The score was tied 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth inning of a wild baseball game at Detroit's Tiger Stadium last Friday night. Not once during the evening had the Tigers been able to get ahead of the Washington Senators, but now Dick McAuliffe stood at third base carrying the go-ahead run, and throaty growls and loving whistles came up from the knowing crowd as Al Kaline (see cover) walked from the on-deck circle, rubbed his hands together and slowly smoothed out the batter's box with his spikes. This year vital hits have been coming off Kaline's bat almost as fast as automobiles are being returned for checkup and, sure enough, with a count of one ball and two strikes against him, Kaline lashed a single through the middle to score McAuliffe, and the Tigers went on to win again.
As the pennant races passed Memorial Day the Tigers were fighting the White Sox for the American League lead, and despite the foul weather this spring, their home attendance had soared 100,000 above what it was at a similar point in 1966, a year in which Detroit had finished a forlorn third, 10 games removed from the World Champion Baltimore Orioles. From Belle Isle Park to the bars of Hamtramck the word has gone out that this is the year of the Tiger, and that for the first time in 22 frustrating seasons a pennant is going to fly above that charming, old, all-green ball park out at Michigan and Trumbull. College students are standing in front of Tiger Stadium selling bumper stickers which read TAG 'EM TIGERS, and the voice of announcer Ernie Harwell is being listened to with more interest than the Motown Sound of The Supremes or Martha and the Vandellas. Kaline was leading the league in hitting and in runs batted in, and he was—last week, anyway—tied with Frank Robinson of the Orioles in homers. But though he is the unquestioned star of the team, there are other elements to the Tigers this year.
There is, for example, marvelous and muscular Willie Horton, a 24-year-old slugger with a body that Fisher could never build. Recently, during one seven-game period, Willie hit seven tremendous home runs. When he trots to his position in left field the fans stand and cheer, because Willie was not only brought up in Detroit, he is the first Negro star the team has ever had. There is McAuliffe, a shortstop last year, a second baseman this season, whose strange, foot-lifting batting style seems to be one part Helen Keller and one part Mel Ott. There is Bill Freehan, the big catcher, who is hitting back to his form of 1964 when he batted .300. There is Jim Northrup, known at 27 as "The Grey Fox" because of his hair; last Thursday Northrup produced his second grand-slam homer of the season—the first went to right field and the one last week went to left. And Don Wert and Norm Cash—who between them had 43 homers and 163 runs batted in last year—have not really started to hit this season the way they can. Cash, a humorist who knows that his bat will get hot when the weather does, says cheerfully, "If they have to bat me sixth or seventh, we just might win this pennant by 20 games."
The Tigers' batting power was expected. Pitching was the question. The expensive moves that General Manager Jim Campbell made during the winter when he hired Mayo Smith to manage and John Sain, Wally Moses, Hal Naragon and Tony Cuccinello to coach seem to be paying off handsomely. Through April and May the Tigers used only four pitchers in the starting rotation, and two of the big question marks of the spring, left-hander Mickey Lolich and right-hander Joe Sparma, have been solid and dependable, with a combined won-and-lost record of 9-3. Of the nine games that Sparma started, the Tigers won eight. Earl Wilson and Dennis McLain, the organ player who tends to give up home runs in bunches, appear to be coming around, too.
But the new pitching love of Tiger fans is the big reliever, Fred Gladding, known as "The Bear." When the situation gets tight and Gladding begins to warm up, the customers start to chant, "We want The Bear! We want The Bear!" and in comes Gladding, all 225 pounds of him. Gladding loves playing The Bear. He stomps around on the mound like a grizzly, and he mauls opposition hitters. Through May 27 he had pitched 16‚Öì innings for Detroit, had won one game, saved six others and had yet to give up a run. As the season goes on, Gladding and the rest of the Tiger bullpen may tell the story for Detroit.
So far, Mayo Smith is pleased with the all-round performance of the Tigers, and his major experiment of moving McAuliffe to second base and putting Ray Oyler at shortstop has worked well. Smith sits on a high seat in the dugout and claps his hands constantly. He has made some daring tactical moves as manager, and one debilitating physical one. A week or so ago he raced out to left field to assist Willie Horton, who had crashed into the outfield fence and fallen in a heap. On the way Smith pulled a muscle in his leg, and since then he has walked like Chester on Gunsmoke. But Smith will not worry about his leg holding up, just as long as Horton does, and Gladding does, and his starters do. And he may not even have to worry about all that if Kaline continues to play ball the rest of the season the way he has through April and May.
Ever since coming to the Tigers as a scrawny-looking 18-year-old back in 1953, Kaline has been the darling of baseball connoisseurs. For 12 straight seasons he has won a place on the American League All-Star team (and his batting average in those All-Star Games has been an impressive .324). In the American League today, there are only two active players with five years or more of experience in the league whose lifetime batting averages are over .300. Mickey Mantle is one, at .306; Kaline, at .304, is the other.
Kaline is that rarity in professional sports nowadays—the athlete who is as exciting to watch on defense as he is on offense. His batting style, with the hips and shoulders parallel to the ground and the arms and wrists coming through smoothly and snapping at exactly the right instant, is classic. The finest description of how Kaline appears to a pitcher was given a couple of years back by John Wyatt, a slippery relief pitcher now with the Red Sox. "Man," said Wyatt. "The Line' is the best hitter anywhere. You got to do some scufflin' with that guy. He just grin at me all the time like he know he gonna hang me out to dry. The Line, he just stay in there and swoosh! You leavin' the game with an L."
