Thanks for the memories, No. 6: Fans, athletes, stars recall their own encounters with Al Kaline
Editor's note: Al Kaline, long known as "Mr. Tiger," died Monday at the age of 85. His playing career was the stuff of legends, of course, including winning a batting championship at the age of 20, collecting more than 3,000 hits, winning a World Series championship in 1968, and making the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, on the first ballot. Fans, though, have their own memories of Kaline, and have shared them with The News. These have been edited for length, clarity, and grammar.
Gael Garbarino Cullen
I was born the year you first donned the Olde English D, 1953.
As I was growing up in northwest Detroit, our warm summer evenings were defined by dinners on the screened-in back porch, BLTs and Tigers baseball on the radio. My mother, a huge Tigers fan, taught me from my earliest days the art of carefully listening to the play-by-play and envisioning each at bat, each masterful catch or disappointing strikeout by the crackle of voices emanating from our well-worn Motorola. It was always “don’t touch that dial” tuned to Tigers baseball. Not until the mid 1960s was a television occasionally added to this sacred ritual. But even then, with home games blacked out of the local TV market, Tiger baseball on the radio was still an important, even a preferred way to take in a game.
Amid this nightly, spring to fall tradition, there were many outstanding players that a kid like me could latch onto as idols. The 1968 World Series lineup alone abounded with options: Lolich, Northrup, Cash, Freehan, Horton, McAuliffe, even little third baseman Don Wert had his moments in the sun. But for me no other could claim my devotion like you did, Al Kaline. That magical season, on the heels of the devastating racial riots that tore our beloved city apart and burned much of it down just the previous year, cemented the Tigers, and you in particular, in a place of honor.
The dictionary defines a hero as one noted for “special achievements, abilities or nobility of character.” With multiple Gold Gloves, 3,000-plus career hits and an uncanny ability to deliver a well-placed single, a clutch RBI double or certainly a game-winning homer, there is no question that you had the special achievements and abilities nailed. But for a kid who grew up on a regular diet of Tiger baseball, nobility of character was the one characteristic that, for me, will always set you apart, Mr. Tiger.
It was June 6, 1980. I had moved to Milwaukee and was working as a news reporter at the flagship radio station in town. The station manager, a mentor and father-like figure to me, had recently moved on to his dream job, as vice president of broadcast operations for the Milwaukee Brewers. We had often shared baseball stories and he appreciated my devotion to my hometown team, and a certain right fielder in particular. So when he offered tickets to a Brewers-Tigers game along with a promise to introduce me to you, Al Kaline, at that point color commentator for Tiger TV games, I was over the moon.
For a 26-year-old woman who made her living interviewing city leaders, governors, even presidential candidates, I was not prepared for the shocking lack of words that overcame me when I met my hero face to face in the broadcast booth that night. I was so awe-struck that I could barely stammer out “nice to meet you,” my cheeks, I’m sure, glowing red in embarrassment. Yet, you gamely helped me through the awkwardness of the moment, turning around during commercial breaks, to ask me about myself and my love of baseball. You even managed to seem genuinely amused by the fact that I had named my dog Kaline and you offered to autograph my Tiger baseball cap, a cap that still holds a place of honor today amid my baseball memorabilia.
Those nine innings alone would have been enough to enshrine you as my hero. But then you, oh noble of character, casually invited me and my husband to join you for a cocktail after the game. So there we sat in your hotel lobby, chatting like old friends, about the 1968 Series, your favorite teammates and a host of other topics, the specifics of which have faded in my memory. All this I assumed would have quickly vanished from your recollection, too, but again you surprised me. Years, maybe decades later, you happened to run into my nephew’s dad, another longtime Tigers fan. When that conversation turned to the topic of mutual connections, some mention of Milwaukee came up and you recalled meeting this woman from Milwaukee who had named her dog after you.
So Al, let me now say what my awestruck self could not express 40 years ago. True, your baseball prowess is legendary. But far more impressive in my mind is your genuine nature, your total lack of ego, and your kindness to a fellow Detroiter that will live with me forever.
I made breakfast for him in Lakeland one day last month. He had come in late, and was the only one in the dining room.
When he finished, he came over and asked me, “Is there anything I can do for you?” 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?” The clubhouse boys got me a brand new ball. He signed it, put his arm around me and said, “Thank you for everything you do around here.”
He was the best.
Note: Storbeck is a chef for the Tigers, in Lakeland and at Comerica Park.
SWARTZ CREEK, MICH.
I worked as an intern in the Tigers clubhouse in 2008. Al would come into my office once or twice a week to watch golf on the huge TV in our office. At the time, his grandson Colin was about to go to college, and I had just left Central Michigan as a baseball coach, so we often would get caught up talking about college baseball, and golf. No great fireworks type of story.
But all in all, that season I probably had 10 conversations with Al, and was always blown away that he would talk to me so normally, he was so nice, knew my name, and would stop in just to say hi. I had always wondered after I left that if I bumped into him, he would remember my name.
I guess I’ll never know.
