At the corner of Michigan and Trumball Streets in Detroit stands a nice, new Police Athletic League baseball field. Its cheerful astroturf spreads out over a rebuilding neighborhood, taking up a fraction of what it replaced, the old Tiger Stadium.
Once a summer in the 1960’s, my dad would load up a few of us kids and his own dad to travel from our home in Indiana to a Major League game in the overgrown city. I remember the largeness of it, the old wooden seats and stairs, and the popcorn smell. But most of all, I remember the names of the players. Willie Horton, Bill Freehan. Mickey Lolich. Rocky Colavito (loved to roll that one around on my tongue). Norm Cash, Dick McCauliffe, and Don Wert. But always, always, there was one we looked forward to cheering for the most: Al Kaline.
Albert William Kaline joined the Tiger organization straight out of his Baltimore high school in 1953, and never left. Two years later he was the youngest player to win the American League batting title. A right fielder, he played in the All-Star game 15 times, won 10 Golden Glove Awards and was elected into the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible, 1980. He played 22 seasons before retiring.
I guess what made Kaline, who passed away at age 85 last week, the hero to us was what a good guy he was. “I’ve always served baseball to the best of my ability,” he said. “Never have I deliberately done anything to discredit the game, the Tigers, or my family.” He didn’t have to tell us that, though. We knew.
Brooks Robinson said Kaline was the best all-around player he ever faced. The Detroit Free Press echoed that “he was a living monument of how gracefully baseball could be played.”
His #6 jersey was the first to be retired by the ball club. Wearing it he had racked up 3,007 hits and 399 home runs. In all, he scored over 1600 runs and drove in about as many. He was a consistent defensive player in the outfield.
It was a racially dishevilled Detroit in 1968 when they played in the World Series. Al had broken his arm that summer, and didn’t think he deserved to be in the lineup — but how could fans be denied a part for their favorite Tiger? And they beat St. Louis for the title.
He stayed with Detroit as a television and a radio announcer, side-by-side with George Kell and Ernie Harwell. Many warm Saturdays I would open the front screen door to the sight of my dad listening to them broadcast a game as he washed the car.
In 2018 there was a 50th Anniversary celebration at Comerica Park for the great 1968 team. My uncle, cousin, brother and I sat in “Kaline’s Corner” to see and hear the old players again.
It was just as exciting as it was in the 60s. Heroes are heroes. Al Kaline was a gift, another star to look up at. While readers may revere different baseball players, I, along with Mitch Albom and Jim Price, will always remember Mr. Tiger.
Information from AP reports and the Detroit Free Press.