Al Kaline, Last of the Baseball’s Pre-Millionaire Superstars, Dead at 85.

Buck Turgidson, Jr.
Buck Turgidson, Jr.
Son of the famous General Buck Turgidson, our fearless editor strives for courageous reportage, concise language and an editorial policy falling somewhere between William Randolph Hearst's and Mussolini's.

Al Kaline died the other day. Forgotten in both the passage of time and the obscurity that comes with playing in the provincial, non-coastal milieu of Midwestern American professional sport, Kaline was one of perhaps half a dozen of the greatest players in the 1950-1975 era.

In Detroit, where Al Kaline played his entire 22-year MLB career, he was always somewhere between a God and a conundrum. A God because of his DiMaggio-like prowess at every facet of the game and a conundrum because of his often distant, humorless visage as a player and his utter lack of proficiency as a long-time color commentator on local baseball broadcasts.

Growing up during the latter half of Kaline’s career, I really didn’t see him at his best. He was, from the mid-1960’s on, still a perennial All-Star and an enduring icon, but his skills were slowly being diminished by repeated injuries and age. As little kids, we preferred the flamboyance of teammates Norm Cash, Willie Horton and Jim Northrup to the dull perfection of Kaline’s day-in,-day-out performance. Kaline had all the personality of a fungo bat, so we gravitated instead to the crazy batting stance, power and hypochondria of Horton, the affable, goofy Texan malapropisms, pranks and tape-measure home runs of Cash, and the throwback, feisty play of guys like Northrup and Dick McAuliffe.

This cast of characters came close to a pennant in 1967, and won it all in 1968, famously overcoming a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the heavily-favored Cardinals in the Series. Kaline was a bit of an afterthought in those years. Still brilliant when healthy, but too often missing 30 or 40 games a year with injuries variously attributed to overzealous play and bad genetics. But, when he had his lone chance at playing on baseball’s biggest stage, he hit .379 with 2 homers and 8 RBI, and only missed being World Series MVP because teammate Mickey Lolich had a postseason for the ages, pitching three complete games — and winning them all — in the seven game finale.

Kaline, of course, started out as the can’t-miss kid from Baltimore, signing with the Tigers as a bonus baby in 1953, a week after graduating high school. He skipped the minor leagues and went straight to the big club, learning his trade in part-time duty as an 18 year-old and taking over as a full-time outfielder in 1954. His hitting, unsurprisingly, lagged a bit behind his fielding in those early years, but in his third season, as a 20 year-old in 1955, he won the American League batting championship with a .340 average, and finished second behind Yogi Berra for that year’s MVP award.

As noted, his fielding was amazing from the first day he showed up in Detroit. From the outset, he showed off his arm by routinely throwing out runners trying to stretch singles into doubles, and those trying to score from second base. In his first full season, 1954, he did something nobody had done since 1928, and nobody has done since: he threw out three base runners in a single game, garnering three assists, a feat unimaginable today. Settling, finally, in right field, his throwing arm was legendary, as was his anticipation and range. It earned him 10 Gold Gloves, and he’s still the best corner outfielder I’ve ever seen.

Like his contemporary Ted Williams, he could be distant and surly with teammates and the press, preferring to let his playing speak for him. And, like his predecessor Joe DiMaggio, he excelled at all aspects of the game, and with DiMaggio’s grace. He had none of the flamboyance of peers like Willie Mays and none of the athletic flash of his contemporary Roberto Clemente. But, like DiMaggio, he equaled their accomplishments with an effortlessness that only showed up in filmed highlights when he went crashing into a wall or tumbling for a catch, acts typically resulting in another of his many serious injuries.

Like Mickey Mantle, one wonders what sort of ungodly numbers Kaline might have put up if he’d been even remotely close to healthy for all of those years. Both are first ballot Hall of Famers, and both had long careers, but neither played close to the maximum number of games one would expect of men who played that long. Compounding his physical maladies was Kaline’s less-than-popular reputation among his teammates. Sure, he was lauded long and hard by all of them after their careers were over, but during their time together, there were always rumblings about Kaline being a me-first guy or, worse, a front-office yes-man.

Kaline’s late-1960’s teammate Denny McLain, who had five of the best years any pitcher has ever had — and then lost it all through too many cortisone shots, gambling and arrogance — followed up his mercurial big-league career with equally checkered tenures as a talk-show broadcaster, convicted and jailed tax evader and convicted and jailed corporate embezzler. His memories of Kaline, related in the 1980’s, were that the Kaline he remembered was a real prick who cared little for his fellow Tigers.

To illustrate, McLain recalled that in 1969, Kaline turned down what would have been the first six-figure salary ever paid to a Detroit ballplayer because Al felt that he “just didn’t deserve it.” Yeah, it’s hard to believe that sort of thing of now, but it was a little quaint even then, especially considering that DiMaggio made that kind of money as early as the late 1940’s. McLain’s observation was that not only was Kaline being an idiot, he was also — in typical self-absorbed fashion — ignoring the fact that management wouldn’t be paying anyone more money than Al, so he was effectively putting the lid on all of their salaries for the foreseeable future. The fans, of course, thought Al was being nothing but admirable in turning down the money, never for a minute considering what effect this had on his teammates or their livelihoods.

Once Al retired in 1974, he made his way up into the broadcast booth to join fellow Hall of Famer George Kell in doing the locally-televised Tiger games. Whereas Kell had developed a sort of folksy but competent play-by-play style, Kaline struggled to find his niche as a color commentator. Adding third, and even fourth, members to the broadcast crew didn’t seem to help, but management seemed content to let Al learn on the job for however long it took him to hone his craft.

By my estimation, and I’m not alone in this opinion, Kaline never really did come to terms with the rigors of a life behind the microphone. His rambling, stumblingly dull interjections were roundly lampooned by local wags, and his delivery only improved marginally as the years went on. He became locally infamous for his mangling of the language, including his insistence that the plural of “third baseman” is “third basemens.” That he survived so many years is testament to the reverence in which local baseball fans held him, and nothing more. That he slowly became something like a loveable uncle to the entire Tiger organization is another matter altogether.

From the time he retired, Kaline was used by the team as a spring training instructor at their Lakeland, Florida facilities. Generations of young ballplayers will attest to the kind, gentle instruction given to them by Kaline, and many future superstars — as well as countless also-rans — all benefited from his baseball wisdom. He managed to rehabilitate himself with his old teammates as well. McLain, who had resented Kaline for so long, found an unlikely ally in him when McLain’s marriage foundered, he served multiple prison terms and saw his once-lavish lifestyle crumble. Kaline, nearly alone among the old Tigers, stood by his old teammate, even if McLain probably deserved less sympathy than almost any down-on-their-luck ex-ballplayer possibly could.

In later years, what had been universal respect from fans alone slowly developed into a genuine love by his old teammates and adversaries as well. The tributes that came in upon hearing of his death, especially if one knows how little love he engendered during his playing career, speak volumes for a man in his maturity, and how nobody’s story is written until it’s over. While he was universally respected when he played, there was a certain grudging reluctance in it being offered back then, much as was the case with Williams and even DiMaggio. That this professional respect evolved into genuine love is the best tribute we can pay to Al Kaline the man. And, if you’re too young to understand just how good he was a player — and even an old schmuck like me is in that camp — you owe it to yourself to find out about his skills. Dull? Probably, but amazing in their consistent excellence.

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