I had a good friend who interned in the broadcast department for the 2006 Tigers. The perks of having a friend with good access was cool, but with the unexpected success of that team it made it even better.
My story of meeting Al Kaline starts by taking my friend to the Lions game on Sunday, Sept. 24 (Lost 31-24 to the Packers, as usual). After the game, he gets a phone call saying that there will be a get-together at the airport hangar when the Tigers land from Kansas City (after they had clinched a spot in the playoffs), and one immediate family member can attend, so as a thank you for the Lions ticket, he tells me that I'm going to be his brother for this event.
We look nothing alike, there is no way we could pass for brothers but we give it a try. We pull up and park the car and proceed to head in where his boss immediately recognizes there is no way that I'm his brother, but decides to play along.
I am completely star-stuck that I am drinking beer with the team (I'm not even 21 yet). I notice Mr. Kaline hanging out by himself and go introduce myself, and let him know that he is my dad's favorite baseball player ever and I would appreciate if I could get a picture to show my dad. He obliged and I cherish it to this day.
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. 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. It was special when we finally won the World Series in 1968 while he was still playing.
Of course baseball is different now. Today baseball’s names and faces move from team to team and city to city. Fans don’t have what we had: a loyal star, who we grew up with, and got old with, and who gave us a lifetime of memories, all in our own hometown.
Note: Blanchard is the former governor of Michigan.
Al Kaline is my hero from boyhood to this sad day and beyond.
He played the game of baseball the way it should be played with commitment and grace. In baseball and throughout his life, he demonstrated the integrity to walk his talk.
It is reassuring to know that the respect he earned as a ballplayer and as a man will ensure that his legacy is lasting.
Note: Selleck, an actor, is a Detroit native and diehard Tigers fan.
You might enjoy my brief Kaline story about how he ended my baseball career.
I was a kid growing up on the east side of Detroit in the early '60s and fancied myself a ballplayer, as we all did. Neither of my parents enjoyed sports, so I had never been to Tiger Stadium. I finally went with my scout troop and took my mitt so I could catch the foul ball I was sure would be hit my way. Our seats were down the first-base line and we had a great view of right field. As the game progressed, I watched players hit the ball and I said, "I can do that." I watched them field the ball and I said, "I can do that." I watched them throw the ball and I said, "I can do that." I already had my major-league career mapped out in my mind.
Late in the game, there was a runner of the opposing team on second base. The batter hit a screaming line drive into the corner in right field. All eyes turned toward Kaline, then at the peak of his powers. My jaw dropped as he ran the WRONG WAY. Then, as if there was an actor's mark in the grass, he skidded to a halt, whirled and watched the ball carom off the wall straight into his glove. He whirled again and fired toward home plate. The ball passed over first base about three feet off the ground, bounced once and then straight into the catcher's glove. The runner was out.
I quietly put my glove under my seat. "I ain't NEVER going to be able to do that."
His hitting feats got more attention, but Kaline owned right field at Tiger Stadium and, I swear, when the ball left the bat he knew where it would hit on the wall and where it would then go. Momentarily, he was playing billiards in addition to baseball. No one else could've done it.
And in all my future years at the park, no one did.
In the mid-90s, Mr. Kaline was playing golf in a Tigers golf outing at a course I lived on. On the eighth hole where I lived, I ran into the foursome that he was playing in. I say out loud to the other three golfers, "What's it like to play with the BEST right fielder to ever play the game of baseball?" He had a huge smile on his face and I offer them a beer. I then ask him to sign a bat for me. He says he will do it after the round. He says, "What condo are you in?" I say, "2297."
Never in a million years did I think he would stop by. About four hours go by, and I get a knock on my door. And standing there is none other than Al Kaline, "Mr. Tiger." I invite him in and he sees that I am a fan and an autograph collector. I told him I was at his induction in 1980 in Cooperstown.
He looked around the condo and had little stories about the pictures, jerseys and baseballs I had. It was so amazing to have him tell his stories.
Then he says to me, "Where's the bat?" I give it to him and he signs and says, "What else do you want me to sign?" He must have signed 15 things for me.
He was so gracious and will be one of the coolest things that I have ever experienced.
My Kaline story was back in 2012. I found out earlier in the day they were potentially sending Al in to Erie, Pa., to work with (former Tiger Nick) Castellanos on transitioning to the outfield. Sure enough, I walk into manager Chris Cron’s office and he was sitting in the corner. I didn’t see him right away and Cron sort of gave me a head nod and I made eye contact with Al. He immediately stood up and introduced himself to me. I was shell-shocked at first, and the whole time I was thinking, "Man, this guy who did everything possible in the game and a living legend is a great human to stand up and come introduce himself to me."
So I was just planning on dropping off whatever I needed to drop to Cron, and Al invited me to stick around and chat. He went on a bit of a rant how he hated to be the “back-in-my-day” kind of guy, but that back in his day, you were embarrassed as a hitter to strike out, and how in today’s game it was too widely an acceptable part of the game. I was in there for about a half-hour and just taken aback at what a wonderful guy he was.
Note: Gania works for the Erie SeaWolves, the Tigers' Double-A affiliate.