By Ken DeLaat
In the half bath at N3 World Headquarters and Cloistering Camp one will find a bit of a shrine (as well as a throne of course).Visitors to this sanctum see a lot of baseball related paraphernalia scattered about the one room I was given to decorate all by myself. A glance around the room finds it rife with relics like a bat, a mitt and ball, several photos, player cards, and other items that reveal a keen focus on one particular player.
The announcement of his passing today was the latest in the ever growing roster of famous people from my youth leaving us. Al was an icon and though not Willie Mays Hank Aaron or Mickey Mantle he was ours.
And he was damn good.
Always a baseball fan but more importantly always a Tiger fan. I recall starting in earnest to follow the game as soon as I could read and decipher the sports pages. This was circa ‘57 or so and the beloved Tigs weren’t exactly at their best during those early years. Prior to ‘57 they had a ’6 year run of failing to finish in the top half of the 8 team American League and that first year of my baseball reckoning they finished a lofty 4th They hovered around the .500 mark mostly those years. And it was during that time a deep and personal loathing of the Yankees flourished. The Yanks crushed the Tiger hopes each year running away with the majority of the pennants and a good share of the World Series titles.
Bulldog Frant Lary was a known Yankee Killer from the mound and Don Mossi gave them fits but they hammered on Jim Bunning and Paul Foytack and most of the rest of the American League those days. Even in 1961 when the Tigs ran off 101 victories their 3rd most wins ever, the Yankees finished the season 8 games in front of them. My favorite non-Tiger World Series was the ‘60 version when the Pirates upset the Bronx Bombers. Not because I was fond of Pittsburgh but because I loved seeing the Yanks lose.
But I digress.
Throughout those years of pennant futility there was one constant.
Kaline brought respectability to a team that was often staffed on the field with a good dose of mediocrity .Lou Berberet, Milt Bolling, Steve Bilko and Coot Veal aren’t exactly household names but they were the kind of players one would see filling out a lineup that always had Big Al batting third and playing right field.
When they finally got it together in the latter part of the 60’s coming oh so close in ‘67 and culminating in the ‘68 season when they won it all, Kaline was a huge part of their success. Then finally, after a decade and a half of ‘near misses’ and many ‘not even close’ seasons, he had the chance to play in his one and only World Series where he hit .379 belted two homers and two doubles scored 6 times and drove in 8 runs.
Later he would move to the broadcasting booth teaming with George Kell as the two swapped stories while pointing out what was happening on the diamond below for just over 20 seasons.. TheTigers haven’t even come close in their efforts to replace the two since they departed.
I’ve written before about meeting Ernie Harwell during an interview when he spoke in Fremont years ago. Ernie was the voice of my youth and he often used that voice to speak of Kaline’s accomplishments.
But I never got to sit down with Kaline…though I did have a chance encounter with him once.
Back around the early 70’s the Lions and Cleveland Browns held an exhibition game at U-M stadium. My friend Jim wangled a pair of great seats about 45 yard line maybe 10-15 rows back. It was a hot August day and we had somehow brought copious amounts of beer into the stadium which we imbibed in frequently (like I said it was pretty hot) which led to a most necessary trip to the Men’s facility.
My chosen destination had an unusual set up with urinals kind of facing each other in long rows. Then, right in the middle of my...uh...action, I guess, I glanced down the aisle and about 6 spots over facing the other way was Kaline. Al Freaking Kaline.
I threw my free hand up and yelled “AL!”
He looked over and put his hand up slightly in one of those ‘duly acknowledged but keep it down’ kind of gestures.
I stared down toward him as he completed the task and walked away, then once finished I returned to my seat.
I told Jim, ‘Hey, I just ran into Al Kaline in the bathroom”
“Really? Did you guys talk?”
“What do you mean 'kind of'?”
“Well... he waved at me."