The Trials, Tribulations, and Challenges of Al Kaline
This article was written by Francis Kinlaw
This article was published in Fall 2021 Baseball Research Journal
Although Al Kaline obviously deserved the many accolades he received as an exceptional athlete with admirable personal characteristics, misconceptions have long existed regarding the severity of challenges he faced in his youth and during his 22-year professional baseball career. This article will address a litany of circumstances that he encountered and explain how he overcame most of them. Before discussing specific instances, however, the causes of those misconceptions should be identified.
Viewing Kaline’s career in retrospect, it may be observed that the stage for the troubling episodes that would occur later in his career was set in 1955 when, as a 20-year-old with a bothersome physical issue, he posted the highest batting average in the American League. As a result of that remarkable achievement, waves of compliments from baseball luminaries and scribes flowed forth and registered with people across the baseball spectrum. Those plaudits frequently included a comparison with Joe DiMaggio that would create unrealistic expectations of his potential. Immediate linkage with the legend of the Yankee Clipper, along with other premature declarations of greatness and minimization of facts that failed to fit into a storybook narrative, would adversely affect evaluations of Kaline’s performance for at least a decade as he achieved stardom but failed to win another batting title or bring a pennant to Detroit.
Consider these statements regarding Kaline’s talent and promise, all from respected sources, starting with the scout who signed him to a major-league contract:
- “He was the kind of prospect a scout sees in his dream.” — Tigers scout Ed Katalinas1
- “He was the prospect that a scout creates in his mind and then prays that someone will come along to fit the pattern.” — Katalinas2
- “Kaline, the slender but slick bonus baby from Baltimore, is the hottest item on the [Tigers’] squad…The way he is performing will make it practically impossible for (manager Fred) Hutchinson to keep him out of his outfield. Kaline has slapped out nine hits in 16 tries for a sparkling .563 average. … He is the fastest man in camp. He is an excellent fielder. His throwing arm is strong. Despite his age, his baseball savvy is sound.” — Lyall Smith, sports editor of the Detroit Free Press, March 1954 during Kaline’s first spring training with the Tigers3
- “[Kaline] can run and he can throw. Now he is proving that … he can hit. He got his 100th hit of the [1954 season] before mid-August, and that’s not bad for a youngster who one season ago was battling for his high school team in Baltimore. At 19 … he looks fragile but then so does a scalpel.” — Smith in the Free Press describing the very young prospect to readers, many of whom had yet to see him play4
- “He’s going to be one of the great right-handed hitters of baseball, if he isn’t that already.” — Ted Williams, 19555
- “Kaline is a graceful, right-handed swinger, who also is one of the best right fielders in the league. He is equipped with a fine arm, good speed, and has excellent judgment on the bases. … He joined the Tigers, upon payment of a $30,000 bonus, directly after his graduation from high school. Two and a half years later, he has reached a salary bracket that might very well match that tidy bonus.” — Hy Goldberg, journalist and editor of Who’s Who in the Big Leagues6
- “Even in the major leagues, players are conscious that there are a few who are involved in a different game, whose skill level is unattainable to most others. Kaline was one of these.” — George Cantor, Detroit Free Press7
- “At 19, [Kaline] was Detroit’s regular right fielder and acclaimed the best glove man to field that spot in Tiger history. At 20, he had led the American League in batting and was named the player of the year. … With credentials like these, Sid Keener up in Cooperstown was already dusting off a cubicle in the Hall of Fame for the slender clouter. … In style and ease of performance he is the closest approximation we have to the flawless rhythm of Joe DiMaggio on a baseball diamond.” — Murray Olderman, sports cartoonist and writer8
- “Comparisons with Joe DiMaggio…were inevitable. Both players were smooth and graceful. Both made the game look easy.” — Jim Hawkins, Detroit Free Press9
- “[Kaline] played the game so smoothly, with such class that he was the closest thing to DiMaggio that I ever saw.” — Ted Williams, 199210
- “Kaline was probably one of the best of all time. He could do it all. I thought he was another Joe DiMaggio.” — Joe DeMaestri, former major-league infielder11
- “In [the late 1950s], Kaline was as complete a player as Joe DiMaggio [had been].” — Gus Zernial, former major-league outfielder and teammate of Kaline in 1958 and 195912
- “[Kaline] … had great instincts in the outfield. He was smooth and graceful.” — Ernie Harwell13
Yearbooks published annually by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum after Kaline’s induction invariably praised the Tigers’ star as “a model of consistency who got the job done with a minimum amount of fanfare.”14 The accuracy of that statement — along with the frequent use of descriptive adjectives such as “graceful” and “smooth” regarding his style of play — resulted in cursory examinations by media sources into the difficulties he faced throughout his playing career. Rarely was Kaline’s chronic physical ailment described as clearly it was by journalists Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf when they wrote that he “played with such grace that most Tigers fans never realized he also played in pain because of a bone condition that left him with what he called ‘a constant toothache in my left foot.’”15
One prominent Detroit writer who initially misgauged Kaline’s immense talent would later admit that the term “easy” should never have been associated with Kaline’s performance. Joe Falls wrote in 1965:
I’ve seen Kaline play almost every game he has played for the Detroit Tigers, and I didn’t care too much for him in those early years. He was too good. Everything was too easy for him. He was making $30,000 before he could vote. He was a kid in a Cadillac. Nobody should have it that easy. … But as the years wore on … I began to realize what I should have realized in the beginning — that he was not the greatest player in the world, that everything was not as easy as it looked. I finally realized that Kaline had to work for what he got out of life.16
Falls would repeat his contention when Kaline was elected to the Hall of Fame, writing, “Everyone said what a nice thing it was because Kaline always made the game look so easy. It was never easy for him.”17
In 1980, author Art Hill concisely summarized the career of the Tigers’ star by writing, “Kaline … was born a star; he made himself a superstar.”18 The baseball great did so by overcoming a variety of environmental, physical, and psychological challenges with a persistence often unappreciated by those who saw him play.
