For a kid who grew up in Chatham the passing of Detroit Tiger great Al Kaline at 85 conjures up a flood of memories. We lived less than an hour’s drive from the Motor City. Detroit was the source of our cultural influences when we purchased our first TV in 1952. CBC wouldn’t launch TV for another year, and even then there was no way we would swing the aerial around to point it at CFPL London, our nearest CBC outlet, when there were three American TV signals available in the opposite direction.
We would watch the Tigers on WJBK on Saturday afternoons. The games were sponsored by Goebel brewing (Goebel 22 is the only beer for you…) And Speedway 79 Gasoline. Al Kaline was only one of our heroes. Not all at once, the team also boasted the likes of Stormin’ Norman Cash, Rocky Colavito and Charlie ”Paw Paw” Maxwell. The Tigers always loaded up on muscular sluggers to take advantage of the inviting right field wall.
I attended my first game at Tiger Stadium with my brother when I was about 14. They played the Minnesota Twins (nee Washington Senators). The first thing that hit one on entering the stadium and winding one’s way through the dark catacombs below the stands was the spectacular flash of green that met you when you emerged into the sunlit field. Beautifully manicured outfield grass. The other thing that immediately caught the eye was the phosphorescent white of the tiger home uniform– dazzling to the eye. I still think it is the classiest uniform in all of baseball. We would arrive early to catch some batting practice. I remember Kaline, although a right fielder, would shag fly balls in left field. When he caught the ball the kids in the cheap seats behind him would start to roar and Kaline would oblige by flipping the ball to them. Kaline was not renowned as a home run hitter, although he did average 18 a year, but he was the team’s most reliable percentage hitter with a lifetime batting average of .297. Today a hitter like that would get a $20 Million contract. Kaline’s best contract was $80,000.
Fast forward a few years, and I am now a fledgling news/sportscaster for a rock station in London. Sports Director Chris Mayberry would wangle press passes for us. That led to many hours in the Tiger Press Box where the beer flowed freely and the food was great. If you got tired of Peshke’s spicy hot dogs you could also get a sit-down hot meal in the Tiger Lounge. Chris and I were headed to the lounge once, and I remember getting on an elevator, and then realizing that not only Al Kaline, now a Tiger announcer, but fellow announcer George Kell (a fabulous third baseman who had a lifetime average of 306!) were on the elevator as well. Being sophisticated newsmen, we would not stoop to asking for autographs, but it was a moment. I think I remember Kaline telling Kell a mildly risqué joke–something that today would be acceptable on kids tv. Two highlights that I remember involving Kaline. The first was a no-hitter pitched by Tiger star Jim Bunning against the Ted Williams Red Sox in 1958. Watching on TV, we were apprehensive as the mighty Williams was the Sox last batter in the 9th inning. Williams lashed the ball towards that short right field porch, but it was Al Kaline who calmly flagged it down for the final out.
The other highlight was Kaline’s play in the 1968 World Series against St, Louis. It was game five and the Tigers were down three games to one facing elimination. In the seventh inning, Tigers down 5-3, and bases loaded, Al Kaline slapped a single that scored two runners to tie the game. The Tigers went on to win the game, and then took the final two games to win the series. The reliable old pro had come through in the clutch.