Al Kaline, turning 80, reflects on Hall of Fame career

Tom Gage
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's difficult to believe, but Al Kaline turns 80 next week — Dec. 19, to be exact.

He could be the youngest 80 any baseball Hall of Famer has ever been, however, in large part because he's still so passionate about the game he has always loved.

And because his input not only is sought, but also is highly valued by the Tigers.

As it should be.

"Al continues to be involved in all of our major meetings and discussions," Tigers' president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said of Kaline, one of his special assistants.

"He attends almost every home game, observes intensely and does whatever he can to help."

As for the evil aging process, Kaline has winter aches, of course. More bones creak in the cold than once was the case.

So he flees to the warmth when he can.

But in his bearing and his class, in his love for baseball and his respect for the difficulty required to play the game well, he's the same No. 6 he has always been.

Those who work with him see it. Older? Of course, he is. Kaline retired as a player 40 years ago. A large percentage of Tigers fans never saw him play.

But their moms and dads did.

Their grandparents, too.

So they've heard of the grace with which he played right field. They've been regaled with stories of his swing.

Some might even claim that Kaline never did anything wrong as a player.

And while there are those who would disagree, Kaline among them because he set the bar so high for himself, his first-ballot induction in 1980 to the Hall of Fame will forever speak of the high regard his career deserved.

Many Hall of Famers make the game look easy. Kaline was no exception.

But it wasn't entirely so for him.

For that matter, just getting started in the majors — despite the fact he won a batting title at the age of 20 — wasn't easy for him.

There was a resentful teammate, for instance, who grabbed him by the shirt in Philadelphia on Kaline's first day in a Tigers uniform and angrily asked, "What the (bleep) are you doing here?"

That's because Kaline was a bonus baby.

Kaline as bonus baby

There aren't bonus babies in major league baseball anymore, but there were when Kaline signed with the Tigers in 1953.

It was a term given those who signed for a large amount out of high school or college before there was a major league draft, but they were required to spend two years on a major league roster.

In other words, whether they were good or bad, they took someone else's job.

Kaline was one of the success stories of the era. However, many bonus babies flopped. Pitcher Tom Qualters spent two years on the Philadelphia Phillies roster, but appeared in just one game.

His ERA for the third of an inning he threw for the Phillies was 162.00

Kaline, on the other hand, made a positive impact in his first full season in the majors, but that doesn't mean his arrival was welcomed.

"It was a dog-eat-dog world back then among players," Kaline said. "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."

Fortunately for young players, that aspect of the game has changed.

"It is so much friendlier now than it ever was before," Kaline said. "The veterans take care of rookies as if they were their own kids.

"They buy them clothes, they get them shoes. Us? We got a pair of shoes and a sweatshirt from the team. That's it.

"There was no such thing as a postgame spread, either. We were given chicken broth and carrots. If you ate an ice cream bar, you had to mark your name down as owing for it."

Kaline successfully weathered those rough-and-tumble times — just as he did the closest brush to being traded.

"Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford told me one year when I got off to a bad start, I think it was 1957, that the Yankees were trying to trade for me because they were looking for a player to get on base ahead of Mantle.

"The Tigers were going to get first baseman Bill Skowron and some others in return. That's what they told me, but it never happened."

What did happen, however, was a successful switch from No. 25 to No. 6 in the second season of his career – a conversion that still serves an example of Kaline's good manners as a young player.

The great Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals was Kaline's baseball hero. Musial wore No. 6 — but when Kaline became a Tiger, outfielder Pat Mullin wore No. 6.

However, 1953 was Mullin's last year, coinciding with Kaline's first. When Mullin retired, Kaline asked him if it would be OK for him to wear his number.

Mullin said it would be and that Kaline hadn't really needed to ask him. When Mullin later served as the first base coach of the Tigers, the two became good friends.

In part, what keeps Kaline younger than his years is that he has comfortably adjusted to a changing game.

In 22 seasons as a major-league player, he made less than $1.2 million. Peanuts for today's players.

But Kaline harbors no resentment for the era in which he played.

"I was well compensated for my time," he said. "I would have liked to have played on better teams, though."

