I knew this day would eventually come but it still made me gasp when I heard the news. Detroit Tiger legend Al Kaline has died at the age of 85.
Where do you even begin? He signed with the Tigers the day after he graduated from a suburban Baltimore high school and made his first appearance with the team a week later. Never played in the minors and spent all 22 years of his Major League career with the Motor City Kitties. Kaline was 20 years old when he became the youngest Batting Champ ever, beating the previous record (another Tiger legend, Ty Cobb) by one day! Of course, he’s a member of the 3000 Hit Club and was inducted into the Baseball HOF on his first try. After his career, he moved into the broadcast booth with another Tiger’s Hall of Famer, George Kell (“Thank ya, Eli…now back to the Dubya-Dee-Ah-Vee studios”).
But on a personal level, this one hits me hard…My very first game at Tiger Stadium was Al Kaline Day. Being in that stadium for the first time was magical. I can still conjure up the smell of stale beer and decades of “old” as me, my brother and my Mom and Dad walked up the ramp to get to our seats behind home plate, and as you finally exited the dark corridor into the stadium, you were bathed in sunlight and exposed to the greenest grass you’ve ever seen. So green in fact that you now understood why your dad didn’t want you playing ‘smear the you-know-what’ (we didn’t know any better then) on the front lawn. I remember so much from that day, Al and his family sitting together at the mound and seeing him wipe away tears because he was clearly overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from the crowd, and all of the other local celebs who were on the field for the ceremony including long time TV weatherman Sonny Eliot and “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe…I still have the commemorative button from that game. The Tigers lost 4-3 to the Twins that day but it didn’t matter, it’s still one of my greatest childhood memories.
My Dad took us to the Detroit Auto Show when I was eleven years old and didn't reveal that we would be meeting Al Kaline (as well as Olympic legend Jesse Owens). Dad knew but wanted it to be a surprise. They were both there as representatives of 'your local Mercury dealers'. Of course, when I got close enough in line to actually shake Al's hand, I mumbled something incoherent but happily accepted the autographed photo.
Being an avid baseball card collector as a kid, I studied the backs of those Topps cards like it was my job and I learned early on that Al was four days younger than my Dad.December 15th and 19th 1934 respectively, so for me, even to this day, there was always a connection between the two of them. My Dad died back in March of 2017 and the three of us have shared a lot of memories over the years.
Rest In Peace, Al…you’ll be missed by me and my family more than you’ll ever know.