Edson: Kaline’s Legacy is One of Hard Work, Decency
In early September of 1974 during Al Kaline’s final month of playing for the Detroit Tigers, I got to meet my boyhood hero.
He was polite but seemed shy, which is unusual for a future Hall-of-Famer. While growing up in the 1960s, the press liked Kaline but sometimes referred to him as “aloof.”
As I came to find out over the years, Al Kaline wasn’t aloof at all, he simply didn’t enjoy being the center of attention. That’s why he and another generational talent from Detroit – Gordie Howe – got along so well. They loved to play the games they excelled at – baseball and hockey – but didn’t like people fawning over them.
So when Kaline passed away earlier this week, Tigers fans all over the country were saddened.
What made Kaline the hero of fans all over Michigan? He was a clutch player, he was fundamentally sound and he was the hardest worker on the team.
“Nobody ever saw all the hard work Al put in before games and sometimes even after games,” said my longtime friend and Tigers radio announcer Paul Carey, who referred to himself as Ernie Harwell’s sidekick.
“They thought Al’s ability was natural and God-given. Maybe some of that was true, but for the most part, he simply out-worked everyone.”
That work ethic came from Kaline’s parents. They each worked two jobs while young Al played baseball all over the city of Baltimore, thanks to his folks driving him to games all around the city.
He played so much that the fundamentals of baseball came “natural” to him, like hitting cut-off man, taking the extra base and perfectly executing the hit and run.
When the Tigers signed Al as a “bonus baby” in 1953, the rules of the game dictated that he be on the big league roster for two seasons.
“The first thing I did after I signed my bonus contract for $35,000 was to buy my folks a new house,” Kaline told me proudly.
But once he joined the Tigers in 1953, he was not accepted warmly.
“The veteran players on the team resented me because they thought I had taken a job away from one of their buddies,” he said. “So I pretty much kept to myself and worked hard. Pretty soon, the veterans came around.”
Kaline won a batting title two years later and then went on to lead the Tigers to the World Series title in 1968.
“It was the highlight of my career,” Al said. “But the truth is, we should have won in 1967, too. We had the best American League team.”
Kaline often said that playing baseball in the 1960s was what he enjoyed most.
“I remember that one year (1961) we changed our home jerseys and instead of having the Olde English D on the front, we had the word Tigers written in script,” he said. “But (general manager) Jim Campbell grew to hate those jerseys. He had them all burned after the season…except for one.”
I looked up after Al made the comment, “except for one.” He was grinning from ear to ear. He still had that one jersey.
And speaking of Kaline jerseys, I once purchased his 1971 wool road jersey for $600, a tidy sum back on 1979, especially on a writer’s salary. It was the pride of my collection until one day when I was setting up at a big sports memorabilia show in the Detroit area. Since, the jersey was made of wool, I wore a tee-shirt underneath.
A collector approached my table and his jaw dropped when he saw my original Kaline jersey.
“Will you sell that?” he asked.
“Only if the price is right… and I would need quite an offer,” I said, expecting him to walk away.
“Well, I’ll give you $2,500 in hundred dollar bills right now,” he countered.
Needless to say, I wore the tee-shirt the rest of the day.
Al Kaline laughed easily at my story. He loved stories like that. He also admitted that he loved the fans but tired of their constant fawning over him
“I would much rather talk about golf or fishing that my baseball career,” he said.
What was Kaline’s biggest challenge in baseball? The answer shouldn’t surprise you.
“It was switching from the playing field to the broadcast booth,” he told me. “I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and I wasn’t a very good student. So when I was asked to become a TV analyst for the Tigers, I hesitated at first.”
But a phone call from his great friend and fellow Hall of Famer George Kell changed everything.
“George did the play-by-play and he told me he would help me make the transition,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it if George wasn’t my TV partner.”
So, typically for Kaline, he worked hard to improve. He started doing crossword puzzles and getting “tough” feedback from friends. It took a few years, but he blossomed into a good analyst, not afraid of criticizing what he saw on the field.
Kaline’s long run as a Tiger analyst gave another generation a chance to learn about the man they called Mr. Tiger.
After his broadcasting career, he become an advisor to the team. In all, he spent 65 years with the organization.
But that was Al Kaline. He and his wife Louise were married shortly after he joined the Tigers in 1953. She survives him. Kaline played 22 years for one team, the Tigers.
His life was all about being loyal and decent. He didn’t like being the center of attention, of course. But the way he lived his life deserved our attention… and our admiration.
That’s why we’ll miss Mr. Tiger.
Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.