COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Al Kaline wasn’t usually called by his first name or his surname in the Detroit Tigers clubhouse. In the world of nicknames, Kaline’s was as simple as they came.
The number was all that was needed to identify the man who played his entire 22-year career in the Motor City. On Sept. 19, 1980 – 32 years ago this week – the No. 6 won immortality in Detroit when Kaline became the first player in Tigers history to have his number retired.
“When you think about Al Kaline, one thing comes to mind,” said his former teammate Bill Freehan. “Plenty of ballplayers have played right field through the years. None played it any better than Al Kaline.”
The 18-time All-Star was the 12th member of the elusive 3,000-hit club. Kaline finished his Hall of Fame career with 399 home runs and 10 Gold Glove Awards.
“He does something for us every day he is out there,” said his former manager Bob Scheffing. “He helps in so many ways, it’s almost unbelievable. Even when he goes 0-for-4 or 0-for-5 at the plate, he still helps us in the field, with a catch or a throw or something to pull us out of trouble.”
Kaline’s five-tool skill set made him a coveted talent coming out of high school. But unlike most high school draft picks, Kaline didn’t play an inning in the minor leagues. The 18-year old outfielder went straight from his Southern High School team (in Baltimore, Md.) to the Tigers when he made his big league debut on June 25, 1953.
The kid lived up to the billing.
Kaline finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in four of his first six seasons. At age 20, Kaline hit .340 to become the youngest player to win the American League batting title, besting Hall of Fame and former Tiger outfielder Ty Cobb by a day. By the time he was 24, Kaline was a five-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove Award winner.
The right fielder was likened to another do-it-all Hall of Famer.
“Kaline and (Joe) DiMaggio have an appeal to fans you don’t see very often,” said broadcaster Rex Barney. “You never tire of watching them perform; both are the kind the fans will pay especially to see.”
Like DiMaggio, Kaline’s career never slowed down and he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Kaline was enshrined in Cooperstown two months prior to having his No. 6 retired in Detroit. Besides calling him one of the great Tigers of all time, former manager Chuck Dressen offered even highest praise.
“He’s the best player who ever played for me,” said Dressen. “Jackie Robinson was the most exciting runner I ever had and Hank Aaron the best hitter, but for all-around ability – hitting, fielding, running and throwing – I’ll go with Al.”
Despite all the accolades, the ever modest Kaline respectfully disagreed with his former skipper’s claim.
“I’ve always had a saying that, if you weren’t the best, what’s the difference whether you’re number two or number 30 or number 500?” Kaline said. “And I was never the best. I was never the worst. I was far from being the worst but I was a lot closer to being the best than I was the worst.”
Connor O’Gara was the 2012 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development