POVERTY AND HEALTH CONCERNS
Fate threw punches at Kaline long before he attained legendary status on Baltimore’s sandlots and as a high school athlete, but a lack of devoted parents was not one of them. Nicholas and Naomi Kaline raised Al and his two older sisters in a row house in the working-class Westport section of Baltimore, about one mile from the current site of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.19 Both parents consistently encouraged their son’s love of baseball. The strong emotional support that Al received from his father in regard to his baseball development came naturally (his dad and his dad’s five brothers had played semipro baseball in their younger days), but the family struggled financially. Nicholas Kaline earned a meager living as a broom maker, and Naomi scrubbed floors and worked in a factory that produced pills.20 Jack Olsen of Sports Illustrated described the Kaline family as “poor, proud, and hungry” in a 1964 article.21
As his family contended with financial difficulties, Kaline himself had to deal with a troubling physical condition. At the age of eight, Kaline was diagnosed with osteomyelitis (a chronic bone disease) in his left foot. Doctors removed two inches of bone from the foot, but jagged scars and a permanent deformity unfortunately KINLAW: The Trials, Tribulations, and Challenges of Al Kaline resulted.22 Despite the procedure, two toes on his left foot remained extended and the young boy found it necessary to reduce persistent pain by shifting his weight to his toes or by running on the side of his foot.23 Periodic treatments involving X-ray therapy were required to keep the disease in check.24
By the time Kaline signed his initial baseball contract with the Tigers in June 1953, the health of his parents had also become a concern. His mother’s eyesight was failing and surgery would be required to save it,25 while his father’s condition would later be described as “never too healthy.”26 In 1955, Kaline would reveal to writer Hal Middlesworth that his dad “was not real well and neither is Mom.”27When Kaline inked that first contract with Detroit, he used the money to pay off the mortgage on his parents’ home and to pay for his mother’s operation before proceeding to move on to the next phase of his life.28
“BONUS BABY” AMONG MEN
By signing with the Detroit club upon graduation from Southern High School, the 18-year-old began a journey into major league baseball that was available to only a select group of prospects. Tigers scout Ed Katalinas had dedicated himself to signing Kaline during his high school years in the face of competing expressions of interest from the Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, and Philadelphia Phillies.29 After Katalinas convinced Tigers farm director John McHale and club president Walter O. “Spike” Briggs that Kaline would be worth the necessary financial cost, Briggs authorized a bonus payment of $15,000 as well as a $6,000 salary for the next two years.30 While the terms of this agreement did provide Kaline with badly needed cash, a “Bonus Rule” adopted by major league baseball in 1952 to restrict bidding wars for amateur players would dictate the path of his development and progression in the short term.
The Bonus Rule stipulated that any prospect signed to a bonus of $4,000 or more was required to spend his first two years in professional baseball on a major league roster.31 As promising as Kaline’s future seemed to be, several key people within the Tigers’ organization reserved judgment regarding his future as a big leaguer because bonus baby Frank House had failed to deliver positive results (to later signees, Bob Miller and Reno Bertoia, would also fail).32 McHale would later admit that the Kaline matter was approached with a five-year plan in mind: “Under the bonus arrangement we knew that we had to keep him on the roster for two years. When that period was up he could be sent out [to the minors] without bothering with waivers. We thought that it would take at least two more seasons in the minors, probably with our Triple-A club in Buffalo, before he could possibly be ready for the majors.”33
On the day of Kaline’s signing, the Tigers were in the American League’s cellar (nearly 30 games out of first-place) with a record of 15–43. The club’s front office was receiving harsh criticism from fans for a failure to acquire talented players.34 McHale would recall, “It was a tough time for us. We felt that we had to do something on the spectacular side to prove to our fans that we were hustling and trying hard to correct a bad situation.”35
Kaline played sparingly in 1953 as he began the process of adapting to life in the company of older and more experienced players. The Tigers initially evaluated Kaline as a second baseman or shortstop until the organization’s signing of infielder Reno Bertoia in late August of 1953 caused Kaline to be shifted to the outfield.36 He was pleased to receive valuable guidance from manager Fred Hutchinson and advice from veteran players. A few years later he would say, “Nobody resented my getting all that money. In fact, the two guys I beat out for a job in 1954 — Pat Mullin and Steve Souchock — were nicest to me.”37 He also gave credit to former teammate Johnny Pesky and third base coach Billy Hitchcock for helping him during the adjustment process.38
During spring training in 1954, Hutchinson confirmed that Kaline had made a good first impression and told reporters, “I’ve got to be shown that he can’t play in the big leagues right away.”39 The manager did not offer assurances that Kaline would be an everyday player but, when expected starter Souchock suffered a broken wrist while playing in the Cuban League prior to spring training, Kaline’s door of opportunity flew open.
Kaline played in 138 games in 1954 and posted a batting average of .276. Some criticism came his way for a lack of power: he homered only four times and drove in only 43 runs, and 114 of his 139 hits were singles. However, he distinguished himself in right field with solid overall fielding and by registering 16 assists with a strong and accurate arm.
He was adapting to life in the big leagues, and the stage was being set for stardom.
Kaline was a very private man playing a very prominent role in a very public profession. Bucky Harris, who succeeded Hutchinson as the Tigers’ manager prior to the 1955 season, described Kaline’s personality as “pleasant and cooperative, but extremely reticent.”40 Lyall Smith of the Detroit Free Press wrote that he was “as hard to pump for a story as a deep well with a broken handle.”41 Such opinions were reflected on a broader basis in a poll published by The Sporting News early in 1954 when writers who had covered American League teams during the 1953 season identified the young Kaline as the “Least Talkative Tiger.”42 He was extremely uncomfortable with public speaking, avoiding it whenever possible.
