Remembering Al Kaline: Detroit Tigers Legend, Hall of Famer and Yankees Killer
News of the passing of all-time great Al Kaline on Monday sent shockwaves through the Major League Baseball community.
Generations of baseball fans mourned the loss of a favorite player to many, while condolences inundated social media feeds. And deservedly so. Kaline, who was 85 years old, was one of the best right fielders in baseball history.
His nickname was Mr. Tiger for a reason. Kaline spent all 22 years of his illustrious big-league career with Detroit, stretching all the way from his debut in 1953 – as an 18-year-old just out of high school – to his retirement in 1974 after his age-39 campaign.
Kaline is the youngest ever to win a batting title – hitting .340 in 1955 at just 20 years old. He played in 18 All-Star Games, became just the 12th player in the game's history to eclipse 3,000 hits and although he never won it, he received American League Most Valuable Player Award votes 14 different times.
The accolades don't stop there. Kaline's 92.8 career WAR is 29th best in Major League history. He won 10 Gold Gloves in right field, hit 399 home runs and drove in 1,582.
Finally, in 1980, Kaline was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility – just the 10th player in baseball history at the time to be voted into Cooperstown in his first year on the ballot.
Of all those historic achievements, and many more, Kaline's play against the mighty New York Yankees proved what kind of ballplayer he was throughout his entire career. He produced against the best teams, playing his best in clutch situations and laid his body on the line – a testament to his dedication and knack for the spectacular.
Across north of two decades in the Majors, Kaline suited up against the Bombers 345 times. That's more than two full seasons worth of games.
Sure, there were some seasons during Kaline's tenure where New York wasn't as much of a threat in the American League, like a 70-win, last-place finish in 1966 for instance. For the most part, however, the Yankees were dominant. In the first 12 years of Kaline's career, the Yankees won the pennant 10 times. If you had a series against New York during this stretch, you'd be facing off with the likes of Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
Facing such a talented club didn't deter Kaline's skills on offense one bit. When it was all set and done, the right fielder retired with a .313 batting average against Yankees pitchers, the best of his career against one team. He had an on base percentage of .392 against the Bombers – also the best against one franchise – adding 164 walks to his 380 base hits.
On a Saturday in May of 1962, against the Yankees, Kaline further demonstrated in one play why he's one of the best right fielders to ever take a big-league field.
At Yankee Stadium, Kaline's Tigers had a 2-1 lead over the Bombers in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the tying run on base, catcher Elston Howard laced a fly ball to right. Kaline tumbled to make the game-saving grab, breaking his collarbone in the process.
At that point in 1962, Kaline was in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career. Through the first 36 games of the campaign, he was hitting .336 with 38 RBI. He could've let that ball drop in, putting his body first ahead of the success of his team. Instead, Mr. Tiger played in just 100 games that year, sidelined for two months.
Despite missing an extended period of time due to injury – playing in the third-fewest amount of games in his career in '62 – Kaline hit a career high 29 home runs, nearly drove in 100 runs and finished sixth on the ballot for AL MVP. Imagine what kind of numbers he could have put up if he stayed healthy. When the game was on the line, however, you could count on Kaline to play hard and do whatever it takes to give Detroit the victory.
Finally, thanks in large part to the Yankees' dominance in the late 1950s and early '60s, the Tigers didn't make the postseason for the first 15 years of Kaline's career. When they did, however, the right fielder took full advantage of the opportunity on the national stage.
Down 3-1 in the series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Kaline stroked a two-run, go-ahead base hit to help Detroit win Game 5. They went on to win the series in seven games – Kaline, winning the World Series MVP, hit .379 with eight RBI in his only World Series appearance.
Kaline was loyal to one franchise, continuing to work in and around the Tigers organization in the broadcast booth after his retirement and in the club's front office in recent years. Mix that in with his iconic career between the lines, playing the game the right way, and Mr. Tiger is the gold standard.
So during these unprecedented times, with the coronavirus pandemic providing the world with daily reminders that life is bigger than the game of baseball, take a moment to celebrate the legacy left behind by an all-time great.
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