Al Kaline's Impact Stretched All the Way to Oakland and the A's

John Hickey

Billy Martin and Bob Melvin share the same initials, both have managed the Oakland A’s and both are on the list of Al Kaline’s biggest fans.

The longtime Detroit Tigers right fielder, once defined by Martin as “Mister Perfection,” died Monday in suburban Detroit, his family said. He was 85.

Martin played with and against Kaline, then managed him for most of the last three seasons of Kaline’s career. Melvin broke into the Major Leagues in 1985 when Kaline was a broadcaster for the Tigers, and the two men connected whenever Melvin would come to town over the years.

“Al Kaline was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met,” Melvin wrote in a text Monday. “(He was) a baseball icon who never made me feel intimidated when visiting with him. He almost always made sure to come and say hi to me whenever we came to town.

“I remember one day in spring training when I was in minor league camp, I was frustrated and looking for pine tar before stepping into the cage to hit. He smiled at me and said, `Do you want me to go find you some?’ I was paralyzed looking at him. He just laughed and walked away.

“We use to joke about that often.”

Kaline only made it to the World Series once in his 22-year career, all spent with the Tigers. The 1968 team wasn’t expected to do all that much, but it won 103 games, then beat St. Louis in a seven-game World Series.

In 1972, the Tigers had a chance to get back to the Series. Detroit was in a dogfight all season long, but in the season’s final 10 games Kaline hit .512 as the Tigers went 8-2 down the stretch to edge the Red Sox by one game to get the ’68 team to the postseason.

That was Martin’s second full season at Detroit’s helm. They had a chance to get back to the Series but were denied when they lost a five-game AL Championship Series to the A’s. Detroit took a 1-0 first-inning Game 5 lead against Blue Moon Odom, but the A’s were ahead 2-1 after five innings and Vida Blue, making a rare relief appearance, threw four shutout innings to lock down the one-run win, getting Kaline on a grounder and a foul popup.

Martin played one season with him as the Tigers shortstop in 1958. Then he came back as the Detroit manager from 1971-73. Through it all, Martin deeply respected Kaline, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1980.

“I have always referred to Al Kaline as “Mister Perfection,” Martin once said. “He does it all – hitting, fielding, running, throwing – and he does it with that extra touch of brilliance that marks him as a super ballplayer.

“Although a regular outfielder, Al fits in anywhere, at any position in the lineup and any spot in the batting order. I like to send him to the plate in the No. 2 slot because he is the best there is at moving up the runner. He can bunt, hit the ball behind the runner to right, or belt it out of the park.”

A’s traveling secretary Mickey Morabito, who came with Martin from the Yankees to Oakland in 1980, said that what Kaline apart was his gentlemanly demeanor.

“I’d see him in Detroit when we’d play there,” Morabito said. “I’d been around for a while and he knew who I was, and would always make it a point to say `Hello,’ and seek me out. I’m just a traveling secretary, but he always made it a point to see how I was doing.

“I’d watched him as a player, and when I’d see him after he’d retired, he was always impeccably dressed. He was a guy who didn’t have to say hi to me, but he always did. We’d have nice little conversations. I was always very impressed by him.”

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