigers outlasted the Red Sox. He had five hits as the Tigers went the distance against Oakland, but the A’s won their second straight AL pennant.
Kaline played just 91 games in 1973, with pinch-hitter Gates Brown doing designated hitter duty. In 1974 that DH job went to the veteran right fielder, who played 147 games and posted a 107 OPS+. He might have kept that up for a couple more years, but with his business interests providing him a sufficient income he retired from the game. He had reached 3000 hits, getting the milestone in his hometown of Baltimore on September 24 off Dave McNally.
The final figures included 3007 hits, and a lot of other things he didn’t quite do: he hit 399 career home runs; had a lifetime .297 batting average; never hit 30 homers in a season but hit 29 twice; drove in 100 runs in just three seasons, scored 100 runs only twice. He never won an MVP award, though he finished second twice and third once. A lot of that was playing most of his career in a poor era for offense. His “neutralized” stats on baseball-reference.com give him a .304 career average and 419 career homers.
In 1976 Kaline was hired by Detroit to be a broadcaster, working as the color man on television games with fellow Tiger alum George Kell. It was a job Kaline would keep through 2001. He was not only popular in Detroit, but around baseball, winning the first Roberto Clemente Award. That is the award given to a baseball player each year for his humanitarian work.
His first Hall of Fame ballot resulted in an election with 88% of the vote in 1980.