August 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Gage

In Jerry Lumpe, Al Kaline remembers fondly a great Tigers teammate, great friend

Longtime infielder Jerry Lumpe played for the Tigers from 1964 through 1967. (Detroit News)

With all due respect to the great Derek Jeter, this is a story about a Yankees player who was dying.

Not retiring.

And about the Tigers great who was his friend.

Jerry Lumpe died last week from the cancer he’d been battling for years. He was 81. The headlines of his death weren’t front page.

Neither was, for most of it, his playing career, although he certainly had his moments.

Lumpe (pronounced Lump-ee) was an infielder, not a star, but good enough to play 12 solid years in the majors.

The first three of the 12 were with the Yankees, for whom he started at third base in two World Series during the Mickey Mantle years — 1957, which they lost, and 1958, which they won.

In 1959 Lumpe was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, where he so enjoyed playing in his native Missouri he was named on some MVP ballots for hitting .301 in 1962 and for finishing second in the American League in hits with 193.

That was after he hit .293 the year before.

Before the 1964 season, Lumpe was traded to the Tigers in the deal that sent slugging Rocky Colavito to the A’s.

Colavito was the headliner of the swap, but Lumpe held up his end. He was an All-Star second baseman for the 1964 Tigers.

He was done at age 34 following the 1967 season, however, falling short of getting a World Series ring with the Tigers in 1968.

“Dad was never someone who wanted to just hang on,” his son, Jim, said, during a telephone conversation. “So he came home to do some quail hunting.”

Roomies, friends

All in all, Jerry Dean Lumpe (his middle name for his dad’s favorite player, Dizzy Dean) had a fine career — two World Series with the Yankees, a couple of outstanding seasons with the Athletics, before closing out his playing days with the Tigers — where he and Al Kaline were roommates.

Imagine that — Kaline, a Hall of Famer, having a roommate on the road for most of his career.

Baseball was different then, and so was the travel. No matter how good, players didn’t get their own rooms.

“Jerry was my last roommate,” Kaline said. “What a great guy, a really popular teammate. We became good friends.”

But even good friends can lose track of each other. Kaline became a Tigers broadcaster, Lumpe went into banking and insurance.

Hundreds of miles apart.

Despite early attempts to stay in contact, they grew apart to the point that when Lumpe’s health began to deteriorate a few years ago, Kaline did not know how to get in touch with him.

All he knew was “Jerry wasn’t doing well.”

But then came a call from Lumpe’s wife of 60 years, Vivian, to say he might not have much time remaining, and to give Kaline a number where Lumpe could be reached.

We all know how it goes with good friends. With the really good ones, you can call any time and simply pick up where you left off.

The former roommates did exactly that.

Reconnecting

In Lumpe’s final days of battling cancer, many of his baseball friends called him. Among his closest was another former Yankees player, Norm Siebern, whose best years coincided with Jerry’s with the Athletics.

“It really lifted my dad’s spirits towards the end to hear from guys he played with,” Jim Lumpe said.

But there wasn’t a call that meant more to him than the one from Kaline.

“The hospital staff was doing something with him at the time,” Jim Lumpe said. “But when Dad was told it was Al on the phone, his eyes opened wide, he composed himself, and reached for the phone, saying, ‘I’m taking that one.’ ”

“We had a really good talk,” Kaline said. “I’m just glad I got to speak with him.”

It wouldn’t have happened the next day.

Lumpe developed an infection, and slipped away.

Kaline had gotten through to him on his last day of taking calls.

You hear and read baseball careers end, but the brotherhood of baseball never does.

Case in point: No. 6 and No. 9.

To the end, and at the end, friends.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com

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