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THE TORMENTS OF EXCELLENCE

May 11, 1964
May 11, 1964

Table of Contents
May 11, 1964

Droll Scandal
The Poor Boy Open
Al Kaline
Chop And Loop Champ
Motor Sports
Bridge
Dogs
The Life I Lead
  • A professional golfer's existence is the most complex and improbable of any athlete's, his victories and defeats coming amid an unceasing swirl of activities that are at once both mad and meaningful. Recently Tony Lema wrote a candid story about the climb toward the top in golf. Now, at the request of Sports Illustrated, Jack Nicklaus has kept a three-month journal that warmly illuminates a far different facet of the tour: the unique life of the superchamp

19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE TORMENTS OF EXCELLENCE

Detroit's Al Kaline looks like a man who plays with consummate ease as well as rare skill, but he is finding it hard to follow baseball's toughest act: himself

In a worldfraught with inconstancies, unpredictabilities and galloping variables, it is apleasure to report that spring has sprung in the traditional manner in Detroit.The flowers are popping up in Belle Isle park, the automobile plants arebooming night and day, and everybody is wondering what's the matter with AlKaline (see cover). Everybody has been wondering what's the matter with AlKaline ever since he made the tactical error of winning the American Leaguebatting championship at the age of 20, the youngest player in history to makethat mistake. To understand why this is a mistake, one must first understand abaseball truism most recently re-expressed by that skilled practitioner ofbrushback and typewriter, James Patrick Brosnan, as follows: "Fans want theplayer to be not what he inherently is but what they think he ought to be."Fans think that anybody who wins the batting title at 20 should win it againfour or five or 12 times. Kaline hasn't. Therefore something must be wrong withhim.

This is an article from the May 11, 1964 issue Original Layout

If there has beenany change at all in Detroit's attitude toward the lean and shy outfielder, itis merely quantitative. Of late, the Kaline enigma has been discussed more andmore loudly and more and more persistently by college professors andsemiskilled seat-spring assemblers, waitresses and grandes dames, by everyonein Detroit who can tell a baseball from a free balloon. As a result of all thisdiscussion, the expectable human reaction has begun to set in. What peoplecannot figure out they tend to dislike. And Al Kaline, the best all-roundballplayer the Tigers have had since Charley Gehringer, is finding himselfdisliked. Not long ago he stepped to the plate in a home game to theaccompaniment of a Shostakovich symphony of boos and catcalls. One would havethought that Joe DiMaggio had put the old pinstripe back on and returned to hitagainst the Tigers with the bases loaded; not even Liberace has been booed likethat.

While thesehostilities were being ventilated, a kindly and gifted sportswriter, longaddicted to the wonders of the Tigers and their star right fielder, wasstomping about the windswept press box announcing to all who would listen:"As far as I'm concerned, Al Kaline can go take a jump. I've had 10 yearsof Al Kaline and that's enough!" A few feet away, another expert wascollecting his own thoughts about Kaline and coming to a conclusion that he waslater to proclaim over the electric radio: "Personally, we feel Kalineshould be traded now before his value to the team diminishes even more."The ultimate in non sequiturs was expressed by someone who should know better,and who therefore shall remain nameless. "Maybe the Tigers should tradeKaline," this man observed. "After all, they've never won a pennantwith him!" This particular approach to the laws of cause and effect wouldhave made a shambles of the good names of Baron von Richthofen, Haile Selassieand Chuck Klein, but rationality has never been the long suit of thedisgruntled baseball fan.

In fact, thereare no villains in the Al Kaline story. Not the fans who booed; they only knowwhat they see, and they have been seeing a slumping Kaline. Not the insiders,the habitués of the press box; Kaline has indeed been a difficult subject forthem, combining reticence and taciturnity with a seeming indifference and,lately, even rudeness. And certainly nobody can blame Al Kaline himself, theparty of the first part, a child who was thrust full-blown into a world inwhich nothing he ever did was good enough and excellence brought its owntorments.

Kaline is one ofthe last of an almost prehistoric type of ballplayer, the kid who makes it notbecause of physique but in spite of it. Walk into a baseball clubhouse nowadaysand you see The Body Beautiful all around you: smoothly muscled, superbly builtyoung men like Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle. But not many yearsago you would see bandy-legged little guys who make it on gristle and shank, onskills honed in thousands of games on sandlots that no longer exist, on gutsand drive and gall.

