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'He will always be Mr. Tiger': Al Kaline, who spent 67 years with ballclub, dies at 85

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Al Kaline was a skinny kid from Baltimore with a face much younger-looking than his real 18 years. He had a $35,000 bonus check in his bank account, but nothing as adult as an ID in his wallet when a security guard blocked him from entering old Briggs Stadium in 1953.

He couldn't possibly have been a ballplayer, the guard thought.

For the next 67 years, Kaline was unmistakable, especially around these parts.

"He will always be 'Mr. Tiger,'" another Detroit legend, Alan Trammell, said Monday.

Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger, died Monday at the age of 85.

Kaline, who broke into the big leagues at 18, was a starter at 19, won a batting title at 20 in 1955 and then a World Series in 1968 for the pinnacle of his Hall of Fame career, died Monday at his Bloomfield Hills home. He was 85. A family friend said Kaline had recently suffered a stroke.

At an empty Comerica Park on Monday night, Kaline's picture graced the giant video board.

Generations of baseball fans, and Detroit sports fans in general, knew his face and grace and ultimately his voice. A so-called "bonus baby" out of Southern High School in Baltimore, he eventually became the first Tiger to make a $100,000 salary, and played 22 major-league seasons through 1974. He never spent a day in the minor leagues, and is one of only 10 big-leaguers ever to record 3,000 hits with a single franchise.

His first game was June 25, 1953, at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, a pinch-hit appearance. It would be nearly three months until he got his first start — wearing No. 25, not the No. 6 he adopted the following season and made familiar in a Hall of Fame career.

"It was a dog-eat-dog world back then among players," Kaline told The News in 2014. "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."

By 1955, his second full season, Kaline would become the youngest player ever to win an American League batting championship, hitting .340. The other 20-year-old to do it: another Tigers legend, Ty Cobb.

Kaline was among those who led Detroit to its third World Series championship in 1968, a triumph that meant more than just another trophy in a case — it also helped a city begin to heal after the riot of 1967. Kaline was the straight-laced leader on a team full of oversized personalities, like Norm Cash and Denny McLain. Oddly, those were two of his best friends on the team.

Kaline remained understated all his life, on and off the field. He never sought attention, never demanded a table at a crowded restaurant.

Ten years ago, on a flight from Florida to Detroit, someone recognized him and said, "It was an honor being on the airplane with you.”

Kaline didn’t understand why. "I still get a little embarrassed by it,” he said.

Always humble, he also never thought he was worth the six-figure salary he was given in December 1971.

But adulation and riches came with the territory of entertaining avid baseball fans for more than two decades on the field, and a whole lot more off it. Kaline finished with 3,007 hits, 399 home runs and a .297 batting average, leading the league in 1955 with 200 hits. Kaline would have reached 400 home runs if not for one hit during a game that eventually was rained out. He made 18 All-Star Games, including 13 in a row.

He remains the franchise leader in home runs, games played (2,834), walks (1,277) and sacrifice flies (104).

He was embarrassed to strike out, which means he blushed 1,020 times in his career. It bothered him that striking out became acceptable in today's game.

More:Al Kaline's accomplishments on the diamond were many

"I have always referred to Al Kaline as 'Mister Perfection,’” the late Tigers manager Billy Martin once said. “He does it all — hitting, fielding, running, throwing — and he does it with that extra touch of brilliancy that marks him as a super ballplayer.”

Kaline also was an outstanding right fielder, with a strong right arm, winning 10 Gold Gloves. He was considered the gold standard in right, along with Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente.

At 19, on July 7, 1954, Kaline threw out a White Sox runner in three consecutive innings.

Al Kaline of the Detroit Tigers hits his 3,000th hit of his career, Sept 25, 1974, in Baltimore. The hit came off Orioles Dave McNally and enabled Kaline to become the 12 player in major league baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. Baltimore catcher is Andy Etchebarren.

“Kaline keeps making the kinds of plays we haven’t seen in right field in years,” The Detroit News quoted the Tigers’ manager Fred Hutchinson, afterward.

“That was a fair day,” said the always-understated Kaline. "Real fair. I liked it.”

His career, already legendary, was especially amazing considering at age 8, Kaline developed osteomyelitis and had a section of bone removed from his left foot. The surgery left him with a significant, permanent deformity.

Kaline was a notorious worker at his craft. His pregame defensive drills, which he undertook in the outfield before each batting practice and every game, were legendary. Few fans saw anything but the very end of them as the gates of Briggs and, later, Tiger Stadium were opened. After long minutes of shagging flies, Kaline ran through each game situation: varying the outs, runners on different bases, while fielding fly balls in front of him and behind him, base hits forward and to the gaps.

Right field at Tiger Stadium was known as Kaline's Corner until the ballpark closed in 1999.

"You can’t always get a hit," Kaline once said in an interview with The News, "but there’s no reason you can’t be a good outfielder every day."

In 1980, his first year eligible, Kaline was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, with 88.3% of the vote. Only Kaline, Hank Greenberg, Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, Mickey Cochrane and Cobb were elected by the writers, as Tigers, to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kaline was the last.

Kaline's induction speech came in at under 10 minutes, no surprise to those who knew him.

Kaline traveled back to Cooperstown, N.Y. every summer for the induction ceremonies, including in 2018, to watch Tigers greats Trammell and Jack Morris be enshrined.

“Al Kaline brought such dignity and grace to our game, and to the Hall of Fame," said Jane Forbes Clark, chair of the Hall of Fame. "Every new generation of Hall of Fame members were in awe of Al, not only as the player he was, but also as the true gentleman that he was. He will be missed throughout the game — and honored forever at the Hall of Fame."