Jack Olsen of Sports Illustrated would write in 1964, “Talking to Kaline is like making funeral arrangements.”43 Joe Falls of the Detroit News recalled that Kaline “was surly in (his) early years. He swung a sharp bat and spoke with a sharp tongue. If you had any questions, you approached him with apprehension.”44
Others, such as the authors of an article in a 1959 publication by Sport magazine, sought to analyze the reason for Kaline’s perceived persona: “An emotionless young man with green eyes and a sallow face, Kaline may suffer from the look he has. He looks like a brooder. … He feels he should hit the ball every time he is up, and when he doesn’t he is disappointed. People see the exterior of this disappointment, the kick at the water bucket, the grumbled answer to a question, the pout that is on his face.”45
The reticence was transferred into the clubhouse. George Cantor, a long-time Detroit reporter and columnist, described Kaline as “a private man, one who remained well within himself. Friendly but always holding back some private corner. … He had no speeches to make when the clubhouse doors were closed, no inspirational messages to impart. He led by the way he played.”46 Former Tigers infielder Jake Wood has spoken similarly, referring to his teammate as “the Silent Assassin” who “didn’t say much, but displayed a fierce competitiveness on the field.”47
Despite a reluctance to share details about his life, Kaline generally maintained satisfactory relations with the press, and his status as a gentleman was never questioned.48 As one of his sport’s genuine stars, he lived up to another statement by a sportswriter who knew him well: “Kaline was special — but only in the field. Off the field, he was just another guy. A guy who couldn’t be less impressed with himself.”49
STARDOM BRINGS HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Highly motivated to excel in the major leagues while possessing a reserved personality, Kaline would quickly learn in 1955 that avoiding the limelight would be impossible. His three home runs against the Kansas City Athletics in the Tigers’ sixth game of the season nearly matched his total of four round-trippers during the 1954 season and served notice that Kaline’s efforts during the off-season to increase his strength had been successful. (He had also added 22 pounds to his previously slender frame.) By the end of April, he had recorded a 14-game hitting streak and posted a batting average of .429. Fans of the Tigers began to believe that he would avoid the fate of other young Detroit players — such as Dick Wakefield, Hoot Evers, and Johnny Groth — who had in recent years seemed primed to become stars only to have to settle for more ordinary status.50
Kaline’s onslaught continued into the summer. At the end of July he was leading the American League in batting average, hits, runs scored, runs batted in, and home runs. He did go hitless for a short time in mid-September, but he bounced out of that temporary slump on a weekend in Cleveland with six hits against a solid pitching combination of Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Ray Narleski. One week later, he secured a unique place in baseball history by becoming (with a mark of .340) the youngest player to win an American League batting title.
For Kaline, however, the euphoria of the 1955 season created the high and sometimes unrealistic expectations mentioned previously in this article. In the years that followed, he would often repeat words he spoke to Olsen in 1964: “The worst thing that happened to me in the big leagues was the start that I had. [That] put the pressure on me.”51
The burden felt by the new star can be understood by taking into account the opinions that have been cited, as well as the following:
- “He can’t miss. He’s got that extra-special look.” — Joe DiMaggio52
- “He won’t fall far short of Joe DiMaggio.” — Paul Richards, manager, Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles53
- “I will take Kaline over Mantle or any other young outfielder you can name. This kid is going down with the great ones of all time.” — Fred Hutchinson54
- “I’m disappointed when he doesn’t get a hit. He’s got me spoiled.” — Bucky Harris, Kaline’s second manager in the major leagues55
- “He seems to have absorbed five years’ experience in two. We move the ball around on him and we haven’t found a spot yet that he can’t get at.” — Casey Stengel, manager, New York Yankees56
The pressures faced by the shy 20-year-old may be summarized by referring to an unrestrained comment that appeared in a widely-read 1956 publication: “Among an illustrious collection of Tiger batting kings — Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, Heinie Manush, Charlie Gehringer, and George Kell — Kaline in 1955 became the youngest Tiger to achieve the distinction, a scant one day younger than Cobb was when he won the first of his 12 titles. With all the years stretching out before him, something approaching Cobb’s remarkable record is not beyond the realm of possibility.”57
After capturing one batting title, the emerging Tigers star was already being compared to Ty Cobb! It is no wonder that Detroit’s new hero might have, at times, considered his sudden rise in status to be unfortunate.
Kaline dealt with a long list of aches, pains, and serious injuries along his path to the Hall of Fame. His first significant injury occurred during the 1954 season when he pursued a fly ball into the right-field corner of Detroit’s Briggs Stadium and collided with a wall that protruded into the playing field. The impact had two effects: a knee injury that caused him to be hospitalized for five days, and the ordered removal of seats by Tigers president “Spike” Briggs to prevent a subsequent injury to his organization’s valuable asset.58
Two abscessed teeth were removed during spring training in 1956 and, during the regular season, he fought a virus and injured a shoulder. He was plagued in 1957 by a sore shoulder, a bad foot, and general exhaustion. His left cheekbone was fractured in mid-June of 1959 when, after hitting into an apparent double play, he was nailed in the face by Baltimore second baseman Billy Gardner’s relay throw to first base.
In 1960, a combination of an injured left knee and low blood pressure caused Kaline’s production to drop to its lowest point since 1954. (Medication was prescribed to address the latter issue.)
