‘Baseball lost an icon’: Tigers past and present pay tribute to Al Kaline

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Detroit — Alan Trammell remembers it vividly. It was in 1977. He and Lou Whitaker had just been called up to the Tigers and they were on the plane, their first big-league road trip.

Onto the plane walked Al Kaline and Trammell was star-struck.

“It was just Al, Al Kaline, Hall of Famer, you know?” Trammell said. “Just the classiness. That was the first thing you noticed. He always dressed appropriately. The way he handled himself. I had the utmost respect for Al and then being around him for all these years now — he never changed.

“That’s just how he was — a consummate professional. The Tigers’ organization and baseball lost an icon today.”

Kaline, who spent his entire professional career in the Tigers organization — 67 years, 22 as a player — and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, died at his home in Bloomfield Hills on Monday. He was 85 years old.

“Someone like Al is never going to be replaced,” Trammell said. “How do you find another person who was with one organization from the time he signed out of high school in 1953 until 2020? And he was still going strong. He was still very much involved.

“He will always be Mr. Tiger.”

After his playing career, Kaline served the organization as a broadcaster and most recently as a special adviser to general managers Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila.  

“I talked to him on the phone last week and it was pretty clear he was not in good shape,” Dombrowski said. “I asked him how he was doing. When Al Kaline says he’s not doing very well, it’s a concern. Al was always strong and healthy and always of a positive nature.”

Dombrowski, who grew up following Kaline’s playing career, got to know him when he was in the White Sox front office in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

“Our relationship changed when I went to the Tigers (2002-15) and he became a special assistant,” Dombrowski said. “But he was more than that. He became a dear friend. Right now I am looking through photos through the years — at Christmas parties, at birthdays, and he’s in every one. My kids loved him and he loved my kids.

“He’s just a very special person and this is a great loss.”

Dombrowski told the story of how Kaline took his son Landon on an autograph hunt during Hall of Fame weekend in 2014.

“You aren’t supposed to get autographs outside the hotel there,” Dombrowski said. “Al just said, ‘Oh, come on, get a ball.’ And he grabbed Landon, took him around and got him all the autographs he wanted, even a signed picture with Yogi Berra.

“He was a wonderful human being.”

Dombrowski also marveled at how Kaline was able to connect with players of every generation.

“He cherished that,” he said. “He really loved talking to young people.”

Case in point: Late last season, Kaline approached a reporter in the clubhouse.

“I don’t want you to write this, OK, but Jake Rogers just pulled me aside and asked me to help him be a better hitter,” Kaline said.

He was clearly thrilled and a little surprised that a 24-year-old catching prospect understood who he was and sought his counsel.

“Everyone knows he’s a legend,” Rogers said. “It was pretty cool to talk about hitting with him and pick his brain. We had numerous conversations, this spring and late last season. Good conversations. He had a lot of knowledge and any question I had, he’d sit and answer however long I needed.

“I’m just thankful I had a chance to be around him.”

Several current Tigers offered tribute to Kaline on Monday.

“Mr. Kaline was the epitome of what being a Tiger was,” said pitcher Matthew Boyd. “A coach, mentor, always present and always lending an ear or willing to share advice. Mr. Kaline was one of the first people to greet me when I first walked into the Comerica Park Clubhouse as a Tiger. He took the time to get to know me when I was only a rookie and a stranger in the clubhouse.

“That kindness and genuineness wasn’t just a one-time thing, it extended every week in our clubhouse where Mr. Kaline was always talking with players, attending chapels and just hanging out with the team. He truly was the best example of what it took to wear the Olde English D, but also what it took to be a man.”

Pitcher Daniel Norris wrote on Twitter:

“Al Kaline was one of the most remarkable humans I’ve ever met. He garnered respect that he never assumed. His love and compassion were staples in the Tigers’ clubhouse that found their way home with each and every one of us every time he showed up (which was often, even until his last days).

“Al taught us about baseball, but more importantly, he taught us how to be better men. Rest easy, Mr. K, thank you for everything — more than a Hall of Famer.”