Kaline played in only two postseasons, 1968 and 1972. He was 33, and hit .379 in the World Series, when the Tigers won it all in 1968.

How different it was for players when he broke in, though.

Even after getting to the majors, Kaline worked in the off-season, serving as a less-than-effective salesman in a hometown Baltimore sporting goods store after he won the batting title for the Tigers in 1955.

"I couldn't convince anyone to buy anything," Kaline said. "I was a terrible salesman. Most of the time, I was down in the basement practicing my swing."

Not one to dote on the past, Kaline loves today's game, but acknowledges that it is different in many ways.

"I like this era, I really do," he said. "I used to be old school, but most of the new stuff has worked out, including what teams play for in the All-Star Game.

"It used to be, 'get me in, get me out' for players, but no longer because of what's now at stake (home-field advantage in the World Series)

"I like getting it right with replay, too, although I'm not really sure about the new rules regarding collisions at the plate. I know players have to be protected, but what if it's a really big game?

"I always thought catchers beat up the runners more than the other way around," Kaline said. "Thurman Munson put his shin guard right in my face one time."

It never takes long in any conversation with Kaline for the hitter within to emerge.

"Even though the pitchers are better, and throw harder, I would love to play in this era, because the strike zone is so much smaller," he said.

"You don't have to worry about a high fastball anymore — and if they throw 95 miles per hour, but it's in the middle of the plate, that's not really a big deal."

Not everything has changed entirely for the better, though.

A concern: Ticket cost

"The one thing that really concerns me about today's game — and I'll probably get some players mad at me for this — is the cost of tickets for a family of four," Kaline said.

"Families can't afford to attend many games for the prices they are. At the same time, I think players get only what they deserve — because they are the game."

The same sharpness with which Kaline still analyzes the game allows him to peer vividly into his past.

"I remember after I graduated from high school," he said, "we were at the kitchen table at my house in Baltimore, talking with (Tigers' scout) Ed Katalinas, and I almost fell off my chair when my father asked him, 'Who are the best outfielders you have in the minors?' "

Katalinas said that one of them had just hit .280, and Kaline's father quickly replied, "my son can hit .280."


"I remember saying, 'Wait a minute, Dad, they're talking about the major leagues,' " said Kaline.

"But it was a smart question to ask, because he wanted to know who would be blocking my playing time. I turned down more money from other teams who had better outfielders because I didn't want to sit and watch.

"So I signed with the Tigers for a $15,000 bonus in 1953, which was great back then. Plus (as a bonus baby), I was going to make $6,000 per year as a major leaguer."

Kaline loved the game then. He loves the game still, and the Detroit area as well.

The affection is returned in full.

"He is a legend who provides tremendous insight in almost all that we do," Dombrowski said of Kaline, who has bridged multiple generations of baseball in Detroit.

First as a player.

Then as the popular broadcast partner of George Kell — a skill Kaline awkwardly grew into, and about which he readily admits, "I was really bad when I started. I'm not ashamed to say that.

"But George took me under his wing. He made it seem like a conversation."

The good thing is there is no retirement in sight for Kaline.

He doesn't pine for the past, but when he watches, he's a young man again, taking his spot in the batter's box.

"As one of our guys goes up to hit," said Kaline, "I'm thinking I'm the hitter now. I'm in his shoes, figuring out what the pitcher is going to throw me. It's all about anticipating what's you are going to get, not guessing what you're going to get.

"There's a difference. It's one of the reasons I admire Miguel Cabrera so much. He thinks along with the pitcher.

"It's like what Ted Williams always used to say: 'I never guess. I anticipate.' "

Do the players of today revere the chance to learn from Kaline?

Actually, not. They like him, they respect him, but don't often turn to him, and he understands that.

"Most of the players I know think, 'He's old. They couldn't play in those days,' " Kaline said.

"I don't get a lot of questions, and the ones I do get, mostly come from pitchers."

Know what, though? They could play in those days. And one of those who could lived a dream.

"To this day," said Kaline, "I can't believe the life I've had. I wanted to be a baseball player — and do the one thing I was good at.

"Even now, I love it so much. If I retired, I'd just come down and watch the games anyway."

So ...

Kaline at 80? No different than at any other time of his life.

Baseball through and through.