The most publicized and memorable injury of Kaline’s career — one that reversed the Tigers’ fortunes in a tight pennant race — occurred in Yankee Stadium on May 26, 1962, and was viewed by a national television audience. Kaline executed a tumbling, game-ending catch of an Elston Howard drive into right field with the Tigers clinging to a 2–1 lead. If the sensational catch had not been made, Hector Lopez of the Yanks (running from first base) would have almost certainly scored the tying run. The catch, however, came at an enormous cost, and a diagnosis of a fractured right collarbone led winning pitcher Hank Aguirre to lament that “we won the game and lost the season.”59 The player who had been leading the American League in RBIs and who had been tied for the home run lead the day before would remain out of action until late July.
In 1963, a knee injury suffered in late May continued to hinder Kaline throughout the season and likely curtailed his opportunity to record a second batting title. After contending with Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski for the league’s highest average, the pain in Kaline’s knee worsened in the month of September, as he batted only .254 to end the season with a .312 average. The Red Sox star batted .326 during that month — and .321 overall — to capture the honor.
The effects of osteomyelitis in Kaline’s left foot that had plagued him since childhood grew extremely bothersome in 1964 and 1965. His big toe was curled almost completely over the toe next to it, and by the end of the 1965 season — a year in which he also missed 18 games due to a pulled rib cartilage60 — the resulting pain had intensified to such a degree that surgery was again required to reset bones in the foot.61
While avoiding misery from the effects of osteomyelitis had been beyond Kaline’s control, he did bear responsibility for an impulsive act that caused a major injury during the tight 1967 American League pennant race. After striking out against Cleveland’s Sam McDowell on June 27, Kaline slammed his bat into the bat rack in the Detroit dugout and fractured a finger. He missed the next 26 games and the Tigers went on to finish the season in a second-place tie with the Minnesota Twins, one game behind Boston. Kaline regretted his uncharacteristic display of emotion: “I wanted to do so much to help the ball club … I didn’t do my job. … I was very embarrassed about the whole thing afterwards.”62 He also termed his outburst “the dumbest thing I ever did.”63
A disappointing blow of a different kind occurred in the Tigers’ world championship year of 1968 when a pitch from the Oakland Athletics’ Lew Krause broke a bone in Kaline’s right arm on May 25, sidelining him for five weeks.
Age and an accumulation of past physical activity took a toll on Kaline as he entered the final stage of his playing career. This progressive development had been observed by writer Joe Falls as early as 1967 when he wrote that the Detroit star “will play when he is tired, but the inevitable happens. It affects his play. The plain fact is that Kaline is not a very strong player and he gets tired.”64
Occasionally taking days off likely prevented serious injuries in the twilight years of Kaline’s career, but nagging injuries continued to occur. A pulled muscle in his left leg hindered his performance in 1972, and a rib problem and other ailments kept him out of action for all but 91 games in 1973.
The physical pain in which Mickey Mantle played is frequently mentioned in sports literature, and the admirable wartime service of men such as Ted Williams and Bob Feller obviously affected their baseball records significantly. In the same vein, it should be noted that Kaline missed more than 500 games during his career — more than three full seasons — and that most of those absences occurred for physical reasons.65
UNSYMPATHETIC FANS AND WRITERS
The high expectations linked to Kaline’s potential and the effects of his occasional injuries combined to produce an undesirable and perhaps unavoidable byproduct: criticism of performance. The first indication of this phenomenon became apparent as early as 1956 when Kaline’s statistics declined from “extraordinary” in 1955 to “well above average” in the following year. In the words of an article that appeared in Sport magazine, “People in Detroit expect him to become nothing less than the Tigers’ greatest outfielder since Ty Cobb.”66
This gap between what fans wanted to happen and the results that Kaline could deliver would be observed at other times during the next decade. Events during the 1964 season — when foot, ankle, and knee injuries forced Kaline to miss 17 games and appear only as a pinch hitter in eight other contests67 — demonstrated how some Tigers fans were unable to accept Kaline’s limitations. As frustration was fueled by their team’s lack of success, boos were directed at an already disappointed player.68
Developments from the 1965 season that preceded Kaline’s aforementioned foot surgery again provided evidence of a disconnect between athletic effort and public expectation. Due to an assortment of nagging injuries as well as persistent pain in his left foot, Kaline’s batting average dropped to .281 — still the highest among Detroit’s players but his lowest mark in five seasons. Some people in and around the Motor City questioned Kaline’s desire, but that group did not include a key executive in the Tigers’ front office. General manager Jim Campbell stood steadfastly on the Kaline bandwagon, having proclaimed in 1964 that he had never seen the outfielder give less than everything he had.69
For a man who remained on playing fields and in the public eye for so many years, Kaline became engaged in few contentious situations. Two instances, however, attracted unwelcome attention from the Detroit press and temporarily affected his image.
