Detroit — Only a special few of us in my generation could hit the curveball.
I could never hit it.
Al Kaline could.
So I did the next best thing. I became a sportswriter. And I admired the guys who could hit the curveball.
Al Kaline could hit anything the pitchers of the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s threw. Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, the finest of his era.
In Major League Baseball then — and I suppose even now — there is in expression about the rarest of rare: “A five-tool ballplayer.”
Al Kaline, who died Monday, was a five-tool player.
He could hit for average.
He could hit with power.
He could field.
He could throw.
He could run.
Kaline, and his contemporaries — Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Henry Aaron, Mickey Mantle — played the game with the five special skills.
Al stood among them, in the same class. And he was Detroit’s. He was ours.
He was a young veteran when this wet-eared sportswriter came along with a fiery ambition and a yearning to cover a ballgame.
It happened in 1958, my first game as a still-novice sportswriter with the Associated Press. A Saturday afternoon, June 21, assigned to cover the Tigers vs. the Yankees at Briggs Stadium because the AP’s main sports-writing guys were covering a golf tournament at Red Run.
I went to the ballpark full of vigor and vim, my first genuine game after an aborted game — also a memorable story — the previous season. I lugged my typewriter plus scorebook, notebooks, pens — the tools of my trade up the elevator to the pressbox atop Briggs Stadium.
Finally, for me, my first game, full of awe.
Vintage Al Kaline!
“My memory of my first game as a writer is so vivid,” I told Kaline in a flashback conversation a few years ago in the pressbox at Comerica Park.
We were gray wrinklies.
“You threw out a guy at the plate, and hit a home run, and the Tigers beat the Yankees, 1-0,” I said.
“I don’t remember that game,” he said.
He hit the home run off Duke Maas to left field in the fourth inning. Then in the sixth he threw out Maas at the plate — Kaline to Red Wilson on a single to right by Mantle, his career rival. And Frank Lary — the Tigers’ noted Yankees-killer — pitched a complete shutout game for his eighth victory of that season.
The memories of the home run and the throw to the plate remain bright — Baseball Reference confirmed the date, the innings, the identity of Maas and Mantle’s single to right.
The homer that wasn’t
Kaline retired with 399 home runs. But it could have — should have — been 400.
It occurred in the postponed game on a dark, grim, moist June Sunday in 1957, Tigers vs. the White Sox.
“You know, you should have had 400 home runs,” I mentioned to Kaline in one of my reminiscences at Comerica Park.
“You did it in what was supposed to be the first game I ever covered.”
Kaline hit the home run through the raindrops and the grisly light in an early at-bat. It was a drive into the right-field seats, lower deck.
And the rain came down in torrents.
The home run, the records, and the ballgame itself — what I expected to be my first — were washed out. It did not go the required 4 1/2 innings.
It was as though it never happened.
“I don’t remember that game,” Kaline said. “I forgot about it.”
I never did. I carried the two-paragraph AP clipping about that game in my wallet for years.
Kaline played baseball with dignity and style. His quiet demeanor robbed him of deserved national recognition. Yet there was a below-the-surface rivalry with Mantle. To me, they were ballplayers of similar stature.
And there was the vital factor during the 1950s and through most of the 1960s that Kaline had never played in a World Series with all its glory.
Jealous? I asked him one day at his corner double locker after I had switched to The Detroit News from my AP journalism roots.
“Not jealous,” Kaline answered, with all his dignity obvious in the response.
A champion at last
The Yankees’ dynasty had faded by 1968, Mantle’s last season. And Kaline had been injured most of that season as the Tigers dominated — at last — in baseball’s last genuine pennant race.
It was mid-September when the Yankees arrived in Detroit with the Tigers ready to clinch.
Kaline was still in rehabilitation mode. But Mayo Smith, the manager, was developing a secret plan for the World Series.
On the night of Sept. 17, with Tiger Stadium jammed and full of hope, the Tigers were tied 1-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Yankees.
Mayo, maneuvering, sent Kaline up as a pinch-hitter for Norm Cash. Kaline worked a walk, Bill Freehan drove him to third with a single. Gates Brown walked to load the bases.
And up came, Don Wert. Wert flipped a single close to the right field line — and Al Kaline pranced him with the winning run.
The Tigers had won their first pennant in 23 years. The ballpark — and the entire town — was a scene of bedlam.
“I knew before I came to the ballpark tonight that I would do something to help win the pennant,” Kaline told me in the clinching aftermath.
A day or two later, Smith revealed his secret to a pack of us.
“Kaline has to play in the World Series,” Mayo started in his ho-hum voice.
So Mickey Stanley would move from center field to shortstop and Jim Northrup, who had been playing right, would switch to center. Kaline would reclaim his turf in right.
Al batted .379 in that World Series. He hit two home runs. And after the Tigers had managed to beat Bob Gibson in the historic seventh game, he quietly stood away from the pandemonium in the clubhouse in St. Louis.
He had a soft smile on his face. He held his own bottle of champagne, an observer as he watched Denny McLain and Dick McAuliffe and his teammates spray champagne around the room.
He had played in a World Series and had starred. He was a World Series champion. It was his moment of satisfaction. He was never the kind of athlete who would frolic in a clubhouse champagne celebration.
He took a sip of his champagne and offered me a swig. I took just a tiny swallow and watched the scene with him.
And now they are all gone — Detroit’s wondrous champions from a long-ago era.
Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Bobby Layne and Al Kaline — all joined — as the precious Detroit memories live on.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.