Editor's note: Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline died Monday at age 85. This column is a tribute from Ed Petruska, former sports editor and current contributing writer at the Casa Grande Dispatch.
When I was a kid and a devout fan of the Detroit Tigers, Al Kaline was never atop the list of baseball cards I really, really wanted to get in my 5-cent pack.
Even so, I knew he was an exceptional player because Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell always had the sense of anticipation Kaline would deliver the big hit in a key situation. He was dependable. I picked up on this very early.
My Grandpa Dunn died in 1966, when I was 10. I didn’t realize how much of an impact his love of baseball had on me until after my grandpa and dad took me to Tiger Stadium when I was 6. To this day I can say, what a way to experience a faux Eden.
The enormity of the stadium and the vast expanse of green grass was ... what is the word? Indescribable. Our seats were in the upper deck in right field. I am soaking in everything. A man offered me a stick of gum and I gladly accepted. Then I received a torrent of warnings, most of which went like this: “Don’t ever accept anything from a stranger.”
Anyway, there was a hubbub along the right field wall. Turns out it was Al Kaline lobbing baseballs into the stands, including the upper deck. Ands that’s when I became an Al Kaline fan.
When my grandpa was alive, he called Kaline “double play Al.” This would upset me, but I didn’t argue with him. I think grandpa did this on purpose to get a reaction. Or maybe not. Hard to figure out someone in their 80s when you haven’t even reached 10.
Let’s move on.
In 1968, Kaline came back from a broken arm to help Detroit and the Tigers defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. His most significant hit came in Game 5 (the Tigers were down three games to one), and it was not a home run. It was a go-ahead two-run single that gave hope to all those rooting for Detroit.
Kaline went 11 for 29 (.379) with two homers and eight RBIs in that seven-game epic. If not for Mickey Lolich pitching three complete games and beating Bob Gibson in the finale on two-games’ rest, Kaline undoubtedly would have been the MVP.
Kaline played 22 years in the majors, all for Detroit. He retired at age 39 following the 1974 season.
Looking up his bio on baseball-reference.com, I was somewhat astonished to see that he averaged a “mere” 128.8 games played per season, with a high of 153 in 1956 and 1961.
One last fun fact: Kaline wore uniform No. 25 in his first two seasons (1953-54) before donning No. 6 and becoming the American League batting champion with a .340 average at age 20 in 1955.