The first situation originated as a routine salary negotiation after Kaline had posted a batting average of .314, hit 27 home runs, and driven in 128 runs in 1956. With a difference of only $3,000 existing between Kaline’s requested salary of $30,000 and the Tigers’ offer,70 the bargaining process went awry in December of 1956 when Briggs (working under a new club management group headed by Fred Knorr) responded to a question at an advertising club’s luncheon in downtown Detroit by stating, “Al thinks he’s as good as Mickey Mantle and wants more money than Mantle. I don’t agree with him, and he’s not going to get it. After all, his batting average went down last year, and he didn’t lead the American League in anything. We have offered Kaline a bigger raise than he got last year, and that’s that.”71
The discord was resolved on January 29, 1957, when newly promoted player personnel director McHale invited Kaline to meet while Briggs was in Daytona Beach, Florida. The deal was closed after a short conversation between McHale and Kaline and a routine telephone call to Briggs.72
Kaline reportedly received his desired salary of $30,000 but his popularity in working-class Michigan suffered a temporary setback.73 Furthermore, the Detroit press displayed its critical side. Lee Greene of Sport magazine reported that when Kaline batted .295 in 1957, “‘I-told-you-so’ clippings began to turn up. People said that the kid wasn’t using his great skills to proper advantage. Sympathetic phrases like ‘pressing too much,’ ‘swinging too hard,’ and ‘too anxious’ gave way to quotes such as ‘spoiled by success,’ ‘less than a superstar,’ and ‘the personality of a squeezed lemon.’”74
The second controversy revolved around an investment of money rather than Kaline’s acquisition of it. The seeds of this story were planted in that same winter of 1956–57 when Kaline and hockey legend Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings accepted opportunities to join businessman Frank Carlin in an automobile parts design business called the Michigan Automotive Products Corporation — also known as Mapco. Kaline was officially the firm’s vice president, but his primary role was to perform public relations functions. When the enterprise quickly proved to be successful, the trio of business associates formed a separate entity (the Howe-Kaline-Carlin Corporation) for the purpose of serving as a manufacturers’ representative.75
This business arrangement was working fine until Carlin persuaded Kaline and Howe to invest in racehorses as a legal means of reducing their tax liability relating to profits generated from the automotive endeavor. A separate business venture (HKC Stables) was thus formed in the winter of 1959–60 to maintain horses that would race at a track in Toledo, Ohio.76
Accounts of Kaline’s involvement in a sport linked closely to gambling were revealed in May of 1960, and the news was not received favorably by the baseball establishment or baseball fans. Kaline’s initial comments were unapologetic: “Sure, I’m part owner of a string of horses. What’s all the excitement about? I happen to like racing. I like horses. I go out to tracks quite a bit when we aren’t playing ball because it relaxes me. For that matter, so do club owners, managers, coaches, everybody. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”77
Within a short time, however, Kaline reconsidered his stance in the matter and sold his interest in HKC Stables to Carlin.78 (Kaline’s name had not appeared on HKC Stables’ application to Michigan’s Racing Commission, nor had he contributed financially.)79 He offered a qualified apology for his brief entry into the world of horse racing, saying that he was “sorry I got everybody so shook up, but I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. This was only an investment. But I think it is best for everybody that I drop out of the racing thing. After all, my life is baseball, and I don’t want to embarrass anybody connected with the game.”80
Headlines relating to the deal disappeared from the newspapers and the issue was formally resolved, but Kaline continued to hear from patrons in the bleachers of Briggs Stadium. He would later recall that “they even remembered the names of those horses until the end of the 1960 season!”81
MOVING RELUCTANTLY TO CENTER FIELD
Kaline patrolled right field for the Tigers almost exclusively from the time of his emergence as a big league star until a pitch by Bill Fischer of the Washington Senators struck and bruised the right arm of regular center fielder Harvey Kuenn on April 30, 1959. With Kuenn temporarily out of action, a decision was made to move Kaline to the middle of the outfield. Kaline performed so well in his new position that he (rather than Mickey Mantle) was selected in a poll of players, managers, and coaches as the starting center fielder in the first of two All-Star games played in 1959. When Kuenn (who had been installed in right field upon his return to the lineup) was traded to Cleveland in April 1960 for right fielder Rocky Colavito, Kaline remained in center for another season.
While Kaline had the talent to excel in center field and never rebelled against doing so, he made it clear on several occasions that he preferred right field. One statement, published in May 1967, succinctly expressed his feelings: “To me center field is a lot of work … right field is like driving a car. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing it so long … I don’t know whether it’s the mental pressures of it, the fact that I have to do some work for the guys alongside me. … I just don’t enjoy it as much as right field.”82
Three Detroit managers — Bill Norman, Jimmy Dykes, and Joe Gordon — had determined that Kaline’s value to the club would be maximized by keeping him in center field, but that need was eliminated on December 7, 1960, with the acquisition of experienced center fielder Billy Bruton from the Milwaukee Braves. Kaline was elated that new manager Bob Scheffing would assign him to his former spot on the diamond in 1961.
THE FIRING OF BOB SCHEFFING
Kaline was also pleased that Scheffing had been chosen to manage the Tigers in 1961, and his admiration for his new skipper would increase in their time together. As the Detroit team challenged the Yankees for the 1961 American League pennant, Kaline observed that Scheffing was “a master of handling guys on the bench…You get down in the dumps when you’re not playing, and Scheffing treats [everyone] perfectly.”83 Kaline also said that Scheffing was “a real man, liked by his players. He left you alone as long as you did your job. He was a father-type manager.”84
Given these statements of praise, Kaline was naturally displeased and angry when Scheffing was fired (along with his entire coaching staff) on June 17, 1963, after the Tigers had lost seven consecutive games. Kaline directed kind words to Scheffing upon his departure, saying, “I really can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me.”85
Years later, Kaline continued to speak highly of a man he genuinely liked when he recalled that Scheffing “was the only guy who came to me and told me what he wanted me to do.”86
ROCKY RELATIONSHIP WITH CHARLIE DRESSEN
Kaline’s interactions with Scheffing’s successor Charlie Dressen would not be nearly as cordial. Unlike Scheffing, who had proclaimed that he wouldn’t trade Kaline for Mantle or Mays,87 several of the new skipper’s comments about his best player were more critical. For example, after managing Kaline for more than a full season, Dressen told reporters, “I’ve got to go on what I see. I have to see Kaline play some more.”88
The personalities of the player and manager differed in fundamental ways, but open hostility was avoided by both men. There was, rather, an inconsistency in their relationship. Kaline became upset in 1964 when he was required to participate in early-morning workouts during spring training, but he was appreciative at season’s end when Dressen suggested that more rest — such as sitting out second games of doubleheaders — would be provided in 1965.89
Kaline and several of his teammates experienced difficulty in dealing with a manager whose actions and attitudes could change in a heartbeat. Despite occasional conflicts, however, Kaline credited Dressen for having a solid knowledge of baseball and for his attention to the fine points of the game.90
The relationship was suddenly altered during spring training in 1965 when something much more important than Dressen’s personal nature changed in a heartbeat: the condition of the manager’s heart. After suffering a coronary blockage on March 7, the skipper returned to the dugout on May 31.91 He resumed managerial duties the following year, but a second heart attack occurred on May 16, 1966.92 Bob Swift, who had filled in for Dressen during the latter’s absence in 1965, replaced his former boss — but only until he left the club for health reasons of his own in July 1966. Diagnosed soon thereafter with terminal lung cancer, Swift was succeeded by coach Frank Skaff for the remainder of the 1966 campaign.93
The erratic Dressen-Kaline saga thus concluded with a depressing series of events that placed an emotional toll on Kaline and his teammates.
