DETROIT — Al Kaline, who broke into the major leagues with the Tigers as such a fresh-faced 19-year-old that ballpark security didn’t actually believe he was a player, and then went on to a Hall-of-Fame career amid six decades in professional baseball, has died. He was 85.
A family friend and a family member confirmed to The News that he died Monday. Kaline, according to the family friend, had recently suffered a stroke.
Generations of fans knew him as “Mr. Tiger,” as Kaline played 22 seasons in MLB, all with Detroit, from 1953, after he was signed for $35,000, out of Southern High School in Baltimore, through 1974.
His first game was June 25, 1953, at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, as he made a pinch-hit appearances. It would nearly three months until he got his first start.
“It was a dog-eat-dog world back then among players,” Kaline told The News in 2014. “When I first joined the team, I was looked down on, because I was an 18-year-old kid taking a veteran’s job away from him.
“So a lot of guys were thinking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ It’s true, I had a guy grab me my first day in uniform, saying he didn’t want me around.”
By 1955, his second full season, Kaline would become the youngest player ever to win an American League batting championship, hitting .340. The other 20-year-old to do it: another Tigers legend, Ty Cobb.
Kaline played 22 years, along the way helping lead Detroit to its third World Series championship, in 1968, helping a city heal after the notorious riots of 1967. Kaline was the straight-laced star on a team full of oversized personalities, like Norm Cash and Denny McLain.
He finished with 3,007 hits, 399 home runs and a .297 batting average, leading the league in 1955 with 200 hits. Kaline would’ve had 400 home runs if not for one hit during a game that eventually was rained out. He made 18 All-Star Games, including 13 in a row at one point.
He remains the franchise leader in home runs, games played (2,834), walks (1,277) and sacrifice flies (104).
“I have always referred to Al Kaline as ‘Mister Perfection,’” the late Tigers manager Billy Martin once told a reporter. “He does it all — hitting, fielding, running, throwing — and he does it with that extra touch of brilliancy that marks him as a super ballplayer.”
Kaline also was a prolific right fielder, with a strong right arm, winning 10 Gold Gloves. He was considered the gold standard in right, along with Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente.
At 19, on July 7, 1954, Kaline threw out three White Sox runners in three consecutive innings.
“Kaline keeps making the kinds of plays we haven’t seen in right field in years,” The Detroit News quoted the Tigers’ manager Fred Hutchinson, afterward.
“That was a fair day,” said the always-understated Kaline. “Real fair. I liked it.”
In 1980, his first year eligible, Kaline was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, with 88.3% of the vote. Only Kaline, Hank Greenberg, Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane and Cobb were elected by the writers, as Tigers, to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kaline was the last.
Kaline’s induction speech came in at under 10 minutes, no surprise to those who knew him.
“He will always be ‘Mr. Tiger,’” another Detroit legend, Alan Trammell, said Monday.
Kaline traveled back to Cooperstown every summer for the induction ceremonies, including in 2018, to watch Tigers greats Trammell and Jack Morris be enshrined.
Statistically, Kaline is widely is considered the second-best Tiger ever, behind Cobb, with Miguel Cabrera closing fast.
Kaline’s No. 6 is among nine Tigers with their numbers retired (well technically eight, since they didn’t wear numbers in Cobb’s day), and he is one of six men to have a statue at Comerica Park.
The year after he retired, Kaline made the surprisingly leap to Tigers television. He had a shy reputation during his playing days, but working alongside another former Tigers Hall of Famer, George Kell, eventually brought out the character in Kaline’s personality. Kell and Kaline, or George and Al as fans called them, worked together for multiple decades, with Kaline doing Tigers TV until 2002.
“George took me under his wing,” Kaline once said. “He made it seem like a conversation.”
Kell often provided the comedy, Kaline again was the straight man. If Kell was Johnny Carson, then Kaline was Ed McMahon. Kaline and Kell worked TV together for more than 20 years, until Kell retired after 1996.
Kaline also had been a longtime adviser to the Tigers’ front office, as special assistant to both general managers Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila. He often was spotted in uniform at Tigers spring training. It wasn’t just a token role to collect a hefty pay check, either. Kaline was heavily involved in key front-office meetings, Dombrowski said.
Kaline long has been a regular in the Tigers’ clubhouse, with a locker, and the players, young and old, gravitated toward him.
Four of the most prominent faces and voices of Tigers baseball since the 1960s — Kaline, Sparky Anderson (2010), Ernie Harwell (2010) and Kell (2009) — are now all gone.