Al Kaline is notbandy-legged, but neither is he a strong athlete, and he has had to overcomephysical limitations that would have driven a lesser man to pack it in longago. He has always had osteomyelitis, a persistent bone disease, and when hewas 8 years old doctors took two inches of bone out of his left foot, leavingjagged scars and permanent deformity. This slowed Kaline down only slightly,and only temporarily. His father, Nicholas, his uncles, Bib and Fred, and hisgrandfather, Philip, had all been semipro catchers from the Eastern Shore ofMaryland, a place that had spawned major leaguers as Miami Beach spawnsgaucherie. One may assume that the first long discussions heard around thefamily hearth by the infant Albert William Kaline were not about the repeal ofthe Volstead Act or high protective tariffs. The Kaline family was poor, proudand hungry—no Kaline had ever graduated from high school—and before long thewhole clan had decided that little Al was going to be something different.

Down the streetfrom the family's brown-front row house in south Baltimore was a vacant lot(such things are now extinct in cities) where the men of the gas and electriccompany assembled at lunchtime to sneak in 30 or 40 minutes of softball. Afterthe games Kaline's mother would see the boy, not yet old enough for school,running pell-mell around the bases, all alone, ruining his pants with daringslides to beat throws that were never made. At the ripe old age of 6 he wasadjudged skilled enough to be permitted to shag flies and warm up pitchers forthe lunchtime frolickers, and within a few years he was welcomed into the gameas an equal. At 11 he flung a softball 173 feet 6 inches to set a newelementary school record. The judges did not believe their eyes; so he repeatedthe feat. Naturally, he became a hard-ball pitcher; the best ballplayer in anyneighborhood always seems to be asked to pitch, no matter what his naturalposition is, e.g., Stan Musial, Babe Ruth. In a league of 10-to-12-year-olds,Kaline's record was 10 and 0. In high school the coach reckoned the boy was toosmall to make it as a pitcher and too fragile to make it as a second baseman;so he planted Kaline in the outfield. In four years he hit .333, .418, .469 and.488 and made the All-Maryland team each year, a feat last accomplished byCharlie Keller.

By now the Kalinefamily had staked the boy's whole future on baseball, the way Lower East Sidefamilies used to stake a son's future on the violin. On Sundays he would playin two and sometimes three games, with his father and his uncles shuttling himfrom game to game while he changed uniforms in the car. For one team he washitting .824 at midseason, but tailed off to .609 at the end. By the timeKaline was signed to a $30,000 bonus-salary arrangement with the Tigers at 18,he had played as much baseball as the average major leaguer plays in five orsix seasons, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why he was able towin the batting championship at 20 and has not won it since: he was at his peakat 20, and the pitchers, looking at the raw young kid of 150 pounds, simplycould not bring themselves to admit that he was as good as he was. As Kalinesays, "They've been cuter with me ever since."

A childhood likeKaline's may produce a star ballplayer, but it is not guaranteed to produce abarrel of laughs. Says Kaline: "I suffered a lot as a kid playing in allthose games. You know how Baltimore is real hot in the summer? When everybodywas going on their vacations, going swimming with all the other kids, here Iwas Sundays playing doubleheaders and all because I knew I wanted to be aballplayer and my dad always told me, 'You're gonna have to work hard andyou're gonna have to suffer if you're gonna be a ballplayer. You're gonna haveto play and play all the time.'

"There was acouple times when I told my dad I wasn't gonna play Sunday, I was gonna go downto the beach with my girl or with a bunch of the guys to go swimming. And hesays, 'Now look, like I told you in the beginning when you agreed to play forthese people, they're gonna be counting on you, so if you're not gonna playtell 'em to tear your contract up.' So I would go play, but it was these thingshe did to me that showed me the right way and pushed me the right way."

Kaline was adutiful son; when the Tigers thrust something in the neighborhood of $15,000 incold cash on him (with $15,000 to come later in salary), he turned every pennyof it over to. his father, who was working in a broom factory, and his mother,who was scrubbing floors. The mortgage was paid off on the house, Mrs. Kaline'sfailing eyesight was saved by an operation, and young Al drove up to ConnieMack Stadium to take his maiden cut as a major leaguer. He flied out to centeron the first pitch, and was so nervous that he has no memory of going to theplate, swinging or returning to the dugout. Within a few years Ted Williams wassaying: "There's a hitter. In my book he's the greatest right-handed hitterin the league. There's no telling how far the kid could go." Said awell-known manager: "This fellow is amazing. You ask yourself fourquestions. Can he throw? And the answer is yes. Can he field the ball? And youanswer yes. Is he active on the bases? Yes, you'd have to say yes. And then,can he drive in the runs? The real test. And again you say yes. So he is anamazing fellow."

