Henning: Al Kaline had unmatched grace, on and off the baseball field

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Anyone who ever saw his artistry on a baseball field recalls, immediately, the moments when Al Kaline’s skills seemed from another realm.

The high bat and crouch. The way his swing moved like a rattlesnake’s strike through the zone and tore into a pitch. The manner in which he glided across right field, locked in on a liner headed for trouble, snaring it and saving an inning and a sweating pitcher’s day, and maybe his career.

Al Kaline is pictured in 1963.

And, of course, there was the arm. That radiant right arm. How a man no bigger than Kaline could generate the velocity he unleashed on a throw to third base, or to the plate, astounded like the northern lights on a scale of natural wonders. It was always as if he were throwing darts at a bull's-eye rather than a baseball from 300 feet destined for a defender’s glove and a baserunner’s doom.

But there was another way in which, for decades beyond those during which he played immaculate baseball, that a Detroit Tigers deity separated himself, seemingly, from mortals.

It was how he handled being Al Kaline.

It was not easy, not when you think about it, not when you observed it for decades.

Al Kaline, who died Monday at age 85, was beyond the highest elevation of Detroit sports star. Bigger even than Gordie Howe, which is neither hyperbole nor any slighting of Gordie.

Kaline was the man who created sheer awe.

Each day, practically each hour of each day, he was reminded of it, at least when he appeared in public. There was sheer idolatry. People nervously would ask to shake his hand. (Count stars in the sky and you begin to approach the number of hands he shook in 67 years of Detroit baseball grandeur). How many longed simply for a few seconds when they could say they met Al Kaline?

They asked him to sign, and to sign, and to sign. And almost always he would etch his signature, as graceful and as flowing as his beautiful swing, and another life was brightened.

“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,” Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd told The News’ Chris McCosky on Monday. “He truly was the best example of what it took to wear the Olde English D, but also what it took to be a man.”

Al Kaline signs autographs for fans during spring training in 2015.

But it was not easy. Never was it easy. Not for a man who was not an attention-seeker. There was the irony to Al Kaline, as well as his most immense gift.

He preferred to be left alone in the manner we all often crave. To not be fussed over. But rather than tuck into his privacy with a don’t-bother-me edict he had every right to issue, he sensed, he understood, he had another obligation.

He had been granted too much joy playing a game he treasured. He had been blessed with too many gifts that equipped him to play baseball, that most difficult of sports, on a celestial level.

He had been paid well. He won a World Series. He won a batting championship at the incredible age of 20. He was an automatic plaque in the Hall of Fame, where he landed in 1980.

Kaline’s sense of decency, a product of those wonderful Baltimore parents, Nicholas and Naomi, would not permit selfishness.

So, thankfully, he accepted his mission. Once his elegant playing career ended in 1974, he and Louise, his wife these past 66 years, continued to live in Birmingham or Bloomfield Hills.

It was during these past decades that Kaline’s “Mr. Tiger” title, an honorarium as natural as his swing, followed him all because he unassumingly brought such aura.

He had a sheen about him, a rich handsomeness that most definitely deepened with age. It probably helped that he stayed in shape, even at age 60 and beyond.

But when he stepped casually into any setting it was as if Hollywood’s celebrity grandeur had been replicated in the person of a baseball player. It was a presence, a glow, that did not diminish no matter for how long, or how well, you knew him. 

“That’s just how he was — a consummate professional,” Tigers great Alan Trammell said.

Grace like no other

Kaline eventually moved into the broadcast booth, forging what early on was an awkward co-pilot role with George Kell, all before settling into a mode the Tigers audience came to love, all because Kaline doubled as Detroit’s smartest baseball man from the past 70 years and likewise had an impulse for candor.

He also had talents that made it difficult to see his beloved game mangled. And yet, there he was, yet into his 80s, working each spring at Tigertown with young players who took from Kaline all this wisdom, always patiently passed on, as if he were a parent as much as a baseball shaman.

It still must be processed: Kaline never played a day in the minor leagues. Granted, it was all because of a silly, then-trendy policy that forced players who got big bonuses to stick with the big-league club.

But there was nothing terribly comical about even a teenage Kaline hanging with the Tigers, even as an 18-year-old. By the time he was 19, he was playing regularly. A year later, in 1955, he won the American League batting title.

Al Kaline, celebrating his sixth decade with the Tigers organization, throws out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day in 2012.

Ted Williams knew he was different. The greatest pure hitter in baseball’s annals had thought for years that one man, and one only, could possibly do what Williams last did during a big-league season, in 1941: bat .400.

Kaline never got close to .400. But it was the extraordinary precision of his batting eye, his swing, and Kaline’s mental mastery of an opposing pitcher that drew Williams to offer young No. 6 a bow no other hitter received.

Williams knew also that Kaline didn’t scare. And there is a reality as much a part of a baseball diamond as a battlefield.

Kaline’s response to a pitch thrown at him was to pick himself from the dust, shake off the dirt, grab his bat like a Marine would claw his rifle, and send the next pitch screaming over the fence.

You did not dust him off. Not unless you were a pitcher who enjoyed the sight of a baseball crashing into the seats.

In the field, he of course, was sublime. Anyone who saw him play right field at Tiger Stadium will speak of Kaline sprinting into the right-field corner, gloving a ball that had caromed off the wall not far from the 325-foot mark. He would pivot like Fred Astaire and whistle a throw across acres of green turf and brown sand before the ball crashed into a third-baseman’s glove.

