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Al Kaline, Tigers’ perennial all-around All-Star, 85

Spending almost seven decades with the Detroit franchise, Mr. Kaline became known as “Mr. Tiger.’’
Spending almost seven decades with the Detroit franchise, Mr. Kaline became known as “Mr. Tiger.’’Associated Press/2002/Associated Press

Since he signed his first professional contract in 1953, on the morning after he graduated from high school, there was no other team for Al Kaline but the Detroit Tigers, and there was no era of Tigers baseball, across the nearly seven following decades, that, in one way of another, did not include Mr. Kaline. From Hall of Fame right fielder to broadcaster to front-office executive, he was and always will be ‘‘Mr. Tiger.’’

Mr. Kaline died Monday at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a close friend confirmed to The Associated Press. He was 85. The cause of death was not immediately known, but The Detroit News reported that he suffered a stroke.

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Widely beloved as one of the most congenial and gracious figures in baseball, Mr. Kaline was still listed Monday in the Tigers’ front-office directory as a special assistant to the general manager, a position he had held since 2002.

A Baltimore native, the son of a broom-maker father and whiskey-distiller mother, Mr. Kaline was considered the best player produced by that city since Babe Ruth, going straight to the majors in Detroit a week after signing for $35,000 — money he used to pay off his parents’ mortgage. In his early years, he was often called ‘‘The Baltimore Greyhound’’ — a nickname that, over time, would give way to the one he kept for the rest of his days.

Ty Cobb may have won more batting titles, but Al Kaline will forever be ‘‘Mr. Tiger.’’

He was the youngest player to win the American League batting title in 1955 at age 20 with a .340 average. The right fielder was an All-Star in 15 seasons. The beloved No. 6 later sat behind a microphone as a Tigers broadcaster in addition to later being a special assistant to the general manager.

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He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1980 in his first year of eligibility.

“There’s a reason why he was Mr. Tiger,” said Dave Dombrowski, Detroit’s team president from 2001-2015. “First-class person, he was humble, he always played hard. He’s the type of guy that everybody could latch onto.”

“He was a golden person, along with being a great ballplayer. Gentle, kind, giving,” said Larry Herndon, who was a Tigers outfielder from 1982-88, when Mr. Kaline would work as a spring training instructor.

“Every good thing you ever heard about Al Kaline, it’s all true.”

Mr. Kaline never hit 30 home runs in a season and topped the 100-RBI mark only three times, but his overall consistency at the plate and his exceptional fielding and throwing put him among the top AL outfielders.

Renowned for his powerful arm, he won 10 Gold Glove awards for his play in right field and sometimes in center. He set an American League record for outfielders by playing in 242 consecutive games without an error. He played in 2,834 games from 1953 to 1974, the most of any Tiger, and only Cobb equaled his 22 years with the team.

“There have been a lot of great defensive players. The fella who could do everything is Al Kaline,” Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson once said. “He was just the epitome of what a great outfielder is all about — great speed, catches the ball and throws the ball well.”

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Mr. Kaline finished his career with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs (what would have been No. 400 was lost to a rainout). He scored 1,622 runs and had 1,582 RBIs. He got his 3,000th hit back in Baltimore, slicing a double down the right field line in September 1974, his final season.

In his only World Series, he hit .379 with two home runs and eight RBIs as the Tigers overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat St. Louis for the 1968 championship.

“If there is one accomplishment for which I am particularly proud it is that I’ve always served baseball to the best of my ability,” Mr. Kaline said during his Hall of Fame induction speech. “Never have I deliberately done anything to discredit the game, the Tigers, or my family.

Later that year, his No. 6 became the first uniform number retired by the Tigers.

Billy Martin, his manager late in his career, referred to him as Mr. Perfection, but his achievements came in the face of obstacles. He had been hampered since childhood by the bone disease osteomyelitis.

Albert William Kaline was born on Dec. 19, 1934, into a working-class family in Baltimore that was determined to see him become a major league ballplayer. His father, Nicholas, two uncles, and a grandfather had been semipro catchers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“Even though my family could have used the money I might have made at odd jobs, my father would never let me earn a dime,” Mr. Kaline told The Detroit News. “I never had to take a paper route or work in a drugstore or anything. I just played ball.”

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When he was 8 years old, doctors removed 2 inches of bone from his left foot to ease his osteomyelitis, leaving scars, a deformity and discomfort when he took the field. But that didn’t deter the young Kaline, who sometimes played for five teams at the same time in Baltimore.

“I’d play a game in one end of town, then my father or uncle would drive me to another game,” he recalled. “I would change uniforms in the car on the way. Sometimes I’d play three games in a day. I never got enough.”

After signing with the Tigers in 1953, he never spent a day in the minor leagues.

He was soon a fixture in Detroit, sometimes known simply as Six. He lacked the classic mold of many a power hitter. But he squeezed rubber balls to strengthen his hands and relied on superb timing and his study of pitchers out of his right-handed stance.

Mr. Kaline finally reached the World Series in 1968. He had broken an arm when he was hit by a pitch in late May, sidelining him for six weeks, and Jim Northrup had replaced him in right field. But he got his batting form back late in the season, and manager Mayo Smith moved Mickey Stanley from center field to shortstop for the Series in place of the light-hitting Ray Oyler, switched Northrup from right field to center and put Kaline in right.

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In Game 5, with the Tigers down three games to one and trailing in the game by 3-2, Mr. Kaline delivered a two-run single that gave the Tigers the lead, and they went on to win in seven games behind the pitching of Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain.

When Detroit played its last game at Tiger Stadium, in September 1999, he brought the lineup card to home plate, receiving a standing ovation. He is honored with a bronze statue behind the center-field wall at Comerica Park, where the Tigers play today.

Mr. Kaline leaves his wife, Madge; two sons, Mark and Mike; and four grandchildren.

Early in his career, Ted Williams raved about him. “In my book he’s the greatest right-handed hitter in the league,” Sports Illustrated quoted Williams as saying.

“There’s no telling how far the kid could go.”