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Kurkjian: Late HOFer Al Kaline could do everything on the diamond

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Published in Baseball
Monday, 06 April 2020 14:44

With the news of Hall of Famer Al Kaline's passing away at the age of 85 on Monday, Tim Kurkjian looks at the life of the Detroit Tigers great.

Al Kaline, at age 75, still looked elegant and regal and athletic as he pulled on his famous uniform No. 6 before a workout in spring training at TigerTown several years ago. As he sat quietly in a corner locker, virtually every Tigers player who walked by said something reverential to him because they all knew that, after Ty Cobb, this might be the best player in the club's long history in Major League Baseball.

"You know," Kaline said, smiling, when asked specifically about it, "in high school, I think I might have been a better basketball player than I was a baseball player."

Well, he must have been a great basketball player because he became one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a Hall of Fame right fielder whose talent was exceeded only by his class, integrity and leadership. In 22 seasons, all with the Detroit Tigers, Kaline batted .297 with 399 home runs -- the most by anyone in history who never hit 30 homers in a season -- and 1,583 RBIs. He recorded 3,007 hits, one of 32 members in the exclusive 3,000 hit club. He never won an MVP, but he finished second twice and had nine finishes in the top 10. He made 15 All-Star teams, including 13 years in a row. He had more walks than strikeouts, plus he never struck out more than 75 times, and only one season did he have more than 66.

"I know he was the best I ever saw here," said legendary Ernie Harwell, a Tiger play-by-play broadcaster for 42 years. "There was nothing that Al Kaline couldn't do on that field."

Right field in Detroit was always known as Kaline's Corner, and very few players in major league history ever played that position better than Kaline, especially defensively. He won 10 Gold Gloves. Only the great Roberto Clemente, with 12, won more as a right fielder. In part because of his basketball background, Kaline was a tremendous athlete, and he had great range in the outfield. And Kaline had one of the best throwing arms of all time.

"He was the best thrower in our league," said teammate Willie Horton. "Always on the money."

But money wasn't abundant for Kaline growing up in a row house in South Baltimore. His father worked in a broom factory, his mother in a whiskey distillery. Kaline decided at a young age that he wanted to be a major league player. But at age 8, he had surgery on his left foot for a chronic bone disease called osteomyelitis, which caused great pain for the first 12 years of his career and forced Kaline to run on the left side of his foot until he had another procedure done in 1965.

Nevertheless, Kaline became a two-sport star at Southern High School. He was drafted by the Tigers in 1953 and -- despite weighing just 150 pounds -- went straight from high school to the major leagues. He never played a day in the minor leagues, and two years later at age 20, weighing 175 pounds and making $9,000 a year, Kaline hit .340 to become the youngest player in major league history to win a batting title.

"We couldn't believe he was that good that soon," Mickey Mantle told me. "He was amazing."

"I remember seeing him as a kid," Ted Williams told me, "and I knew he would be a great hitter the first time I saw him. He stood in that box like a guy who was ready to hit. He had great strength in his hands, and that's something you must have to be a great hitter."

Williams was right. And in 1968, in the World Series against the Cardinals, the best came out in Kaline at the most important time. The Tigers roared back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the final three games and the World Series. Mickey Lolich was magnificent in that series, winning three games, including Games 5 and 7, but Kaline was also sensational. In seven games, he batted .379 with an OPS of 1.055, two homers, eight RBIs and great defense. He was the leader of that team in every way, especially with the way that he played.

"It didn't take long to realize he was one of the best I'd seen," said the Cardinals' Lou Brock. "We marveled at him, his defense, his arm, his hitting. And he was a fierce competitor."

Kaline retired at age 39 after the 1974 season because he wasn't the hitter he used to be and he couldn't play right field like he once did and that bothered him. But on Sept. 24 of that season, he recorded hit No. 3,000, a slicing double just inside the right-field line against the Orioles' Dave McNally at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, not far from where Kaline had grown up. Five years later, he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

"That was the greatest honor for me; it was huge,'' Kaline said.

And yet, from that batting title at age 20 all the way to Cooperstown, you would never hear Kaline talk about himself, his accomplishments, because as he once told me, "I was never comfortable doing that."

He got lost somewhat in the shadow of Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Clemente, but they knew -- everyone knew -- of Kaline's greatness.

And as he dressed in the tiny clubhouse at TigerTown, with players 50 years younger than him at the nearby lockers, Kaline talked about how much he still loved the game. He said he never begrudged young players for the money they made and the fame they achieved.

"That's because he's Al Kaline, one of the best men I've ever met," said former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson. "Every time I walk in this clubhouse and see him, my day gets better. Our players feel the same way. They know there will never be another like Al Kaline."

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