DETROIT >> Al Kaline, who spent his entire 22-season Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Tigers and was known affectionately as “Mr. Tiger,” died today. He was 85.
John Morad, a friend of Kaline’s, confirmed to the Associated Press that he died Monday at his home in Michigan. Morad, who spoke first to the Detroit Free Press, said he’d been in contact with Kaline’s son. No cause of death was given.
Kaline was the youngest player to win the American League batting title in 1955 at age 20 with a .340 batting average. The right fielder was a 15-time All-Star, won 10 Gold Gloves and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1980 in his first year of eligibility.
The beloved No. 6 later sat behind a microphone as a Tigers broadcaster from 1976 to 2001 and was also a special assistant to the general manager.
Kaline came straight out of Baltimore’s Southern High School to the majors, making his debut on June 25, 1953 — six days after being signed by Tigers scout Ed Katalinas. He took over as Detroit’s everyday right fielder in 1954, and in 1955 he hit .340, becoming the youngest player — besting Ty Cobb by a day — to win the American League batting title.
Kaline never hit 30 home runs in a season and topped the 100-RBI mark only three times, but his overall consistency at the plate and his exceptional fielding and throwing put him among the top AL outfielders.
“There have been a lot of great defensive players. The fella who could do everything is Al Kaline,” Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson once said. “He was just the epitome of what a great outfielder is all about — great speed, catches the ball and throws the ball well.”
Kaline finished his career with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs (what would have been No. 400 was lost to a rainout). He scored over 1,600 runs and drove in nearly that many. He got his 3,000th hit back in Baltimore, slicing a double down the right field line in September 1974, his final season.
Kaline hit .379 in the Tigers’ victory over St. Louis in the 1968 World Series, when Detroit rallied from a 3-1 deficit.
“If there is one accomplishment for which I am particularly proud it is that I’ve always served baseball to the best of my ability,” Kaline said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “Never have I deliberately done anything to discredit the game, the Tigers or my family.
“By far, being inducted into the Hall of Fame is the proudest moment of my life. You can be sure that I will make every effort to live up to the obligation associated with this honor.”
Later that year, his No. 6 became the first number retired by the Tigers.
Those accolades came more than a quarter-century after an 18-year-old rookie fresh off the train from Baltimore had trouble getting past security guards at Briggs Stadium, which was later called Tiger Stadium.
“I finally convinced them I was the guy who just signed a bonus contract for the enormous sum of $15,000. That was a lot back then,” Kaline recalled in a 1999 documentary about Tiger Stadium, which he called “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Kaline was a Tigers broadcaster from 1976 to 2001, teaming for many years with fellow batting champion George Kell.
Kaline and Horton were named in 2001 as members of the new Tigers Baseball Committee, joining team owner and president Mike Ilitch, general manager Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner. Ilitch disbanded the committee at the end of that season but both Kaline and Horton remained as special assistants to new general manager Dave Dombrowski.
Major League Baseball presented Kaline in 1973 with the Roberto Clemente Award honoring the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team.
The accolades Kaline received during his career and afterward did not affect his humility.
“I wasn’t meant to be a superstar. I’m no Willie Mays, or Mickey Mantle,” he said.
That’s not to say Kaline was meek. He had a reputation as a fierce competitor on the field and was rankled by autograph collectors, of whom he said, “They’re trying to get your autograph because it becomes much more valuable when you die and you won’t be around to sign anymore.”
Kaline’s connection to the Tigers reached across generations when Detroit twice selected his grandson in the amateur draft. The Tigers took infielder Colin Kaline out of Birmingham Groves High School in the 25th round of the 2007 draft, then picked him again in 2011 in the 26th round out of Florida Southern.