The Detroit Free Press reports that Hall of Famer Al Kaline -- one of the greatest and most beloved players of his era, and a Detroit Tiger legend -- has died at the age of 85. A family friend tells the Free Press that Kaline recently suffered a stroke, but no official cause of death has been reported.
Kaline was signed by the Tigers when he was 18 years-old. A bonus baby, he never played a day in the minor leagues, making his debut for Detroit on June 25, 1953. He’d scuffle that year and the next but he’d break out big in 1955, winning the AL batting title at age 20. That year he put up a line of .340/.421/.546 while hitting 27 homers and 102 RBI.
From that year on Kaline was a superstar and has never ceased to be mentioned among baseball’s greatest.
While 1955 may have been an early peak for Kaline, his reputation did not rest on that magical year alone. From 1956 through 1967, Kaline was one of the most solid and consistent players in all of baseball. His batting line over those 12 seasons was .304/.381/.506. He averaged 23 home runs and 87 RBI a season over that time, was an All-Star every season and collected ten gold gloves, One as a center fielder, the rest coming in his usual right field. He would miss some significant playing time due to injuries in 1962, 1964, 1965 and 1967-- 1962 thanks to a broken collarbone, ’64 and ’65 due to complications from a childhood foot ailment and 1967 due to a broken hand -- but when he played he was among the most reliable and productive players in all of baseball.
One thing that eluded Kaline in his prime, however, was team success. In the first 15 years of Kaline’s career, the Tigers finished in sixth place twice, in fifth place five times, in fourth place five times, once in third and twice in second. That would all change in 1968. A year which Kaline, ironically enough, played the smallest role in a Tigers’ season to that point in his career due to a broken arm suffered in late May. But though his regular season was cut short and Kaline’s usual place in right field was being ably filled by Jim Northrup, Tigers manager Mayo Smith wisely installed Kaline back in his usual right field for the World Series, moved Northrup to center and moved center fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop. Kaline responded by hitting .379/.400/.655 in the Fall Classic, helping the Tigers win the World Series in seven games.
From 1969 through the end of his career Kaline continued to be productive -- he hit .277/.362/.433 -- but time remains undefeated and Kaline’s best days were in the past. The Tigers would make one more playoff appearance with Kaline -- in 1972 -- but they’d lose to the eventual World Champion Oakland Athletics. Kaline’s final year was 1974, which he spent as a DH. He collected his 3,000th hit in his eight-to-last game as a big leaguer. Kaline was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980, his first year of eligibility.
After his playing career Kaline spent several years as the color commentator for Tigers games on WDIV-TV in Detroit and then took a job, which he held until his death, as a special advisor to the Tigers front office. He was more than a mere ambassador in that role. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2015 and he was more than conversant about the finest details of the team, its roster, its clubhouse dynamic and where the club was competitively speaking. As I was in the Tigers clubhouse that day, I saw him speaking with Miguel Cabrera about hitting. One Hall of Famer advising a future Hall of Famer about how to break out of a minor slump in which the latter found himself.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Tiger.