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A good story #8300751 06/21/21 02:17 PM
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Copied and pasted from the DMN, since clicking a link might not allow you to read it.

What Hall of Famer Al Kaline taught me about dignity and dying.

As the boys of summer return to full ballparks for the first time since the pandemic, my thoughts return to my childhood hero, Al Kaline, “Mr. Tiger,” the Hall of Fame outfielder, 18-time American League All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, who played his entire 22-year career with the Detroit Tigers.

Kaline died on April 6, 2020, at the height of the pandemic, at the age of 85. But that didn’t stop the Tigers from honoring him all of last season, and again, on the anniversary of this death, with a moving public memorial with family and fans.

And oh, what fans he had. I wasn’t alone in worshipping Kaline, not only for the way he played the game but for the way he lived his life. One of very few players to have more than 3,000 hits and to be voted to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, he did not consider himself a home run hitter, yet he had 399 and still holds the record for Detroit. Kaline’s career started the year I was born, 1953, and ended the year I turned 21, 1974.

A few days after his death, I read a eulogy for Kaline in The New York Times. The author, Ira Berkow, still had notes from a 1969 interview in which Kaline said, “Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing, if I’ve wasted my time all these years... . I would like to have more to contribute to society, I don’t know, maybe a doctor. ... I have to think of myself as an entertainer really.”

To his credit, Berkow suggested he was an artist of the likes of Marlon Brando or Richard Burton. My memory goes further. I see him as a selfless man, exuding joy and gratitude, who conducted his life with modesty and honesty.

When Kaline was 8 years old, he developed osteomyelitis and had a segment of bone removed from his left foot. The surgery scarred him with a permanent deformity, requiring him for his entire life to run on the side of his foot. He never complained that this hampered him as a ball player or used it as an excuse. Asked what happens if he just put his foot down square, he said, “Oh, it hurts.”

Pursued by scouts through the last years of high school, Kaline was signed as a bonus baby right out of high school by the Tigers. They offered him a $20,000 salary over three years and a $15,000 bonus, which he used to pay off his parents’ mortgage and to provide eye surgery for his mother. He signed his contract on the same day as his high school prom and reported straight to the major league, never playing a day in the minors.

In the summer of 1955, at the age of 20, Kaline became the youngest batting champion in MLB history with an average of .340. During the 1955 season, Kaline became the 13th man in major league history to hit two home runs in the same inning and became the youngest to hit three home runs in a game. With his even and sweeping swing, he finished that year with 200 hits, 27 home runs, and 102 RBIs to earn the batting title. What didn’t show up in the box scores was his ability to move a runner into scoring position, to throw to the right cut-off man, and to beat out an infield hit.

At age 8, I attended my first game, with my grandfather, in 1961, the year the Tigers would go on to win 108 ballgames. Kaline came in second in the batting race that year with a .324 average and was voted comeback player of the year. The Yankees won 116 ballgames with Whitey Ford and the home run duo of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. As there were no playoffs, the Tigers just went home. Once a team breaks your heart, you become a fan forever.

My father was raised in Detroit, and we spent at least one or two weeks every summer visiting his parents. It became a nightly routine to go out on the back porch with Grandma and to listen to the games on the radio while I pored over the newspaper to memorize statistics. Ernie Harwell and George Kell became voices I’d hear in my dreams. By 1964, I had a Wilson mitt and a Louisville Slugger with Kaline’s endorsement burnished on them, and a prized major league baseball with his signature. I nursed that mitt through my 30s until the padding disintegrated from the desecration of church softball games.

Due to the fact I lived in Illinois, and later California, I long believed myself to be the only person outside of Detroit who revered Kaline. I suffered ribbings at my insistence that Kaline was the greatest player in the game. “Al who?” they’d quip — thinking of Clemente, Mays, Mantle.

