Let’s begin with an ending: Al Kaline never hit 30 home runs in a season. He only had 100 RBIs in a season three times, only scored 100 runs in a season twice. He never stole 20 bases in a season, never led the league batting or hits after he turned 21, did not hit .300 for his career and did not manage 400 career home runs.
Baseball numbers mean … what exactly?
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When I was young, the thing that I admired most in the world was talent. That, I suspect, is because I wanted talent more than anything else. The baseball players who filled my imagination were like the kids in school who seemed to make A’s without studying and dominated the playgrounds without sweating. What mesmerized me about baseball was Ellis Valentine’s arm, Bob Horner’s impossibly short stroke (like a perfectly thrown short right cross), Willie Wilson’s blazing speed, J.R. Richard’s fastball, Darryl Strawberry’s gorgeous swing. Nothing on earth seemed more awesome than talent, pure and unlimited, and nothing seemed more important.
When I grew a little bit older, I changed, and the thing I admired most in the world was skill. That, I suspect, is because I started to see how rarely talent evolved into greatness. At first, I thought of this as talent being wasted … but like everything else it’s so much more complicated than that. Sometimes talent is wasted, sure. And sometimes, talent isn’t really talent. The Royals once has a player named Alexis Gomez who seemed impossibly talented. He was breathtakingly fast (6.5 in the 60-yard dash), had a fantastic arm, great hand-eye coordination (he was a volleyball star in the Dominican), lots of bat speed, and he hit massive home runs in batting practice. On top of that, though, he had a good attitude and was a hard worker and desperately wanted to improve.
But you know what? He kicked around i the minor leagues for the better part of 15 years (playing in only 89 big league games) and it wasn’t because he wasted his talent. It was because, for all his obvious gifts, he didn’t have THE talent. He didn’t have the skill to hit baseballs consistently. It wasn’t his fault; the things we think of as talent are often simply the limits of our own vision and imagination. Lots of people can jump high; that doesn’t mean they can play basketball. Lots of people can run fast; that doesn’t mean they can play wide receiver. Skill — the ability to do something well — now that was what mattered. The artistry of Maddux, the laser focus of Pujols, the the way Andruw Jones played the outfield, this was at the heart of it all.
And now? Now, as I close in on 50, I think something else still.
Persistence. I think it comes down to persistence.
And persistence, more than his youthful talent, more than his developed skill, is why Al Kaline matters.
* * *
Nicholas Kaline wanted his son to be a ballplayer. How many of these stories start that way? Al Kaline was born in Baltimore during the Depression. Nicholas was a broom maker, but he thought himself as a ballplayer; he had been good on the sandlots. He started teaching Al to throw a curveball at 8 years old. The kid had a hell of an arm. That was the first sign.
When Al Kaline got to high school, his coach Bill Anderson had his share of pitchers so he moved Kaline to center field. The kid immediately hit. More than that, he immediately UNDERSTOOD hitting. Anderson would talk to him just before a game about hitting a pitch where it is thrown and then watch in amazement as Kaline in his first at-bat rifled an outside pitch to the right field. That was the second sign.
You probably know that Kaline, like his contemporary Sandy Koufax, never spent a single day in the minor leagues. Kaline was a bonus baby — this was the rather astonishing rule that stated any player who signed for more than $6,000 had to spend two calendar years on the big league roster. Could you imagine anything more destructive for young players? Kaline signed with Detroit for $15,000. He spent most of his first year as a pinch-runner. The young Kaline could fly — he was called “The Baltimore Greyhound” for a while.
But Kaline, unlike most bonus babies, became a regular in his second year. He was 19 years old. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind a pitcher named Bob Grim (who won 20 games for the Yankees and won just 41 for the rest of his career) and a third baseman named Jim Finigan (who hit .302 that year and .247 for the rest of his career). Everyone buzzed about the kid’s talent.
At age 20, Kaline had the best season of his career … and what was probably the best season for any 20-year-old player before Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout. Kaline hit .340/.421/.546. He led the league in hitting, hits and total bases. He scored 121 runs, drove in 102. He played defense in right field that left opponents mesmerized.
“He’s made some catches I still don’t believe,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel said.
“He’s just one of those naturals,” his teammate Ned Garvin said. “Nobody expects a kid to step right out of high school in the big leagues.”
“The kid can’t miss,” Joe DiMaggio said.
“He’s the greatest right-handed hitter in the league,” Ted Williams said.
Yes, first it was talent that marked Kaline. And then it was skill. As a hitter, Ted Williams had a huge effect on the young Kaline — a short conversation with Williams had clarified the core of hitting. “Wait for your pitch and then hit it,” Kaline would tell young hitters for the rest of his career and beyond, and while the advice probably sounded almost insultingly simple to cocky young hitters, it was in this simplicity that Kaline (and Williams) found their strength. If you avoid pitches you can’t handle and make good contact on pitches you can, that’s all it really takes. The constant temptation is to complicate things. Only the most skilled hitters can see past the complications.
Kaline’s skill was evident in every part of his game. He lost much of his speed as he grew older but he was always a good base runner. He did not have great natural power but he always hit 15 or 20 or 25 home runs, even when the game started tiling wildly toward the pitchers. When they started giving out Gold Gloves in 1957, it seemed mainly for Kaline and Willie Mays. Kaline won a Gold Glove 10 of the first 11 years they gave one out; Mays won a Gold Glove each of the first 12 years. Kaline never won an MVP award but he was Top 10 nine times and runner-up twice. He was perhaps the most widely admired player in the American League because of the way he cared about his craft, and the kindness with which he treated other people as he matured.
“Fans don’t want much,” he once said. “All you have to do is smile and say “hi!” And shake their hands. They’re happy.”
