We used honorifics because they earned them. They’d earned our respect, and they’d kept it. Treasured it, really, in the way they carried themselves as sports icons in Detroit.
There was Mr. Hockey, and then there was Mr. Tiger. Now they’re both gone, and it’s impossible to describe exactly what that loss feels like for generations of fans in a city and a region that held them in such reverence.
Gordie Howe died four years ago at the age of 88. And now with Al Kaline’s passing Monday at his home in Bloomfield Hills the age of 85, we’re left to mourn the loss of another sports star who was a legend here — "Baseball lost a titan today," Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch said — for reasons that went far beyond his Hall of Fame talents.
Reasons that Kaline probably explained as well as anyone could back in 2016 when he paid his respects at Howe’s public visitation and funeral.
Kaline recalled the first time he’d met Howe, the soft-spoken Saskatchewan farm boy who’d already become a champion in Detroit, leading the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup titles in the early 1950s.
Kaline had made a name for himself by that point, too, becoming the youngest player ever to win an American League batting title when he hit .340 as a 20-year-old outfielder in 1955. And it was only then, he said, that the son of a Baltimore broom maker finally felt comfortable enough to buy himself a house in Detroit and live here year-round.
"I’d just won the batting title, so I figured I'd be with Detroit a few years before they got rid of me," Kaline joked.
But that meant he was here for hockey season, and the night he went to his first Red Wings game at the Olympia, he was with Frank Harlan, a mutual friend of both Kaline and Howe. After the game, they all went out for a meal at Carl’s Chop House, “and we became very friendly after that,” Kaline said.
Lots of dinners. Lots of golf at Plum Hollow, though Kaline was just a novice on the links at the time. (He’d later become a regular at Oakland Hills Country Club.)
But what struck Kaline most about Howe back then is the same thing you hear everyone saying now about him.
“What got me was how great he was off the ice — around people, around kids — and he never turned people down,” Kaline recalled. "He was always friendly to them. And that, to me, was why the people in Detroit and the people in hockey and everywhere love Gordie Howe. Because not only what he gave you on the ice but what he gave you off the ice. He was just a super person."
Scores of similar sentiments were being shared about Kaline on Monday, as news spread of his death. An outpouring of emotional tributes came from current and former Tigers players and managers, all of them touching on the same themes: A man’s grace and caring nature, his genuine friendship and his thoughtful advice.
But as with Howe, it wasn’t just those who knew him well or worked closely with him who were feeling such a personal loss.
No, with a star like this, the ties run much deeper than that. And it’s something you could hear in the voice of former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard over the phone early Monday evening, talking about his own childhood memories of baseball in the 1950s when Kaline was Detroit’s “shining light.”
“We identified with him first, because not only was he a star, he was young,” Blanchard, 77, said. “I mean, we were in grade school and high school and he’s not that much older than us.”
Sure, Blanchard remembers that batting title in ’55 — 200 hits at age 20? — and the annual All-Star appearances — 18 in all — and more home runs (399) than any other player in a Tigers uniform. Who doesn't in Detroit, right? He remembers the night in August 1954 when Kaline, who’d go on to win 10 Gold Glove awards, missed a diving catch in right field at then-Briggs Stadium but still managed to throw out the Indians’ Dale Mitchell at second base from the seat of his pants.
But he also remembers heading out the door at his family’s house in Ferndale, hopping on his bicycle and riding over to Oak Park, hoping to catch a glimpse of his hero after reading a story in the newspaper that mentioned the Tigers’ star had moved there.
“I idolized him,” Blanchard said. “In those days, players played for one team forever. They didn’t move around. So, he just … he meant so much to everybody.”
As did Howe before him, and Steve Yzerman a generation later. All three showed up here at age 18 — shy, quiet and unsure. But all three quickly ingratiated themselves with Detroit, and the city embraced them in return like native sons.
Kaline, who’d grown up in a row house in South Baltimore, signed with the Tigers the day after he graduated high school. But he never played a game in the minor leagues. Instead, he played 2,834 regular-season games in the majors, all of them wearing the Olde English D.
Kaline was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, and had his No. 6 jersey retired that same year. But much like Howe, he never cared to flash his credentials, greeting strangers like friends, kids like grown-ups, and starry-eyed minor-leaguers like a teammate. As Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris put it Monday, "He garnered respect that he never assumed."
And he never left, either, staying with the organization after he retired in 1974, first as a broadcaster for nearly two decades and then as a special assistant in the front office, often going out of his way to work with young players. A link to the past, but also a reminder to stay humble.
“In this game you know there's always someone who's gonna be better than you,” Kaline told The News in a 2015 interview. “There's always someone better, there's someone richer, poorer, stronger, weaker.
"My journey, to me, was unbelievable. I loved it. All the time during those years in Baltimore, living in that row house, all I ever wanted to be was just a baseball player.”
To hear Blanchard talk, all he ever wanted to was to meet the man. Many years later, he finally got that chance while serving as Michigan’s governor. Blanchard was a regular visitor at Tiger Stadium, and he’d make a point to stop by the broadcast booth, where he and George Kell would occasionally bore Kaline with their discussions about politics.
Blanchard also visited the Tigers in Lakeland when he could, and one year then-Tigers owner Tom Monaghan handed him his own Tigers uniform and invited him to take some batting practice off an automated pitching machine. After a few swings — and misses — a voice piped up from behind the batting cage.
“Mr. Kaline came by and said, ‘Here, let me make it a little easier for you,’” Blanchard said, almost cackling at the memory now.
Next thing he knew, there was Mr. Tiger on the pitcher’s mound throwing live batting practice to that kid from Ferndale riding his bike in search of his idol.
"He got all these accolades and honors and all the things that any baseball player would want to achieve — World Series, Hall of Fame," Blanchard said. "But I don’t think he ever really, really understood how much he meant to all of us little kids running around the playgrounds and ball fields of Michigan. I don’t think he ever could fathom that. But we’ll always remember him, that’s for sure."