Wojo: Al Kaline always happy to help, even a helpless player like me

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sadly, there can be no public farewell for Mr. Tiger, at least not now. Al Kaline slipped away quietly amid a global crisis, and knowing his understated manner and aversion to attention, perhaps he preferred it this way.

There aren’t many Misters left in the sports world, respected and revered enough to warrant the title. Four years ago we lost Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, and the hockey world came to Detroit to say goodbye. I assume Mr. Tiger will get a similar commemoration and celebration when it’s safe to do so, but I bet he’d think it unnecessary.

Bob Wojnowski rubbed shoulders with Mr. Tiger during a baseball fantasy camp in Florida in 1986.

For someone who looked so regal, Kaline was real, a man of simple elegance. He played, broadcast and worked for the Tigers for 67 years, right up until his passing Monday at 85. For nearly seven decades, Kaline was part of Detroit’s fabric, always around, donning the uniform and offering hitting tips at spring training, hanging out in the Comerica Park clubhouse with players of all ages.

Often while the players were relaxing on couches, scrolling through their phones, Kaline would be leaning back in a chair, thumbing through a newspaper. He could travel in all the finest circles and was a member of the finest clubs, from Oakland Hills to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but there was no pretense. Kaline proudly told people he’d never use his status for preferential treatment, not for the best table at a fancy restaurant, not for access to the elite.

He was always at Comerica Park, and every night in the third inning, the press box staff sets out bowls of ice cream. Kaline lined up like everyone else, sometimes sneaking two. He’d grab your shoulder and shake it firmly, and when he talked baseball, it wasn’t in a flowery, nostalgic way. If he was annoyed by the way the team was playing, he’d say it. It was a homespun candor that gradually emerged during his 27 years in the TV booth, mainly alongside George Kell.

He spoke, you listened

If you grew up around Detroit, as I did, you mostly knew Kaline through those wonderful broadcasts, with Kell’s Arkansas-rich cadence and Kaline’s Baltimore-bred bluntness. When Kaline retired in 1974 after 22 seasons with the Tigers, I was 13, and had missed most of his playing glory. But as with Howe, you didn’t need to see the performances to appreciate the impact.

You could tell just by reading quotes from across baseball the past couple days, from players who initially knew him only by his numbers and his No. 6, until they met him.

From Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd: “He took the time to get to know me when I was only a rookie and a stranger in the clubhouse. That kindness and genuineness wasn’t just a one-time thing, it extended every week in our clubhouse where Mr. Kaline was always talking with players, attending chapels and just hanging out with the team.”

Al Kaline watches the Tigers take batting practice at spring training in 2014.

From Miguel Cabrera on Instagram: “Mr. Kaline, you will always be in a special place in our family, one of the best human beings I’ve known in my life. I’m going to miss those baseball chats with you, my friend. Rest in peace.”

Not many in sports transcend generations so effortlessly, and Kaline did it by representing the past without belaboring it. He was reserved but could spin a humorous tale. He made a special point of reaching out to the youngest players, and was behind the batting cage in Comerica Park last June, watching then-18-year-old prospect Riley Greene take swings. Afterward, Kaline said he was impressed by Greene’s power, but even more by the kid’s polite humility.

I talked with Kaline near the end of the 2012 season, as everyone was chronicling Cabrera’s run for the Triple Crown. Kaline wasn’t one to court attention, and could glide through a press box without saying a word. At appropriate times, he’d sign plenty of autographs, but preferred smaller, more personal settings.

In Kansas City for that finale, I asked him where Cabrera ranked among the hitters he’d seen. I think he was almost embarrassed he was the one repeatedly asked to confirm Cabrera’s status, as if it wasn’t perfectly obvious.

“How many times can I say he’s the greatest I’ve ever seen in a Tiger uniform, by far?” Kaline said to me. “He’s the most feared hitter in baseball today.”

No more hyperbole was necessary, not from a man who spent a lifetime avoiding it. He famously turned down a $100,000 contract, saying he didn’t earn the raise from $95,000. He was best known for his majestic throws from rightfield and for winning the A.L. batting title at the age of 20, hitting .340 in 1955. He made 18 All-Star games but didn’t win another batting title and never hit 30 home runs in a season. He finished with 399, just under the milestone, just under the radar.

When you stay 67 years with one organization, you’re known by many, and known for many things. I spent my childhood watching the broadcasts and mimicking Kell’s reverential response after an insightful Kaline comment — “You are sooo right, Mr. Kaline.”

Fantasy time

In February of 1986, the legend became real to me. Working at Florida Today, I got to participate in the week-long Ultimate Adult Baseball Camp at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. It was a truly astonishing gathering of greatness, with 16 Hall of Famers from various franchises – Don Drysdale, Pee Wee Reese, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Hoyt Wilhelm, Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Duke Snider, Frank Robinson and Roy Campanella. And one man in a Tigers uniform, Kaline.

There were 40-year-old lawyers and 50-year-old doctors and one 24-year-old newspaper guy who was positively petrified. At the end of each day’s activities, campers and Hall-of-Famers gathered in the bar for lively baseball talk that got livelier as the beer flowed. Some guys were loud — Banks, Spahn, Drysdale, Reese — and some were serious. Kaline was serene, and legitimately seemed interested in helping me not embarrass myself.

I told him my only goal during the games was to not strike out, not even once, even though I’d be facing Koufax, Feller and Gibson. Kaline listened intently and explained how to keep my shoulder tucked in, wrists loose, don’t overswing.

By the end of the week, I hadn’t struck out, although I had popped out, grounded out and fouled out. But the instruction was working. My last at-bat was a bloop single that scored two, a dentist and a grocery-store owner, if I recall.

Kaline was the first-base coach, and as I stomped triumphantly on the bag, he slapped my hand, laughed, and said, “Hey, you did it!”

So badly — then and now — I just wanted to say, “You are sooo right Mr. Kaline.”


Twitter: @bobwojnowski