Miguel Cabrera, in an Instagram post wrote: “Mr. Kaline, you will always be in a special place in our family, one of the best human beings I’ve known in my life. I’m going to miss those baseball chats with you, my friend. Rest in peace.” 

Back in 1996, Kaline spent a lot of time talking hitting to a young, 6-foot-7 slugging first baseman named Tony Clark. That year, Clark, now the executive director of the players’ association, hit 27 home runs and finished third in the rookie of the year balloting.

“As a young player with the Tigers, I came to understand the depth of Al Kaline’s connection to the baseball community and the city of Detroit,” Clark wrote in a statement. “He set a standard of excellence with his achievements on the field. But those of us who considered him a mentor will remember him equally for his class, humility and generosity of spirit.

“The MLBPA extends its sympathies to Al’s family, the Tigers organization and all of those whose lives he touched as a Hall of Fame player and ambassador for the game.”

As several former players and executives said on Monday, Kaline rarely spoke of his playing career. If he was asked, he would talk about the sad ending of the 1967 season and how it galvanized the Tigers for their championship run in 1968.

That was his most precious baseball memory — winning the World Series for the city of Detroit just as the smoke from the ’67 riots was dissipating.

There are four players to ever produce 3,000 hits and 10 Gold Gloves — they are Roberto Clemente, Willie Mayes, Ichiro Suzuki and Al Kaline. But good luck getting him to talk about that. Although, if you ask him about winning the very first Roberto Clemente Award, Kaline would go on an on about what a great player Clemente was.

“He was as humble as can be,” Dombrowski said. “Everybody in Detroit knew him and recognized him, but if you didn’t, he’d never speak of his playing career to people. You would never know what a great player he was.”

In 1955, at the age of 20, he led the American League in hitting (.340) and hits (200). He scored 121 runs and he drove in 102 runs, hit 27 home runs and had an OPS-plus of 162. Yet he finished second in the MVP vote to Yogi Berra, who hit .272 with a 120 OPS-plus.

Again, Kaline never complained that he was robbed. He would just make some joke about the popularity of the Yankees.

He never wanted to talk about what it was like being a bonus baby at 18 and a superstar at 20. He waived off the infamous story about how in 1970 he told then-general manager Jim Campbell that he didn’t deserve a $100,000 contract.

“I don’t deserve such a salary,” he was quoted as saying. “I didn’t have a good enough season last year.”

But he would talk forever about how he believed Nick Castellanos would end up being a solid right fielder. And he was right. Kaline would tell you straight-up that he wouldn’t have been nearly as productive in the modern era as he was in his time, simply because he was able to face the same pitcher three or four times a game back then.

He would talk forever about his golf game, which he played extremely well up until two years ago when he had knee surgery. He was immensely proud of his grandson Colin, who ended up coaching baseball at Florida Southern and then at Oakland University. He told great stories about how a younger Mike Ilitch tried to recruit him to play on his Little Caesars softball team.

“Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” former Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said in a Tweet. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life or just giving each other a hard time.

“I am honored to be able to call you my friend all these years.”

John Hicks, former Tigers catcher and first baseman, may still have marks on his neck from his encounters with Kaline.

“So sorry to hear about the passing of Al Kaline,” he tweeted. “One of the best men the game of baseball has ever seen. Will always remember him walking by my locker and putting me in a headlock every day. It was an honor to get to know him during my time in Detroit.”

Kaline was a fixture at TigerTown in Lakeland, long after he retired. He had a locker in both the old and new clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium. Up until three years ago, he would put on a uniform and work with the outfielders and hitters.

“This is an exceptionally sad day for all of us in the Detroit Tigers family,” Al Avila said. ‘Al Kaline was a giant in this industry, a man of great humility and has been a friend to me and many in this community for decades. 

“I was blessed to sit next to him during nearly every home game at Comerica Park, and I hold close our bond that has been created over nearly two decades…My family’s thoughts and prayers are with (Kaline’s wife) Louise and the Kaline family.”

Boyd, though, probably provided the best epitaph.

“We lost a legendary baseball player, but even a better man,” he said. “His legacy will always be present in everyone whoever puts on the Olde English D. Mr. Tiger is in a better place now.”


Twitter: @cmccosky