Kaline gained an identity soon after his initial signing in 1953 as a significant person within the Detroit community. So, having made his home in the Detroit area and expressed a desire to remain there throughout his career,94 he became concerned whenever credible speculation about trades included his name. At least six trade discussions are known to have taken place:
- In the winter following the 1956 season, Vice President Charles Comiskey of the White Sox offered a total of $250,000 in players and cash for Kaline, but the offer was refused by the Tigers’ front office.95
- George Weiss (the general manager of the Yankees) asked Tigers GM John McHale during the 1958 World Series whether Kaline might be available in a trade. Within a few days, as word of the conversation spread, McHale admitted that the conversation had occurred and teased reporters about whom the Yankees might send to Detroit. He did not, however, state firmly that Kaline was unobtainable by other clubs.96
- Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford pulled Kaline aside in 1959 and informed him that they had heard that the Yankees had offered Moose Skowron and a couple of minor leaguers to the Tigers in exchange for his services. However, any possibility of the rumored trade’s consummation vanished on July 25 when Skowron’s left wrist was fractured in a collision at first base with the Tigers’ Coot Veal.97
- The Yankees again probed the Tigers’ willingness to trade Kaline in 1964 with Roger Maris in the role of primary trade bait. The Bengals rebuffed this proposal, even after it was reported that a second player might be offered by the Bronx Bombers. Rumors had been flying around the baseball world for months that Dressen and some individuals in Detroit’s front office might entertain a reasonable exchange involving Kaline, but owner John Fetzer made it known that he considered Kaline to be essential to Tigers pennant hopes in the years ahead.98
- During professional baseball’s winter meetings of 1966, the Los Angeles Dodgers offered several top prospects to Tigers general manager Jim Campbell for Kaline. Campbell immediately declined this deal.99
- It was reported during that same off-season that Campbell had offered to send Kaline and pitcher Dave Wickersham to the Minnesota Twins for ace hurler Jim Kaat and outfielder Jimmie Hall.100 Kaline realized that the Tigers needed to improve at several positions, but he resented the fact that conversations about the trade had begun a short time after he had been asked — and had agreed — to move back to center field (from his preferred position in right field) to benefit the Detroit team.101 The Twins rejected Campbell’s proposed swap.
RESENTMENT (OR JEALOUSY) BY TEAMMATES
Although Kaline’s substantial value to the Tigers reduced his chances of being traded, his esteemed status within the organization also produced significant disparities between his annual salaries and those of other Detroit players. Even as they recognized Kaline’s superiority on the field, some teammates resented the differences in pay. A few were privately critical of his reserved nature and even questioned whether his importance to the club was overrated.102
Rocky Colavito did not, however, suppress his feelings about his salary as compared to Kaline’s. He engaged in a shouting match with Campbell during one negotiation and asked the GM, “Who is Kaline, a little tin god?”103 The use of anger did not succeed as a negotiating tactic. Although the Detroit Free Press reported on March 5, 1962, that Colavito would be receiving more money than Kaline during the season ahead, Campbell emphatically denied that account.104
In truth, the Tigers’ management did establish Kaline’s pay as the benchmark against which salaries of other team members were based.105 Former Tigers slugger Willie Horton accepted the fact that “he could never make more [money] than Kaline.”106 Players who attempted to employ an aggressive approach during negotiations with Campbell were frequently asked whether they believed that they were better players than the team’s star.107 Consequently, a few players — in hushed tones — referred to Kaline as “the Salary Cap.”108
Although Kaline’s salaries (like those of all other players from his era) were essentially established by club management, annual comparisons of his pay with that of his teammates would be criticized in 1995 by Marvin Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Miller remarked that the circumstances relating to Kaline’s compensation “did a disservice to other players by limiting their salaries.”109
Each challenge that has been mentioned in this article resulted from either a situation beyond Kaline’s control, perceptions about personal qualities that were difficult to change, or decisions made (or, in regard to trade rumors, not made) by other people. One more mountain to be climbed apparently existed, however, within Kaline’s own mind and psyche.
Such a theory based on psychological factors may be considered because Kaline exhibited a smaller ego than most superstars while competing aggressively on baseball diamonds for 22 years. He never relished attention or acclaim as many of his peers did, readily admitting his limitations and stating occasionally that some other renowned players were more talented.
