When news broke that Al Kaline died Monday at 85, reaction among the Deadspin staff was split between two wildly different reactions.
One was: “I thought he died years ago.”
The other: “I had never heard of this guy.”
The old-time baseball fan in me cringed, but it’s understandable. Kaline doesn’t have a hook by which to remember him. He didn’t lift his leg like Mel Ott, he didn’t hit .400, he didn’t hit 500 home runs. He didn’t say, “Let’s play two!” He didn’t date movie stars or have a long hitting streak. He didn’t feud with fans or managers. He wasn’t on the Yankees, so he didn’t win the World Series every year. And he wasn’t on the Giants or Dodgers and thus, he wasn’t immortalized by the ever influential New York press and fandom.
What he was, was a ballplayer. He played hard, hit the ball hard, ran hard, threw hard. He was Mr. Tiger, the team’s greatest star in between Ty Cobb and Miguel Cabrera.
If you’re under 30 and have heard of Kaline, you probably know two things about him: First and foremost, he was the youngest player to ever win a batting title, hitting .340 in 1955 at age 20. He won the batting title by 21 points, mostly because Ted Williams, who hit .356, missed 56 games and didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify. Second, he also got 3,000 hits, and missed joining the 400-homer club by just one. When he retired, only Hank Aaron and Willie Mays had ever reached both plateaus. Since then, Carl Yastrzemski, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken and Rafael Palmeiro have joined them.
Kaline had a lot of things working against him when it comes to gaudy stats and legacy. He’s the best American League right fielder of his time, without question. But he played in the era of Mantle, Mays, Aaron and Frank Robinson, possibly the greatest concentration of outfield talent ever. He is one of the game’s greatest defensive right fielders, and won 10 Gold Gloves. But he played at the same time as Roberto Clemente, who remains the most spectacular fielder and (more importantly) thrower to play the position.
Kaline got hurt a lot, too, which is a strange thing to say about someone who played 2,800 games. But from 1959 to 1968 he missed 277 games, or about 28 a year.
In 1962, he started the season hitting .345 with 13 homers in 35 games when he broke his collarbone. It would have likely been his greatest season, but he played only 100 games and hit 29 homers, his career high. That’s a 47-homer pace for a full season.
The next year, baseball expanded the top of the strike zone, from the armpits to the top of the shoulders and the game was thrown into a second Deadball era, which would extend through the rest of Kaline’s natural prime. His 1967 season looks nice — .308, 25 homers — but nothing special by today’s standards. He had a 176 OPS+,, which is phenomenal. What’s a comparable season in a more hitter-friendly era? Manny Ramirez hit .333 with 44 homers in 1999, and led the league with a 174 OPS.
Kaline never won an MVP award, mostly because of various Yankees, but he finished in the top 10 in voting nine times and was runner-up twice (to Yogi Berra and Elston Howard).
When the Yankee dynasty collapsed, he finally got to the World Series in 1968. Before the series, Kaline, 33 and coming off an injury-plagued year, told manager Mayo Smith he didn’t deserve to play. Smith put outfielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop to get Kaline into the lineup, and Kaline delivered, hitting .379 with two home runs. The Tigers won, but that Fall Classic is probably best remembered for the fact the Cardinals lost it, thanks to years of hearing that narrative from Tim McCarver.
Joe Posnanski, in his list of baseball’s top 100 players, has Kaline at No. 51,, and you could make the argument he should be higher. He ranks 29th all time in career WAR, which is ahead of, well, a lot of guys. Some of them include Ken Griffey, Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson.
I’m sure that’s shocking to a lot of people, but it makes sense, given the type of all-around player Kaline was. His was a style that lent itself to winning ball games more than making headlines.