As a young kid spending a few years in a Detroit suburb, the Tigers became my team and Al Kaline my childhood hero.
In 1962 or thereabouts, I remember taking a perfectly good white T-shirt and with black permanent marker replicating the Olde English “D” on the front with a line down the middle to make it a button-down shirt. I’m pretty sure I filled in buttons, too. On the back, of course, I drew No. 6, Kaline’s number.
Mom wasn’t too happy. But I was thrilled.
Once the family relocated to Southern California, I continued to follow the Tigers, listening to most of the 1968 World Series on a transistor radio while in grade school since most were weekday day games. Treasured memories, all, and they flooded back when the news of Kaline’s death became public April 6. He was 85.
Thanks to the MLB channel, I got to watch replays of Games 6 and 7 of that ’68 World Series, airing the week Kaline died in honor of him. What a treat to listen to Harry Carry and Curt Gowdy, and relive history that had been etched into my memory.
Kaline played 22 seasons in the major leagues, all with the Tigers. He signed with the club a day after graduating from high school in 1953 and made his MLB debut a week later, never playing a day in the minor leagues. He batted over .300 nine times, including .340 in his second full season when he became an annual All Star (16 straight and 18 overall).
In his lifetime, he batted .297, hit 399 home runs, drove in 1,582 runs, and collected 3,007 hits and 10 Gold Gloves. He became the 10th first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1980.
In a statement after his death, the Tigers wrote, "One of the most distinguished and decorated players in the history of baseball, 'Mr. Tiger' was one of the greatest to ever wear the Olde English 'D.' The Hall of Famer has been a pillar of our organization for 67 years.”
The Detroit Free Press wrote: “In 22 seasons with the Tigers, most of them as a marvelous right fielder, Kaline played in more games and hit more homers than anyone else in club history, and he compiled a batting résumé second only to Ty Cobb’s.
“But while Cobb was widely reviled for his bitterness and meanness, Kaline was eminently respected for his on-field elegance and off-field graciousness.
“Thus, Kaline has a strong claim as the most distinguished Tiger of them all.”
R.I.P., Mr. Tiger.