It was so seamless, so efficient, and such wizardry, the physics Kaline brought to every facet of a big-league game.

As with his hitting, his defense was as much cerebral as physical.

Joe Falls, the Detroit News sports columnist and baseball writer, had once asked Kaline why he seemed to make so many shoestring catches at cavernous old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.

 “You can’t pick up the sound of the bat on the ball as quickly there,” Kaline said, explaining why more than a right-fielder’s eyes were a part of defense on his scale.

Time to call it a career 

Kaline indeed did hear, and see, the ball Yogi Berra hit with two out in the ninth during a May game in 1962 at Yankee Stadium.

He got a Kaline-grade jump on Berra’s blooper, with the tying run ready to score and a Yankees crowd shrieking. He sprinted, dived, and caught the ball off Yankee Stadium’s grass.

He also broke his collarbone. Out six weeks. It was one of too many times in his 22-season career that he missed weeks because of a broken arm, or cheek, or finger, or whatever.

Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland, right, talks with Al Kaline, center, and Alan Trammell at Tigers spring training in 2015.

The broken finger, in 1967, no doubt cost the Tigers and Kaline, cruelly.

He had made an out late that June on a pitch he believed he should have hit so far and so hard it would have wiped out a section of seats in Tiger Stadium’s left-field upper deck.

He stomped into the dugout and threw his bat into the bat rack. His finger snapped. He missed a month. The Tigers lost the American League pennant on the regular season’s final day.

He didn’t quite forgive himself for that tantrum, although it took him only another year, as part of the Magical Mystery Tour that ended with the Tigers winning the 1968 World Series, for Kaline to get the season he and his 22 years in a Tigers uniform deserved.

The Tigers had so much talent on that ’68 team even Kaline was looking like a casualty in the years before a designated hitter became part of American League life.

Tigers manager Mayo Smith had an idea, which was more like an invitation to his execution: Kaline would play right field. Jim Northrup would move to center. Mickey Stanley, the regular Gold Glove center-fielder, would (gulp) replace Ray Oyler at shortstop.

Everyone won: the Tigers, a manager with a history-making brainstorm, and Kaline, who was to help push a Tigers team in a three-games-to-one World Series hole and help drive it to a world championship.

It was the most magnificent of moments for a team, a charter baseball city, and for an eventual Hall of Famer.

Six years later, he had decided it was time. He was 39. He had gotten that September his 3,000th hit. His last at-bat, on Oct. 2, 1974, came in the third inning of a game against the Orioles at Tiger Stadium, and that at-bat he rued until the end of his life.

It speaks to the conscience Kaline carried as a player and as a man whose baseball life constantly was reviewed by himself and by others.

That last moment became a fly-out to left. Kaline trotted into the dugout and told manager Ralph Houk: “That’s it.”

He had decided, in Kaline’s way, that there was no need to prolong what was over. Never mind that it was the third inning. There was no need to try and pull a reprise of Williams, who 14 years earlier in his final at-bat at Fenway Park had socked a homer with his last big-league swing.

Kaline regretted it, almost instantly. His sorrow centered most on the boos Ben Oglivie received when he replaced Kaline. This was something Kaline had not considered. He was also upset that some potential history hadn’t been explained. Not a single researcher, not a single statistical snoop, had informed Kaline that with one more home run he would become the first American League batter in history to have 3,000 hits and 400 homers.

Kaline’s greatest hit

Not until a few years ago, when he talked about it, almost as a cleansing, during a long clubhouse chat at Comerica Park was it clear how much that day and that moment ripped at him.

It also confirmed that Mr. Tiger could be rough on himself. Remember, this is the man who turned down a $100,000 paycheck from Tigers general manager Jim Campbell when Kaline believed he hadn’t earned it after what, in his mind, was a sub-par season.

Al Kaline is pictured in 1964.

But in the same way he never quite was comfortable with being a Detroit deity, all because of some innate humility he had to suppress, it also is true that he probably never felt that he was as exceptional as Detroit and the baseball world at-large had seen him.

But, of course, he was.

“If there is one accomplishment for which I am particularly proud it is that I’ve always served baseball to the best of my ability,” Kaline said during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

By coincidence, I spent Sunday afternoon watching via YouTube the greatest single hit Kaline delivered in a Tigers uniform.

It came in the seventh inning of Game 5 against the Cardinals at Tiger Stadium. St. Louis was up, three games to one, and needed only to win Game 5 to unleash Augie Busch’s Clydesdales as part of what would be for St. Louis a grand Cardinals World Series parade.

After one inning, the Tigers were down 3-0. They later cut the Cardinals' lead to 3-2. In the seventh, with the bases loaded, and with Tiger Stadium about to set a planetary record for tension, Kaline socked a Joe Hoerner breaking pitch to right-center for two runs and a Tigers lead that ignited the most incendiary turnaround in Detroit sports history.

Kaline did this, along with Mickey Lolich, and in concert with Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley, Bill Freehan, Jim Northrup, Dick McAuliffe, and Don Wert, et al.

But, fittingly, the moment when a team, a town, and a World Series were alchemized by one man’s exploits came courtesy of a man with No. 6 stitched on his back, and in our memory.

Al Kaline never bought completely into his greatness. He’ll leave that verdict to us, even as tears make it for a moment tough to see anything but visions of his baseball mastery.    

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.