Consider this comment to Jack Olsen of Sports Illustrated in 1964:
Everybody said this guy’s another Ty Cobb, another Joe DiMaggio. … What they didn’t know is I’m not that good a hitter. They kept saying I do everything with ease. But it isn’t that way. I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league. … They threw all this pressure on my shoulders and I don’t think it’s justified and I don’t think it’s fair to compare anybody with Cobb. I’ll tell you something else: I’m not in the same class with players like Mays or Musial or Henry Aaron, either. Their records over the last five seasons are much better than mine.110
A similar remark appeared in an authorized biography published in 2010: “My hitting is all a matter of timing. I don’t have the strength that Mantle or Mays have. I’ve got to have my timing down perfect or I’m finished. … To say that I’m like [Cobb] is the most foolish thing that anybody can make a comparison on.”111
While these comments provide insight into Kaline’s view of himself in comparison to other prominent players, the effects of psychological reservations on his self-esteem should not be exaggerated. His response to a question in 1968 is revealing. Asked how he felt about not quite being a superstar (like Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Frank Robinson, or Carl Yastrzemski), Kaline replied, “My makeup isn’t one of a superstar. I think the guys you mentioned are certainly better players than I am and are possibly a little more exciting. And these fellows have all played in World Series, which is a big thing for your stature. But I think I can hold my own with all these guys in everything but home runs and possibly batting average in some cases. There is a very thin line between them and myself.”112
When the many obstacles that Al Kaline encountered prior to and during his playing career are placed under a spotlight, assumptions that his road to stardom was a smooth one are shown to be false. Rather, as he suffered the misfortune of being “a child who was thrust full-blown into a world in which nothing he ever did was good enough and excellence brought its own torments,”113 he was forced to overcome many difficulties on his journey from the heart of Baltimore to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Along the way, his public image blended well with the culture of a basically blue-collar city in the Midwestern region of the United States, and he became a Detroit institution as challenges were met and usually conquered.
Noting the superstar’s many years in the public eye, author Tom Stanton was prompted to write: “Through race riots, through the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, through Vietnam death counts on the morning news, through the crimes of our president, through times of turmoil and uncertainty, Kaline [was] there, every season.”114
That extraordinary longevity — along with impressive character traits, determination, and considerable talent — ultimately enabled Kaline to conquer various forms of adversity and earn lasting praise as one of baseball’s greatest and most admired competitors.
FRANCIS KINLAW has contributed articles and poetry to many SABR publications since becoming a member of SABR in 1983. Having lived near Detroit in his youth, he came of age in a baseball sense as Al Kaline was achieving stardom in the major leagues. In the years that followed, he remained an admirer of Kaline as a man and athlete. He now resides in Greensboro, North Carolina, and writes extensively about baseball, basketball, and college football.
1. William M. Anderson, The Detroit Tigers: A Pictorial Celebration of the Greatest Players and Moments in Tigers’ History, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999, 174.
2. Nick Waddell, “Al Kaline,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, accessed September 9, 2021. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/al-kaline.
3. Detroit Free Press staff, Mr. Tiger: The Legend of Al Kaline, Detroit’s Own, Chicago: Triumph Books, 2020, 73–74.
4. Lyall Smith, “Kaline’s a Real Tiger: Teenage Regular Captures Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, condensed in Baseball Digest, October 1954, 49.
5. Jim Hawkins, Al Kaline: The Biography of a Tigers Icon, Chicago: Triumph Books, 2010, 63.
6. “Pacemaker of the American League,” Who’s Who in the Big Leagues, ed. by Hy Goldberg, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1956, 38.
7. George Cantor, The Tigers of ‘68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions, Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1997, 160.
8. Murray Olderman, “Al Kaline,” Sports All-Stars Baseball 1958, June 1958, 38.
9. Hawkins, 63.
10. Glenn Liebman, “Here’s What Hall of Famers Say About Each Other,” Baseball Digest, June 1992, 64.
11. Danny Peary, Ed., We Played the Game: 65 Players Remember Baseball’s Greatest Era, 1947–1964, New York: Hyperion Books, 1994, 312.
12. Peary, 415.
13. Detroit Free Press staff, Ernie: Our Voice of Summer, Chicago: Triumph Books, 2010, 79.
14. Bill Guilfoile, Ed., National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Yearbook 1981, 72; also Bill Guilfoile, Ed., National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Yearbook 1983, 18.
15. Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf, Baseball Anecdotes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, 244.
16. Joe Falls, “Al Kaline Matures Again,” Sport, October 1965, 29, 81.
17. Joe Falls, “Baseball Never Came Easy for Al Kaline,” The Sporting News, August 16, 1980, 17.
18. Art Hill, I Don’t Care If I Never Come Back: A Baseball Fan and His Game, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980; referenced by Joe Falls, The Detroit Tigers: An Illustrated History, New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989, 108.
19. Tom Stanton, The Final Season: Fathers, Sons, and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001, 119.
20. Jay Jaffe, “Remembering Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger (1934–2020),” FanGraphs, accessed April 11, 2020. https://blogs.fangraphs.com/remembering-alkaline-mr-tiger-1934-2020.
21. Jack Olsen, “The Torments of Excellence,” Sports Illustrated, May 11, 1964, 35.
24. Hal Middlesworth, “Kaline: Bat King at 20,” Baseball Digest, January-February 1956, 49.
25. Olsen, 36.
26. Middlesworth, 40.
28. Olsen, 36.
30. Hawkins, 31.
31. Sam Zygner, “Phillies Bonus Babies, 1953–57,” The National Pastime: From Swampoodle to South Philly, Philadelphia: Society of American Baseball Research, 2013, 92.
32. Editors of Sport Magazine, “Al Kaline: Nobody Calls Him a Morning Glory Now,” Baseball’s Best Hitters, 1957, 52.
33. Tommy Devine, “Kaline Can Be King in Detroit,” Sport, August 1955, 60.
34. Devine, 35.
36. Watson Spoelstra, “Keen Play of Kuenn Tigers’ Top ‘53 Tale,” The Sporting News, September 16, 1953, 8.
37. Lee Greene, “They Don’t Knock Kaline Any More,” Sport, May 1960, 59.
38. David Laurila, “A Conversation with Hall of Famer Al Kaline, 1934–2020,” FanGraphs.com, accessed April 11, 2020. https://blogs.fangraphs.com/a-conversation-with-hall-of-famer-alkaline-1934-2020.