He was, in hisearly years in the majors, more amazing than even Casey Stengel realized, andat the same time he did everything with fluid ease. Dale Mitchell rapped a ballinto right field and Kaline barely missed a sprawling shoestring catch. Theball rolled a few feet away and Mitchell scooted for second. Kaline threw himout from a sitting position. In a game against the White Sox, when he was 19years old, Kaline threw out Fred Marsh trying to score from second on a single,Minnie Minoso trying to stretch a single into a double and Chico Carrasqueltrying to go from first to third on another single. The only people whobelieved it were those in the ball park, and they were not sure. At YankeeStadium, with the Tigers ahead by one run and the Yankees threatening with twoouts and two on in the last of the ninth, Mickey Mantle hit a ball so hard andso far that Mel Allen's broadcasting assistant whooped, "The Yankees winfive to four!" as he counted the base runners coming across. In the Tigerclubhouse the equipment man angrily flipped the radio off and waited for theTigers to mope in. They came in yelling and laughing. Kaline had raced to theauxiliary scoreboard, leaped and twisted high in the air, supported himselfagainst the scoreboard with his bare hand and caught the ball backhanded to endthe game.

But the question,in his first few years, was not whether he was a good enough fielder; everybodyknew he was that. "I was there because I was a fielder," Kaline says."That's what kept me in the league. The question was: Did I have enoughbat?"

His first seasonas a regular, 1955, answered that question. At .340, he out-hit Mickey Mantleby 34 points and Willie Mays by 21. Among other feats of batsmanship that year,he made four hits in five at bats one day against the Kansas City A's; three ofthe hits were home runs and two of the home runs came in a single inning, afeat accomplished by only five other American League players. He was comparedto Ty Cobb, and after that everything was bound to be Bridgeport.

Looking back,Kaline cannot help feeling resentment. "The worst thing that happened to mein the big leagues was the start I had. This put the pressure on me. Everybodysaid this guy's another Ty Cobb, another Joe DiMaggio. How much pressure canyou take? What they didn't know is I'm not that good a hitter. They kept sayingI do everything with ease. But it isn't that way. I have to work as hard if notharder than anybody in the league. I'm in spring training a week early everyyear. I've worked with a heavy bat in the winter, swinging it against a bigbag. I've squeezed rubber balls all winter long to strengthen my hands. I'velifted weights, done push-ups, but my hitting is all a matter of timing. Idon't have the kind of strength that Mantle or Mays have, where they can befooled on a pitch and still get a good piece of the ball. I've got to have mytiming down perfect or I'm finished. Now you take a hitter like me, with allthe concentration and effort I have to put into it—I'm not crying about it,it's just a fact—and imagine how it feels to be compared to Cobb. He was thegreatest ballplayer that ever lived. To say that I'm like him is the mostfoolish thing that anybody can make a comparison on. Do you realize there's oldpeople that come to Tiger Stadium and they saw Cobb play ball, and they look atme and they say how can I be as good as Cobb? They threw all this pressure onmy shoulders and I don't think it's justified and I don't think it's fair tocompare anybody with Cobb. I'll tell you something else: I'm not in the sameclass with players like Mays or Musial or Henry Aaron, either. Their recordsover the last five seasons are much better than mine."

In the first fewyears after he won the batting championship, Kaline went into frequentdepressions over his inability to give the fans what he knew they expected. Hewould come into the clubhouse after a game and slump in front of his locker,speaking to no one. "But I didn't really sulk, the way the newspapermensaid I did," he claims. "I was just quiet, and when a newspaperman cameup to me and said, 'Nice game,' or something like that, I'd just say, 'Thankyou.' I would never prolong the conversation, and the guys who didn't know mewould say, 'Look at this stuck-up kid.' But it was just my way. I don't talkmuch. I don't like to make people mad at me, and if you talk too much you'regonna put your foot in your mouth sooner or later."

On top of thesepressures, the front office began to apply the screws to Kaline. "They toldme to be more colorful, that I could bring more people into the ball park if Iwas more colorful. But how could I do that? I could jump up and down on thefield and make an ass out of myself arguing with umpires, but I'm not made upthat way. I could make easy catches look hard, but I'm not made that wayeither."

