Meet the Legend

BASEBALL HALL OF FAMER AL KALINE HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED ONE OF THE MOST CONSISTENT PLAYERS IN THE HISTORY OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. NOW AN EXECUTIVE ADVISOR FOR THE DETROIT TIGERS, HE RETURNS TO LAKELAND EVERY YEAR FOR THE TEAM’S SPRING TRAINING. HE CONTINUES TO GIVE BACK TO THE GAME. THEY DON’T CALL HIM MR. TIGER FOR NOTHING
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIEL BARCELÓ

At a young age, Al Kaline was somewhat of an athletic anomaly: actively playing basketball, baseball, and football with the kind of effortless finesse and relentless accuracy that kept scouts on his tail and opponents on edge. At just 10 years old, with a frail build but a competitive drive, the boy was destined for professional sports, Al’s dad believed.

“My dad was actually going to make me a jockey,” Kaline laughs. During weekly visits to the racetrack in Baltimore on his dad’s one day off from work, Al would help out as his dad tried warming him up to a potential future. Kaline would look up at the horses that towered over him as he walked them around the track, in dread. “I was scared to death, because those horses were so big!” Fortunately, by age 12, Kaline shot up, filled out, and could steer clear of stallions in favor of playing ball.

Showing notable skill in every sport he played, Kaline was somewhat of a scout’s dream. Consistency was always his greatest strength. “I saw early on that scouts were looking at me, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I have a chance to do this instead of working at the factory like my dad or scrubbing floors like my mother did.’ So I said, ‘I’ll put all my effort in playing baseball.’” Preparing to graduate high school, Kaline had several scholarship offers for basketball but none for baseball. Regardless, from a young age there was only one ball game Kaline kept his eye on.

Fresh out of high school and standing a slender 5’10” and 150 pounds, Kaline received not just one offer to play in the Major Leagues, but three. One of them was from the Detroit Tigers, which at the time stood in last place. The other two teams, known for their rotation of heavy hitters and likely paths to a World Series, had offers that significantly outweighed the Tigers.

“At the time, my dad told me, ‘You want to play. You don’t want to sit and watch,’” says Kaline. “‘You won’t get a chance to play with the two other teams. But you might get a chance to play for the Tigers.’” While his father was right, a chance to play may have been a slight understatement of just what was ahead.

On June 20, 1983, at the ripe age of 18, Kaline signed on as a right fielder for the Detroit Tigers. Assured at least two years to play, just days later he made his Major League debut. He would go on to play with the Tigers for more than two decades.

Showing notable skill in every sport he played, Kaline was somewhat of a scout’s dream.

After 22 seasons, Kaline had played 2,348 games and scored a total of 399 home runs (not to mention the scoring pair that won the Tigers the 1968 World Series). It was one of the longest runs in the Major Leagues for a player to stay with one franchise team his entire career. Now at age 82, as special assistant to the general manager and invaluable influence to the current team, Kaline remains one of the Tigers’ most valuable players to date.

First joining the Tigers also meant many months that this Baltimore boy would travel south to spend Spring Training in Lakeland each year. (Since 1935, Lakeland has remained the host Spring Training city for the Tigers, with the exception of 1943-1945 due to WWII.) Prior to the newly renovated Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Tigers’ spring preparation now resides, the team first trained at Henley Field. Originally built in 1922 for the Cleveland Indians’ Spring Training, the historic site had been a stomping ground for some of the most iconic sluggers in the history of the game.

“At Henley Field, on a field that Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, and Babe Ruth played, and all of a sudden I’m on the same field that these guys played on,” Kaline recollects as if just stepping on the nostalgic greens for the first time, “and I couldn’t believe it! I got so emotional. I thought, ‘Here I am on the same field as all these great players!’”

Still just a teen, newly married to his high school sweetheart, and skipping right past any Minor League preliminaries, Kaline’s entrance into the big leagues wasn’t quite met with a warm welcome. “I wasn’t looked at very highly right off the bat,” says Kaline. A new young player in would mean a player out. And at the time, outside of the Major Leagues there were few prospects for professional players. Unlike the many opportunities today (analysts, sportscasters, playing for the Minor Leagues, endorsements, and relentless media opportunities), the only hope a player had of making a living in the 1950s was playing in the big leagues.

