Despite how it seems from inside our homes, the world has not stopped turning outside. Babies are still being born, couples are still getting married (albeit, online), and people are still dying, of coronavirus and of other causes.
Amidst all of the pain and suffering of this pandemic, in the last week alone, the world lost beloved children’s author and illustrator Tommy dePaola and the stunningly talented musician Bill Withers.
And today, the baseball world lost Al Kaline.
Al Kaline’s passing is a reminder that baseball will never be the way it once was, because we are unlikely to experience a player like him again. He played for the Detroit Tigers for his entire professional baseball career, and only the Detroit Tigers; they signed him the day after he graduated high school, and he never appeared in a minor league game. He made his debut on June 25, 1953, and went on to play 2,834 games in the same uniform. According to Hot Stove Stats, Al Kaline was one of only five hit 300+ home runs and 3,000+ hits while playing his entire career for one team. The others were George Brett, Stan Musial, Cal Ripken, and Carl Yastrzemski.
He was and remains underrated, the man with the name of a battery and a type of water, the one known as Mr. Tiger. In 22 seasons, he was an 18-time All-Star, including a consecutive streak from 1955 to 1967. And yet Al Kaline, who is one of those people you feel should always be called by their full name, though his teammates used to call him “The Baltimore Greyhound,” was never crowned MVP. At 19 years old, he led the league in assists in his rookie season, but finished third in Rookie Of The Year voting. They didn’t start giving out Gold Gloves until 1957, but he ended up winning ten of them. Ted Williams called him, “He’s the greatest right-handed hitter in the league,” when Al Kaline was 20, the year he became (and remains) the youngest batting champion in American League history. And while he did put together 19 consecutive seasons with double-digit homers, he never had a 30+ home run season. Then again, they weren’t juicing balls or players back then.
From everything being said about him by former ballplayers and reporters, Al Kaline was one of those rare gems, the gentleman ballplayer. Wade Boggs called him “one of the nicest and sincere[st] I’ve ever met.” Jim Palmer wrote that he was “One of my favorite people, Al Kaline… such a graceful, elegant player.” Dennis Eckersley said, “He was a wonderful human being, a class act & a true gentleman. I was very fond of him.” Go on Twitter tonight and search his name: you won’t find a bad word said about him. And that’s really saying something for Twitter.
Reading about Al Kaline today made me miss baseball even more. Not the baseball we have now, but the baseball they had decades before I was born. The kind with players like Al Kaline, the gentleman ballplayer who, despite occasional fiery outbursts, would always find the offended party, be it reporter or umpire, and apologize sincerely. The kind who turned down a $100K deal from the Tigers, their first time offering a player such a lofty sum, because he said he hadn’t played well enough that season to deserve it. The kind of teammate who told a reporter, “I don’t deserve to play in the World Series,” after the Tigers clinched the pennant in 1968, because he’d broken his left forearm and spent over a month on the bench. He felt that Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup, who’d been filling in for him, didn’t deserve to sit out when they’d worked to help the team reach the holy gates of October baseball. The kind of franchise player who broke Hank Greenberg’s club record for career home runs, and still maintained, “How can anyone compare me with Greenberg?”
To be fair, Hank Greenberg hit a club-record 58 home runs in 1938, and Al Kaline never hit more than 29 in a single season. But it only speaks to Al Kaline’s character that he thought this way.
The argument can certainly be made that a player is defined by a single season, series, game, or even at-bat or pitch. Dave Roberts’ stolen base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS comes to mind, as does David Ortiz’s speech after the 2013 Marathon Bombing, and sadly, Bill Buckner, by the ball that went between his legs in 1986. It’s a strong argument, and one that can even be made for Al Kaline, who was unable to hit his 400th home run in the last game of his career. He would have been the first American Leaguer with 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, but it was not to be.
But the argument can also be made that an athlete’s greatness can only be fully appreciated after they’ve stepped on home plate for the last time, tipped their cap to the crowd, and walked down the dugout tunnel, leaving their playing days behind. It’s the Joni Mitchell argument, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you got / Til it’s gone.” And Al Kaline is the perfect example for this argument. Because while he was never MVP, and never hit 30 homers in a season, he did set an AL record of 242 consecutive games without an error, and cumulatively, his playing career was quite spectacular. It’s very fitting for Al Kaline, who was known for not being particularly concerned with his own statistics, to the point where, in his first year of Hall Of Fame eligibility, he was “shocked” to find out that he’d been elected with 88% of the vote. He became just the 10th player to be elected in their first year on the ballot; Cy Young has an award named after him, and he wasn’t even a first-ballot man. But really, it’s the perfect argument for Al Kaline because of the person he was beyond his baseball prowess, because of his humility, kindness, and grace, and his eternal quest to put the interests of the team ahead of his own spotlight and glory. He was the first person to win the Roberto Clemente Award under its new name, and I think that accolade, given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team,” mattered more to him than MVP would have.
If a person can be considered a lost art, Al Kaline is baseball’s.