The result of allthese subtle difficulties is The Al Kaline Problem, the certain harbinger ofspring in Detroit. But is there a genuine problem or is it ersatz? CharleyDressen votes for ersatz. "He's not hitting now," says the cherubiclittle manager and gourmet, "but what does that mean? Nothing When a man isan established hitter like Kaline, you know what he's gonna do. The pitchersare getting him out now, but later on in the season somebody's gonnasuffer."

It is true thatKaline at 29 seems overplayed, tired both physically and emotionally. He doesnot have a rapport with Dressen; although each publicly equates the other withAlexander of Macedon, there is antipathy underneath, and it will be a long timehealing. Kaline was one of three or four players who complained vehementlyabout the firing of Manager Bob Scheffing last year. "He made me a goodballplayer," Kaline says, "and I was really devoted to him."Scheffing did not make Kaline a good ballplayer; that job was accomplishedyears before by Nick Kaline and Al's uncles, but Kaline's veneration ofScheffing is nonetheless real.

But the maindifference in Al Kaline is that the new 1964 model does not seem to be havingany fun. To be sure, he claims that he is—"when it gets to be no fun you'llknow it, because I won't be playing anymore." Not every man is gifted withthe ability to know himself, and Kaline does not appear to be one of them. Youmight suppose that a man with a .309 lifetime batting average (same asMantle's) and a place in the record books alongside Babe Ruth and a$62,000-a-year salary and plenty of outside income would be having the time ofhis life, an orgy of joy. But talking to Kaline is like making funeralarrangements. In one breath he provides all the proper, time-honored remarks:"Detroit fans have really been good to me.... I think that Charley Dressenknows more about baseball than any manager I've ever had.... I owe everythingto baseball. Without it, I'd probably be a bum today." But his moremeaningful comments are made between the lines, almost sotto voce: "Theowners want you to eat baseball, drink baseball, think baseball. It's too muchto expect.... The season should be cut in half. Double-headers should bebanned. It takes me three days to get over a doubleheader.... Spring trainingis overrated. I'll admit I'm bored with it...." He sounds, at times, likean old lady with sore feet, and, in fact, he is a young man with sore feet.Very sore feet. No one except Kaline himself will ever know the agonies thathave accompanied his long career as an athletic cripple, mostly because he haskept his mouth shut about it. When the doctors operated on him, they left himwith a set of sharply swept-back toes on his left foot. Only two of those toestouch the ground when he walks, which has forced him to develop a specialrunning style: on the heel and toes of his right foot and on the side of hisleft foot. The fact that he gets to line drives with the style and skill of aMantle or Mays is one of the athletic miracles of the ages. All Kaline willadmit publicly is that his foot sometimes hurts him—"it's like a toothachein the foot." But there is a clearly discernible difference in his runningas the game goes on. The Kaline who lopes out to his right-field position inthe first inning runs almost normally; the Kaline who comes in after the lastout is in pain and favoring the left foot. He is forever having his foot rubbedby Trainer Jack Homel to restore the circulation and relieve the pain. On topof that, he has suffered more than the average number of injuries, among themdepressed fractures of both cheekbones, two beanings and a broken collarbone.Baseball has not been a frolic through sylvan glades for Al Kaline, and if alot of Detroiters do not know it, at least one person does: General Manager JimCampbell of the Tigers. "Al Kaline has had more reason to jake it thanalmost any ballplayer I know," says Campbell, "but I have never seenhim give less than everything he had. That's the way he learned to playbaseball, and that's the only way he knows how."

And what aboutall the suggestions that The Al Kaline Problem be solved by trading him offwhile he is still a valuable commodity? "Well, I'll tell you," saysCampbell. "I would consider it. Yes, sir, I would. If the Giants wouldoffer me Mays and Marichal and Cepeda for Kaline, I would have to give it someconsideration." In the meantime, Campbell and Charley Dressen and the goodpeople of Detroit will have to live with their problem. With a couple moreproblems like Al Kaline, the Tigers would be the Yankees.

PHOTOPHOTOTHREE MEN IN A TUB are Kaline (right), Pitcher Hank Aguirre (center) and Catcher John Sullivan, all seeking to ease their aching muscles and minor ills in an oversize whirlpool bath.