“Back in those days it was different,” says Kaline. “You couldn’t be a free agent back then. You were owned lock, stock, and barrel by the team. You couldn’t do anything else. We didn’t have the choices players have today: that they can be free agents. You had to wait for them to trade you or release you. But I always felt blessed to be with the Tigers.”

The current average career span of a Major League player is 5.6 years. Kaline played with the Tigers for 22 years.

Just before retiring from the game in 1974, Kaline would end his career on an all-time high. On September 24, 1974, he became the 12th player in MLB history to hit the 3,000-hit plateau, collecting a total of 3,000 regular-season hits. In 1980, the Tigers would retire their first uniform number, Al Kaline’s #6.

But baseball wasn’t done with Kaline just yet.

Continuing as analyst and play-by-play announcer for the Tigers over the next 20 years, Kaline presented games to homes with the likes of Ernie Harwell. “One of the greatest people and announcers of all time,” Kaline adds. “Though I have to admit,” he says reluctantly, “I was really lousy my first year I worked as an analyst. I was usually a very quiet person, and when you’re doing a game you have to give an opinion.”

Kaline recalls, “I would be very hesitant to do it because these players were my friends and I knew how hard it was. But the producers would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to make a comment one way or the other.”

Right outfielder for the Tigers in 1972, Kaline helped Detroit win the American League East Pennant, finishing one-half game ahead of the Boston Red Sox.

No doubt the role was stretching, taking him out his comfort zone, off of the field. But soon Kaline’s humble opinion became recognized as essential expertise for the Tigers that would serve to help the team succeed in the years to come.

In 2003, Kaline received a call from Mike Ilitch [Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner, who recently passed away on February 10]. “I had known him when I was 18, 19 years old when he would bring little pizzas into the locker room after the game,” says Kaline. “He signed with the Tigers in the Minor Leagues, had to go into service, and then came back. And in his travels he would see little pizza places in towns, and he’d say, ‘Maybe that’s something I can do.’ And that’s how he started Little Caesar’s Pizza.”

Once he bought the ball club, Ilitch asked if Kaline would mind moving into the Tigers’ front office to give his opinion and keep him up to date on the team. “Well,” Kaline told Ilitch, “if that’s what you want. But you may not like my opinion.” Ilitch replied eagerly, “That’s OK! I want different opinions.”

Since that time, Kaline has served as special assistant to the president, at the time David Dombrowski was with the Tigers, and he remains actively involved in the team, serving as a keen eye when the team prepares to draft, connecting with potential suite holders, and offering his view in the team’s strategic meetings. “But basically,” he says, “I think of myself as a Detroit Tigers’ employee, of all things.”

Still, every year, Kaline returns to Lakeland for six or seven weeks as a support and mentor to the players throughout Spring Training. “These guys are all wonderful human beings,” says Kaline. “They all participate in great charities. I have high respect for the players today.”

The 18-time All-Star player and Hall of Famer has had four times the career that most MLB players could dream of. Still energized, he has chosen to remain an asset to the team.

The 18-time All-Star player and Hall of Famer has had four times the career that most MLB players could dream of. Still energized, he has chosen to remain an asset to the team.

“My wife, Louise, keeps asking me, ‘How come you still want to work?’ And I say, ‘Honey, it’s not work to me. I love it. It’s something I look forward to.’ I like golf, but I can’t play more than once or twice a week.”

From those who first coached Kaline in the game to the scouts who helped launch him into the big leagues, if there is one person he claims has been the greatest support through his professional career, it’s Louise. “She’s been down here every year with me. She’s lived here [in Lakeland] for over 35 years in the winter time. She’s put up with me and baseball. She’s been there with me all the way.”

Kaline and Louise have been married 62 years.

You could say consistency has been a recurring theme in Al Kaline’s life. It’s actually why they call him “Mr. Tiger.