In 1968 the Tigers would win their first pennant since 1945. Kaline had to spend a major part of the season out of commission. To aggravate pitchers, he crowded the plate and was hit by a pitch that broke his forearm in June. Kaline missed the All-Star Game for the first time in 13 seasons. When the season closed, he told manager Mayo Smith he didn’t deserve to play in the World Series as so many other players had stepped up in his absence. Smith chose to bring in centerfielder Mickey Stanley as the shortstop and sent Jim Northrup over to center, making room for Kaline in right field — a celebrated gamble now part of baseball lore.

The series began dismally for the Tigers as the Cardinals bolted out to a 3-to-1 game lead behind the imposing Bob Gibson. I was 15 years old and living in California at the time. Having made several unwise bets against friends, I was sweating blood, adding up the number of lawns I would have to cut to pay off my recklessness. I remember sneaking a transistor radio into the classroom with an earphone snuck up inside my shirt to monitor the action when I could. In those days, the games were played during the day and the only games I got to see were on weekends.

In game five, facing elimination, Kaline drove in a pair of runs to put the Tigers up. They never looked back. I was so overjoyed when the Tigers actually pulled it off that it took a minute to feel the relief of being off the hook. In the euphoric aftermath, my grandpa sent me a World Series program (I still have it) and a bottle of Vernor’s Ginger Ale bundled up in a copy of the Detroit Free Press with the headline, “WE WIN!”

Kaline wanted to be remembered as a good outfielder. What an understatement! You can find newspaper photos where leaping over outfield walls resulted in a Kaline catch instead of a home run. Team ownership removed a set of box seats in right field to keep Kaline from injuring himself so often. Yogi Berra declared that Kaline had the “best arm in the outfield — ever.” Billy Martin said that “the three most complete ballplayers” he ever saw were “Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays — and Al Kaline.”

I’m a jazz musician suffering from terminal cancer, who stopped swinging at hardballs before I turned 20. Kaline didn’t frequent the places where I play. We probably could not have sustained a conversation for more than five minutes.

But the memories I have from that era reflect the value of relationships over business, self-challenge over self-absorption, gratitude over recognition. Look at the photograph from 1961 with Kaline, Jake Wood and Rocky Colavito in the clubhouse after a win: their faces are shining. Look at the easy smiles of Kaline and Willie Horton slouching next to each other during batting practice: You can’t pose a picture with that depth. If I’m mythologizing, it brings me closer to, not further from, the truth.

Whether the man was what I make him out to be, I judge myself by the measure of the Al Kaline I remember or have created, hoping I might live with a similar dignity. This man did not just entertain — even if that’s how he represented himself. My friend Will says that maybe Kaline’s passing has created a new myth for me, one that has helped me to deal with mortality. He knows me better than I know myself.

Not long before my boyhood hero’s death, I invented a rite of passage for my 16-year-old grandson, since few exist any longer in our culture. I asked him to find a favorite toy from boyhood and bury it as a sign he was moving toward adulthood. I told him I would also find something to bury, since I still need to grow up a little too. He chose a wooden race car that we had built together when he was in grade school. I buried a 1964 baseball signed by Al Kaline.

John Rapson is a music professor at The University of Iowa, a composer, trombonist, pianist and recording artist. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

Re: A good story [Re: rjf1911] #8300848 06/21/21 04:54 PM
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It is summer, time to PLAY BALL!


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Re: A good story [Re: rjf1911] #8300890 06/21/21 05:38 PM
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Re: A good story [Re: dogcatcher] #8300909 06/21/21 06:00 PM
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Originally Posted by dogcatcher
It is summer, time to PLAY BALL!



Well said!

Re: A good story [Re: rjf1911] #8301175 06/21/21 10:31 PM
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Thanks. Great article

Re: A good story [Re: rjf1911] #8301209 06/21/21 11:17 PM
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The thing that got me.....that he told his manager that he didn’t ‘deserve” to play in the World Series after missing part of the season with a broken wrist.....because he started crowding the plate to unnerve pitchers.....this after 12 straight All-Star appearances.

THESE were ball players.

Re: A good story [Re: rjf1911] #8301228 06/21/21 11:45 PM
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I used a Al Kaline bat and had the glove also, got moved to catcher and didn't get to the glove but for 3 games. My last two yrs. in senior league i batted .456 and .458 with that bat.

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