Glancing Back, and Remembering Al Kaline
Al Kaline was so good as a right fielder that his Hall of Fame caliber hitting came as a plus. And he was so complete a hitter – and so consistent throughout his 22-year career – that his contributions as a slugger can be easily overlooked.
In 1955, the 20-year-old Al Kaline led the American League with a .340 batting average. He remains the youngest player ever to win a batting title.
But they shouldn’t be. His excellence as a power hitter matched the other accomplished aspects of his game. He never led the American League in home runs or RBIs, and usually wasn’t even considered to be the most dangerous slugger on the Tigers’ roster. But he ranks among the 20 most prolific home run hitters of the 1960s.
He was the poster child for elegant consistency. He was both liked and admired, by his fans and by his opponents.
Kaline came ready-made when the Tigers signed him at age 18 in 1953. As a “bonus baby,” baseball’s rules at the time required him to spend two seasons on the major league roster before he could play in the minors (or risk being snatched by another team). Kaline spent most of the 1953 season watching from the bench, appearing in only 30 games and batting .250 in only 28 at-bats. He had become the Tigers’ everyday right fielder by the end of the 1954 season, batting .276 with four home runs and 43 RBIs.
At this point, most of the bonus babies from this era would have found themselves in the minor leagues for a regrettably delayed but much needed seasoning. The 20-year-old Kaline didn’t need seasoning. He feasted on raw pitching in 1955, leading the American League with 200 hits and a .340 batting average that made him baseball’s youngest-ever batting champion. He also found a power stroke that would stay with him for the rest of his career, hitting 27 home runs with 102 RBIs. He was named to his first All-Star team, and finished second (to Yogi Berra) in the voting for Most Valuable Player.
From 1955-1959, Kaline batted a combined .318 and averaged 24 home runs and 100 RBIs per season. He would carry that kind of consistency into the 1960s. After a “down” year in 1960 (.278 batting average with 15 home runs and 68 RBIs), Kaline bounced back in 1961 to hit .324 with 19 home runs and 82 runs batted in. He also led the American League with 41 doubles.
A fast start in 1962 (a .336 batting average with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs) was shut down when Kaline broke his collarbone while making a game-saving, diving catch. He missed 54 games, but still managed to hit 29 home runs with 84 RBIs. He followed up in 1963 by batting .312 (second in the league to Carl Yastrzemski) with 27 home runs and 101 RBIs.
Injuries were starting to take a toll on Kaline’s power numbers. A lingering foot ailment limited him to 17 home runs and 68 RBIs in 1964. He wouldn’t hit 20 home runs in a season again until 1966, when he tied his career-best with 29. Kaline never hit as many as 30 home runs in a season, but he hit 20 or more nine times.
Al Kaline spent 22 seasons in the major leagues, all with the Detroit Tigers. (He never played in the minors.) Kaline batted a combined .296 and averaged 21 home runs and 77 RBIs per season during the 1960s.
During the 1960s, Kaline batted a combined .296 and averaged 21 home runs and 77 RBIs per season. He also averaged 81 runs scored throughout the decade.
No overview of Kaline’s career can be complete without mentioning his skill as an outfielder. Kaline won ten Gold Gloves for his play in right field. Seven of those Gold Gloves were earned in the 1960s, when Kaline dominated that award by winning it from 1961 through 1967. Though not blessed with blazing speed, he was baseball smart and made the most of his considerable athletic abilities (just as he did in the batter’s box). His throwing accuracy was deadly to careless base runners.
Kaline spent all of his 22 major league seasons with the Tigers, retiring in 1974 with 3,007 hits and a .297 batting average. He played in more games and had more home runs in a Tigers uniform than anyone before or since. He finished in the American League’s top ten in batting average 11 times, and in home runs eight times.
An All-Star 15 times, Kaline was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.
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