* * *
And so, I always loved Kaline for these things — for being so talented, for being so skilled, for putting together a career with 3,000 hits and almost 5,000 total bases and more than 1,800 runs created and for being such a decent person.
But being older now, there’s something else about Kaline’s career that stands out. He kept on going through all sorts of pain and disappointment. He kept finding ways, small and big, to get a little bit better, a little bit wiser, a little bit more attuned to what really matters. Persistence.
Kaline’s temperament — unlike the man he was often compared with, Stan Musial — often ran hot. He beat himself up after bad at-bats (“I just never thought I should make an out,” he said). The pressure after his amazing 20-year-old season wore him down. He was particularly leery around reporters — Joe Falls, the legendary Detroit sportswriter, wrote: “There was a time when Al Kaline was not a very pleasant person to be around.”
Persistence. By the end of his career, no one was more respected or beloved by sportswriters.There’s a wonderful little story in Jim Hawkins’ book Al Kaline: The Biography of a Tigers Icon. After he got his 2,000th hit, Kaline rudely shrugged off reporters; he just didn’t think it was a story. Only then, he realized that whether or not HE thought it was a story, those reporters had to write about it anyway. He walked up to Joe Falls and said quietly: “I should have understood what they wanted. Would you please apologize to them for me?”
Not many people remember this, but Kaline was thought to be selfish as a young player because he felt like he deserved a better contract after his excellent 1955 and 1956 seasons. He was getting paid $15,000 and he thought that he deserved a pretty good raise — an entirely reasonable viewpoint. For instance, Mickey Mantle was making $60,000 or so at the time. The Tigers, however, had the power and when Kaline did not sign the first contract sent, Tigers president Spike Briggs took to the public forum.
“Al thinks he’s as good as Mickey Mantle and wants more money than Mantle,” Briggs told a banquet audience. “I don’t agree with him and he isn’t going to get it. … I sent Kaline a contract over the holidays with a $3,000 bonus for last year. I got the contract back unsigned. I didn’t get thanks for the bonus or even a holiday greeting.”
Kaline was outraged — “I definitely didn’t ask for Mantle’s pay,” he angrily told a reporter. He had not — he only wanted a fair raise. But people then (and people now) were not especially interested in taking the player’s side when it came to money. And Kaline was hit pretty hard by the negative reaction. He was always shy; after this argument, he grew almost insular.
Persistence. Fifteen years later, Kaline again made the papers for a contract dispute This time he Tigers offered Kaline the team’s first ever $100,000 deal. He wouldn’t take it. He didn’t think he earned it because he had hit just .278. “I don’t deserve such a salary,” he said. “I didn’t have a good enough season last year.”
Persistence. In 1960, as a 25-year old, Kaline was thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire. He would say that he knew on the way back to the dugout that he had been wrong … and so after the game he found the umpire to apologize and to say he was wrong and he was sorry. In later years, umpires would talk often about the class and graciousness of Al Kaline.
Persistence. Kaline had a severe problem with his left foot that bothered him more or less his entire career. In addition to that, he was generally unlucky. He was knocked out running into a wall once. He broke his collarbone diving for a ball. He suffered a nasty knee injury from day-to-day play, and he broke his hand slamming his bat after a strikeout. And that left foot was always hurting. In all he missed almost 600 games in his career, But he still played in 2,834 games … more, for instance, than Derek Jeter will play.
It wasn’t always fun. In truth, it wasn’t fun most of the time. Pain. Slumps. Salary fights every year. And the pressure; that smothering pressure, it was everywhere. Everyone just kept waiting for Kaline to have another season like he did at age 20. He had some that were close. But he never quite matched it, and the pressure was overbearing. No, it wasn’t always fun. Kaline when he retired in order to spend a year with his son before he went off to college, he was not sad about leaving. He had given everything he had to baseball, there were no regrets, and it was time to live real life. “On the Fourth of July,” he said, “I’d love to be at a lake instead of at the ballpark for two.”
Few men have given so much of themselves to the game. That, I think now, is what made him special, what made him Mr. Tiger, what made him so iconic in Detroit and in the Midwest. In 18 different season, Kaline contributed 2.5 or more wins above replacement — only Bonds, Cobb, Aaron, Mays and Speaker did that in more seasons. Some of those were great seasons. Some were good seasons. And some were just solid, injury shortened seasons — that was all he had to give. That was the point. Al Kaline gave whatever he had.
* * *
Funny thing about baseball numbers — they sometime clash against the memory of a ballplayer; they sometimes magnify and amplify that memory. When the numbers clash, the chemical reaction can be violent. Jim Rice’s career numbers simply didn’t match the image of the fearsome hitter who made pitchers break out in a cold sweat. So Jim Rice inspired more arguments than almost any other player. On the other hand, Lou Whitaker’s career numbers tower over the general reaction to his career. Dwight Evans, by the numbers was a better baseball player than Tony Perez — he had 30 points of on-base percentage, a higher slugging percentage, won eight more Gold Gloves. But it is Perez in the Hall of Fame.
What do baseball numbers mean? They mean what you want them to mean. Kaline’s numbers are what you make them. At the beginning, I listed off Kaline’s numbers as cynically as I could. At the end, I can easily go another way — Kaline is 17th all-time in games played, 24th in total bases, 27th in hits and 39th in RBIs. Only Mays and Kaline’s great contemporary Roberto Clemente won more Gold Gloves, and by Total Zone runs the only right fielder to contribute more defensively over a career was Clemente.
This is how it is for a career as long and diverse and haunted and beautiful as Kaline’s. We love baseball numbers because they help tell a story. We loathe baseball numbers because they can crash a story. I once sat down with Kaline before a game in Detroit and what I remember most was his answer to how he looked back on his career. “I can honestly tell you I gave my best,” he said. I was 30 or so when he told me that. It means even more to me now.