The time Al Kaline said no to a Mike Ilitch offer

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – The venerable Al Kaline stepped outside of the club’s brand new executive offices at TigerTown Saturday morning. Somehow, the postcard blue sky and 70-degree sunshine didn’t jibe with prevailing feeling of loss.

“I’ve probably known Mr. I longer than most people alive,” Kaline said, reflecting on the death of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch on Friday night. “We go way back, before he bought the Tigers.”

Kaline told a poignant story of a meeting he had with Ilitch at the infamous Machus Red Fox Restaurant in Bloomfield Township in 1975. It was a window into the character of both men and a precursor of Ilitch’s vision and tenacity.

“I think I made him really mad,” Kaline said of that first meeting. “It was back in 1975 after I had retired and he offered me a huge amount of money to play one game of softball.”

Ilitch was then the owner of a professional slow-pitch softball team, the Detroit Caesars, his first foray into sports ownership. That club would win two American Professional Slow Pitch League championships and feature of Kaline’s former teammates – Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup.

“I turned him down,” Kaline said. “He said, ‘You are turning down $10,000 to play one game?’ And that was a lot of money back in those days. I said, “Mr. Ilitch, I will never put on another uniform other than the Detroit Tigers.

“I think it made him mad but later I think he appreciated it and it’s why he hired me upstairs in the front office. Because money wasn’t a big issue, only my love for the Tigers. My loyalty to the Tigers is what it was all about.”

Kaline worked as the club’s color commentator on its television broadcasts from 1975 through 2002. Ilitch hired him as a special assistant in 2003 and the two had been together since.

“He was a great man,” Kaline said. “He was the start of getting downtown Detroit turned around. Everybody said, ‘What’s he moving his offices downtown for, my goodness?’ Detroit was terrible back then. But boy, as we see now, it’s really coming back…He was the start of it.

“I just wish we could have gotten the ultimate goal for him (world championship).”

Twitter @cmccosky