In the outfield, Kaline's ability to judge and get fly balls and the strength and accuracy of his throwing arm are extraordinary. He is so much at home in the environment of right field that he has mastered the delicate skill needed to dupe opposing players into either holding up on the bases when they should be running or running when they should be holding up. Last week, for instance, in a game against the Red Sox, a line-drive single was hit toward Kaline in right field when a Boston runner was leading off first base. Kaline jogged in casually as though he had a routine catch, and the runner, fearing he might be doubled off first base, took only a few steps and waited, watching the outfielder. The ball hit safely, and Kaline, moving quickly then, gloved it, threw to second and caught the base runner, thus turning a hard-hit single into nothing more than a forceout.
At times in recent years Kaline has been asked to play center field, and he has done it without argument, even though he does not like the position. There were rumors this spring that Kaline would move to center again, but these were quickly stopped by Mayo Smith, who said he would keep Kaline in right. Smith added, "He made his reputation as one of the best right-fielders ever."
Kaline agrees that right field is his position, and the way he says it shows the pride in the reputation he has won. "If I were asked to play center, I'd play it, but I don't enjoy center field. I do enjoy playing right field. Everything seems to come so easy there. I know, too, that there are a lot of people playing center field in the league who are a lot better there than I am." He does not say that there are any who can play right as well.
Born and raised in south Baltimore, Kaline is still remembered there as one of the finest basketball players ever developed in the area. Probably only Gene Shue, now an 11-year veteran with the Bullets of the National Basketball Association, was better. Kaline's mother and father sacrificed everything to give him the chance to become the first member of the family ever to get through high school, and the chance, too, to play baseball. His father worked in a broom factory, and his mother scrubbed floors. Al's three uncles and his father, all of whom were catchers, were convinced that Kaline could become an outstanding pitcher. He didn't lack for opportunities to demonstrate his skill. On weekends he would play three games a day, changing uniforms in the back seat of an automobile as he moved from one game to another. Later, his mother would see him, galloping the bases on the empty sandlot down the street, sliding across the plate again and again with imaginary runs, beating throws from the greatest arms a boy's dreams could build. Today, at 32, he is still considered one of the finest sliders in the game. If a play is close, Kaline's toe or arm or elbow or nose will somehow get to the base before the tag can be made.
His variety of skills, including hitting, moved him beyond pitching, and as he finished high school the Tigers gave him a $15,000 bonus to sign and guaranteed him $15,000 in salary over his first two seasons. The bonus rule then in effect in the major leagues said that any player receiving more than $4,000 to sign had to stay with the parent team for two full seasons. Detroit hoped that after those two years were up, two more seasons in the minors would have him ready to play big-league ball. But Kaline never went to the minors. He moved into the Tiger lineup almost immediately, and two years later, at 20, he hit .340 to become the youngest player ever to win a major league batting championship. That year, 1955, in the first game of the season he went four for five, batted in six runs and became the first man in 19 years to hit two home runs in one inning (the last to do it had been Joe DiMaggio, in his rookie season). But in the three subsequent years Kaline got off to bad starts and in one, 1958, he was benched when his average dropped to .217. In 1959 he started fast again and was hitting .359 when an infielder's throw broke his jaw. Detroit finished a disappointing fourth or fifth in most of these early Kaline seasons, but in 1961, with help from Norm Cash, Steve Boros and Rocky Colavito, Kaline got the Tigers into high gear. They seriously challenged the Yankees for the pennant—they won 101 games that year, only the third time in league history that a team went over 100 victories without winning the pennant—but they lost a critical series in New York and then five more games in a row to fall from 2½ games out of first to eight games out in one week. During that bleak period Kaline hit .451.
In 1962 the Tigers were picked by many to win, and Kaline did his part. Late in May he was batting .345 and had 38 runs batted in when the Tigers went to New York to play the Yankees. With Detroit leading 2-1 in the last of the ninth, Kaline made a spectacular falling catch in right field to save the victory, but he broke his shoulder doing it. "I was sitting on the bench hoping Al would catch it," Jim Bunning, then with Detroit, said later. "I spent the rest of the season wishing he hadn't." Hank Aguirre of the Tigers, a close friend of Kaline's, says, "That was the day we won the battle and lost the war." Kaline appeared in only 100 games that year, and Detroit ultimately finished fourth.
Now, in his 15th major league season, Kaline is again the leader. When he won that batting championship in 1955 he was immediately compared to Ty Cobb, whose face is chiseled in bronze on the front of Tiger Stadium with the inscription, GREATEST TIGER OF ALL—A GENIUS IN SPIKES. If he is not considered another Cobb, perhaps he will be recognized as another Hank Greenberg, who has no bronze plaque but whose 306 lifetime home runs are a Detroit record. If Kaline hits 28 homers this year, he will pass Greenberg, and he may pass him on the way to the World Series.
The comparisons with Mantle come to mind again. Whereas Mickey has played in 65 World Series games in his career, Kaline has never been in one. Last week he sat on the bench at Tiger Stadium with his feet propped up against a pole and looked out at the field. "I have never seen a World Series game," he said. "I promised myself a long time ago that the first World Series I ever saw would be one I played in. The team has gotten off to a good start, and I think it's the best start I've ever had myself. I get a little tired once in a while swinging the bat late in the second game of a doubleheader, but I still feel comfortable in the outfield. I really feel good. I think I might get to see a World Series game this year."