A fan's tale: Even in charity golf tournaments, Al Kaline's competitive spirit shined through

Joe Palamara
Special to The Detroit News

Editor's note: Tigers legend Al Kaline died April 6 at the age of 85. Today, one Tigers fan, Joe Palamara of Grosse Ile, shares a special memory of his truly memorable encounter with "Mr. Tiger." 

I remember getting the phone call on a warm Sunday evening in July 1991. My best friend, Jim Epolito, then a vice president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, called to say his big boss, BCBSM president and CEO Richard Whitmer (the father of current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and himself a very good golfer) had just notified Jim he was not going to be able to play in the next day's charity golf outing, and that Jim had a last-minute slot to fill in the next day's scramble.

From left, Jim Epolito, Tim McGuire, Al Kaline, Jack Pitts and Joe Palamara at the 1991 Motor City Golf Classic.

Jim wanted to know if I was available to join him and his group at an event called "The Motor City Classic" at Meadowbrook Country Club in Northville. The outing was a benefit for Sparky Anderson's CATCH charity. Before Jim had a chance to change his mind, and think of a better person to plug in that last spot, my answer was an enthusiastic, "YES."  I would be thrilled to join Jim, and friends Tim McGuire and Jack Pitts. Any day you can play golf, and call it work, at least in your own mind, is a day to be cherished.

Little did I know what I was in for.

We all arrived early at Meadowbrook, and were told that because at the previous year's same event, when BCBSM did not have a celebrity play in their group in 1990, that the CATCH organizers were going to "make it up" to The Blues as a sign of appreciation. Just before the siren went off signaling the start of the scramble, while the four of us were waiting to tee off on our first hole, and waiting to see if we'd actually get a celebrity to round out our fivesome. A cart with only one man in it, wearing a light purple shirt and white pants, came pulling up to the tee box with a genteelness and familiar smile.

"Hi guys — I'm your fifth today." He exited his golf cart, reached out his hand to shake ours, and even though this was the most classic case of a man needing no introduction, he nevertheless very humbly introduced himself to us. "I'm Al Kaline," he said. Al could sense how excited and downright giddy all of us were, and after shaking all our hands and asking our names, he attempted to ease our jitters of playing golf with him, this living legend of a man, in this legendary golf tournament. Al went on to say, "I know the typical thing for me to say is, 'Let's just have fun today.' That's not my approach guys. I know we're gonna have fun. I'm a fairly competitive guy, so let's just see if we can go out and win this doggone thing today!"

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In a weird and simultaneous way, Al could not have delivered a more calming and yet inspiring pep talk. Al asked about the level of our play, and since Timmy, Jimmy and I were all "B" players, and Jack was an "A" player, Al determined our "batting order." He didn't care what order the B players hit in, we would go first through third, Jack would hit fourth, and Al would hit anchor. The only proviso was, if we made a birdie on our first hole, we'd keep the same batting order. Al knew, and rightly invoked, that unwritten rule of playing in a golf scramble: Never change up a successful lineup. To say we started out hot was an understatement. We birdied our first three holes, and all of us had made contributions early. We followed that up with birdies on Nos. 4, 5 and 6, as well, to go 6 under after 6.

By now we were all feeling very comfortable with each other, and it was clear in everybody's eyes, maybe even Al's, that this was a day that we did not want to see end. It was about then that I asked Al Kaline a question, that in hindsight, I probably should've known the answer to. "Hey Al, I see by your bag tag, that you're a member at Oakland Hills," I said. With a nod and a smile, Al modestly replied, "Yep, nice course."  And then I asked Al the question that had me getting ribbed by our whole group for the rest of the day. "Hey Al, what's your handicap there over at Oakland Hills?" As the others leaned in, almost EF Hutton style, to listen to his answer, Al kinda shrugged, and humbly said, "I'm a 6."

"How could you not know that," was the mildest of the teasing I encountered for the next three hours. "Al's been a 6 for years!" Al smiled and was very gracious about it, and it kind of lightened our mood as our string of birdies kept piling up. We went on to birdie Nos. 7, 8 and 9 to make the turn at 9 under. Al said he didn't think he ever played on a scramble team that was 9 under after 9. The birdie train did not stop there. We went on to birdie Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 13, before finally making a par on 14. Al was certain by then that he had never opened any round of any kind with 13 straight birdies. After we parred 14, I asked Al if he wanted to change the batting order up for the 15th hole. "Heavens no!" Al quickly replied. "Let's just keep it like this until, and if, we make three straight pars." We never did. We birdied 15, made pars on both 16 and 17, before Al made birdie on his own ball on 18 in front of a large and appreciative gallery

We finished at 15 under to win by three full shots.

Al Kaline enjoyed bouncing around TigerTown in a golf cart, too.

Normally after a charity scramble, you can't wait to hit the road and get on with your evening. Not that day. As we were in the locker room showering to get ready for the dinner and the awards ceremony, Al was still quite talkative as we were all putting on our dinner clothes near where Al's locker was. "That was the best team I think I've ever played on," Al proclaimed. Timmy beat me to the punch, and wryly asked, "Even better than the '68 Tigers?" "Oh, no, no, no," Al said. "I mean the best golf scramble team." Of course, we knew what he meant, and it meant a heck of a lot to us.

After a fabulous steak dinner with Al at our table, and maybe a ginger ale or two, we were presented with five 5-by-7 photos (one for each in our group) of our team before we were presented with the winners' bounty. Someone (not me) asked Al Kaline if he'd please autograph all of our pictures. Al said he would, but only if we'd autograph his copy, as well. After all, we were a team, Al reasoned. We all proceeded to autograph the five photos. Of all the unexpected things that happened that day, that may have been the most surprising — Al Kaline asking for our autographs. What an unbelievable gesture from an unbelievably gracious man.

Sparky Anderson then presented us all with beautiful crystal picture frames for us to put our pictures in. All five of us also were given gorgeous and extra-large black and silver leather golf bags with "Motor City Classic Champions" prominently embroidered in gold on the front of the bag. Al must have liked his, too, as I saw him loading his new golf bag in his trunk before he waved goodbye to us and gave us one more thumbs-up and thanks before he left.

As I was heading to load up my own car with all my stuff — and I'm sure with a huge smile on my face — a gentleman I did not know, and was about the age (66) that I am now, called me over to his car and extended his hand to shake mind. "Young man," he said, "Congratulations. You were just able to live out my lifelong dream. You were able to play a round of golf with Al Kaline. I hope you appreciate it."  

At the time, I thought I did. It wasn't until April 6 that I realized that I really didn't fully appreciate that once in a lifetime day. I assure you, I certainly do now.