In 1978, Kaline entered the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

By almost all statistical measures, Kaline is widely is considered the second-best Tiger ever, behind Cobb, with Miguel Cabrera closing fast.

“I owe everything to baseball,” Kaline once said. “Without it, I’d probably be a bum.”

And the Tigers, for sure, would've been way worse off. In all, he spent 67 years with the franchise, spanning two World Series (one as a player, another as a broadcaster), and into the franchise's resurgence, which began in 2006. He was immensely proud of that latest group.

"Baseball lost a titan," said Christopher Ilitch, chairman and CEO of the Tigers, noting the special relationship his parents, Mike and Marian, had with Kaline. "His dedication to Detroit was unparalleled."

Fans from all kinds of circles mourned Monday.

"You're up there tossing the ball around with Cobb and Greenberg now," Jack White, a Detroit rocker and avid baseball fan, wrote on Instagram.

Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe grew up in Ohio, but idolized Kaline. The two would become friends later in life.

"I told everyone I was going to be him," Kampe said of his youth. "Being able to get to know him in my adult life as someone I considered a friend was one of the biggest privileges of my life.

"I've never met a more humble and kind person than Al."

James Blanchard, former governor of Michigan, once got to take some swings in Lakeland in the 1980s, and Kaline pitched to him. It was a dream come true for a kid who grew up in Metro Detroit.

"Every Tiger fan in the 1950s and '60s and beyond admired him and every boy who played the sport wanted to be him and see him," Blanchard told The News. "I used to ride my bike from Ferndale out to Oak Park where he once lived to try to catch a glimpse of Al. He meant so much to all of us."

Kaline's lasting impressions went far beyond just baseball, and far beyond dignitaries.

Scott Storbeck, a chef at Comerica Park and at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, made Kaline breakfast one day last month. Kaline, typical fashion, was the only in the dining room.

"When he finished, he came over and asked me, 'Is there anything I can do for you?'" Storbeck said. "I was more than a little taken aback, and not sure what he meant. I said, 'No sir, Mr Kaline, I’m fine. Thank you.' He said, 'Well, how about an autographed ball?' He signed it, put his arm around me and said, 'Thank you for everything you do around here.' He was the best."

Kaline's No. 6 is among nine Tigers with their numbers retired (well technically eight, since they didn't wear numbers in Cobb's day), and he is one of six men to have a statue at Comerica Park.

The year after he retired, Kaline made the surprisingly leap to Tigers television. He had a shy reputation during his playing days and beyond — that's why while he signed plenty of autographs, he didn't much enjoy that, because the attention just made him uncomfortable. He was more comfortable in intimate settings, one-on-one with young players, dinners for two or four — but working alongside another former Tigers Hall of Famer, George Kell, eventually brought him out of his shell, and exposed Kaline's personality, at least on the air. Turns out, he was actually funny. Kell and Kaline, or George and Al as fans called them, worked together for multiple decades, with Kaline doing Tigers TV until 2002 — even as they just missed each other on the field, with Kell's last season in Detroit 1952, and Kaline's first 1953.

Al Kaline, left, and Kirk Gibson in the FSD booth at Comerica Park.

"George took me under his wing," Kaline once said. "He made it seem like a conversation."

If Kell was the Johnny Carson in their pairing, Kaline was Ed McMahon. They worked together for more than 20 years, until Kell retired after 1996.

Kaline did TV through 2002.

"He was one of the classiest men I ever met," Rod Allen wrote on Facebook on Monday.

Allen followed Kaline on Tigers TV and, and the Allen-Mario Impemba duo was the only one to call more Tigers games on television than Kell and Kaline.

Kaline also had been a longtime adviser to the Tigers' front office, as special assistant to both general managers Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila. He often was spotted in uniform at Tigers spring training. It wasn't just a token role to collect a hefty paycheck. Kaline was heavily involved in key front-office meetings, Dombrowski said.

Kaline had long been a regular in the Tigers' clubhouse, with a locker, and the players, young and old, gravitated toward him. He usually was holding a coffee, and sometimes reading the newspaper.

All the players called him Mr. Kaline, and he was an ever-present and willing sounding board, especially for young players, on the back fields in Lakeland.

"As a young player with the Tigers, I came to understand the depth of Al Kaline's connection to the baseball community and the city of Detroit," said Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association. "He set a standard of excellence with his achievements on the field. But those of us who considered him a mentor will remember him equally for his class, humility and generosity of spirit."

Four of the most prominent faces and voices of Tigers baseball since the 1960s — Kaline, Sparky Anderson (2010), Ernie Harwell (2010) and Kell (2009) — are now all gone.

"Many of us who are fortunate enough to work in baseball have our short lists of the players who mean the most to us," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said.

"Al Kaline was one of those players for me and countless others."

Outside of baseball, Kaline was an avid golfer, and a member at Oakland Hills Country Club, and in recent years he could often shoot his age or better. Kaline was a single-digit handicap well into his 70s, an incredible feat given Oakland Hills remains among the nation's toughest tracks.

"He could drop 72 on you anytime," said Kampe, a fellow member.

Kaline, born Albert William in Baltimore in 1934, is survived by wife Louise, his high-school sweetheart, sons Mark and Michael, and four grandchildren. One grandson, Colin, played professionally in the Tigers' system and was head coach at Oakland University until recently stepping down. Al was a semi-regular at Oakland practices and games during Colin's tenure.

Funeral arrangements are pending, though any large gathering, public, private or both, won't happen for weeks if not months, because of the coronavirus pandemic limiting large gatherings.

Gregg Krupa contributed to this report.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984