39. Watson Spoelstra, “Kid Kaline Winning His Stripes as Tiger Regular on Clouting,” The Sporting News, March 31, 1954, 11.
40. Devine, 62.
41. Lyall Smith, “Kaline’s a Big Man Now,” Baseball Digest, May 1955, 85.
42. C.C. Johnson Spink, “The Low-Down on Majors’ Big Shots,” The Sporting News, January 6, 1954, 1.
43. Olsen, 41.
44. Joe Falls, “Al Kaline Matures Again,” Sport, October 1965, 29.
45. Editors of Sport Magazine, “Al Kaline: He Has Everything to be a Hero,” Who’s Best in Sports: 1959, 39.
46. Cantor, 160.
47. Jim Sargent, The Tigers and Yankees in ‘61, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2016, 1.
48. Falls, “Al Kaline Matures Again,” 81.
49. Falls, 29, 81.
50. Greene, 57.
51. Olsen, 36.
53. Middlesworth, 39.
54. Greene, 57.
56. “Al Kaline: He Has Everything to be a Hero,” 39.
57. “Al Kaline: The Fiercest Tiger Since Cobb,” Dell Sports: Baseball Stars, 1956, Vol. 1, #7, 4.
59. Cantor, 94.
60. Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York: Villard Books, 1986, 618.
61. Hawkins, 131.
62. Jerry Green, “Al Kaline Sounds Off On His 15 Years of Pain and Joy,” Sport, May 1968, 87.
63. Patrick Harrigan, The Detroit Tigers: Club and Community, 1945–1995, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997, 117.
64. Joe Falls, “Victim of Versatility,” Baseball Digest, May 1967, 56.
66. Irv Goodman, “How the Tigers Are Building a Winner,” Sport. July 1957, 71.
67. “Hobbled Tiger,” Dell Sports, Vol. 1, #44, May 1965, 51.
68. “Hobbled Tiger,” 51.
69. Olsen, 42.
70. Greene, 60. See also Watson Spoelstra, “Tiger Prexy Turns on Extinguisher in Kaline Pay Flareup,” The Sporting News, January 16, 1957, 11.
71. Hawkins, 85.
72. “Kaline Signs $30,000 Pact with Spike Away in Florida,” The Sporting News, February 6, 1957, 6.
73. The Sporting News dated February 6, 1957 stated that Kaline’s salary would be $30,000 but, according to SABR member Michael Haupert’s research of contracts of Hall of Fame members, the amount of Kaline’s contract for the 1957 season was $29,000 rather than $30,000. https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/kalinal01.shtml. See also Jaffe, “Remembering Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger (1934–2020).”
74. Greene, 58.
75. Hawkins, 84.
76. Hawkins, 111.
78. Hawkins, 112.
79. Walter Spoelstra, “Bye-Bye to Bangtails: Kaline ‘Retires’ as Race-Track Tycoon,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1960, 17.
81. Joe Falls, “Meet the New Kaline,” Baseball Digest, April 1961, 35.
82. Falls, “Victim of Versatility,” 55.
83. Sargent, 93.
84. Hawkins, 104.
85. Hawkins, 123.
87. Watson Spoelstra, “Dressen-Kaline Peace Pact Big Plus for Tigers,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1964, 12.
88. Watson Spoelstra, “‘No Deal,’ Tigers Reply to All Offers for Kaline,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1964, 17.
89. Watson Spoelstra, “Kaline Accepts $5,000 Slash; Freehan Signs,” The Sporting News, January 16, 1965, 10.
90. Hawkins, 126.
91. Watson Spoelstra, “Sick Dressen Pulls Fast One; Swift in Tiger Driver’s Seat,” The Sporting News, March 20, 1965, 8; “Doctor Gives Green Light; Dressen Rejoining Tigers,” The Sporting News, May 22, 1965, 13; Fred T. Smith, Tiger Facts, Lathrup Village, MI: Fred T. Smith, Russ Entwistle, and John Duffy, 1986, 186.
92. Watson Spoelstra, “Stricken Dressen Keeps Close Tabs on Bengals,” The Sporting News, May 28, 1966, 16.
93. Smith, 190.
94. Joe Falls, “The Al Kaline Mystery,” Sport, February 1964, 82.
95. Edgar Munzel, “Chisox Set Up Tall Goal for Harshman — 20 Victories in ‘57,” The Sporting News, January 16, 1957, 15.
96. Hawkins, 102.
97. Hawkins, 103.
98. “Hobbled Tiger,” 51. See also Watson Spoelstra, “‘No Deal,’ Tigers Reply to All Offers for Kaline,” 17.
99. Cantor, 160.
100. Joe Falls, “Turmoil on the Tigers: Does It Still Exist?,” Sport, June 1967, 92.
101. Falls, “Turmoil on the Tigers.”
102. These players (referred to in writings by George Cantor and Jim Hawkins, both of the Detroit Free Press) were not identified by those authors, nor were the players’ identities revealed in The Sporting News or other major baseball publications in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
103. Cantor, 109.
104. Harrigan, 136.
105. Hawkins, 210.
106. Harrigan, 137.
107. Cantor, 167.
108. Cantor, 159.
109. Harrigan, 137.
110. Olsen, 36, 38.
111. Hawkins, 70.
112. Green, 86.
113. Olsen, 35.
114. Stanton, 121.