Al Kaline was a legend here first

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INCREDIBLE AS it seems to those of us who have followed his career from the beginning, Al Kaline turned 60 this past Monday. Most of us who knew him as a high school baseball phenomenon have a hard time believing that more than 40 years have passed since he left here a week after graduating from Southern High School, bound for major-league stardom.

But what's even harder to understand is how few of today's young, local baseball fans have even heard of Al Kaline. He's just the greatest baseball player to come out of Baltimore since Babe Ruth.

Al Kaline, a staple in the Detroit Tigers' right field for two decades, spent his entire career there, raised a family and became a successful businessman. Currently, he's a TV broadcaster for the Tigers.

In honor of his birthday, I'll review William Albert Kaline's history for the young ones and for the rest of us who just love to talk about Al.

His roots were humble. Al grew up in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Pigtown, so named because stockyard workers used to run pigs through the streets on the way to the stockyards. Those stockyards bordered Carroll Park, Al's home field. On days when the wind was blowing just right, the distinct stockyard odor used to envelop the playing field. But animal smells couldn't keep crowds from coming to see Al play. Always among the spectators was Al's father, Nick Kaline, who worked in a South Baltimore broom factory.

The young Al showed promise as a ballplayer early. It's hard to believe today, but he went straight to the Tigers -- no minor-league stint, no spring training. His career began slowly. During the first year, he played a little. The next year, he was moved into the starting lineup where he batted .276. The third year, at age 20, he won the American League batting title (.340 average), becoming the youngest player in the history of baseball to win the title. He was a day younger than Ty Cobb when he won the title.

After that, it was a romp to baseball's Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1980. Over his 22-year career, he hit 399 home runs (he tallied 20 or more home runs in each of nine seasons) and had a career average of .297. He played in 15 All-Star games. In 1968, he helped lead the Tigers to a World Series victory. In his last season, 1974, he played in 147 games and he batted .262. He retired at age 39, because he wanted to, not as the result of injury.

We can only speculate on how Al would have been revered in his hometown had he played for the Orioles. Unfortunately, Al left Baltimore a year before the city got its American League franchise. He is a lost soul in our firmament of sports immortals.

Ironically, Al Kaline has a lot in common with Cal Ripken Jr., the much-beloved Oriole. Both are big guys who play with style and grace, and both display an easy-going manner on and off the field. Neither has ever been quoted making critical remarks about team members or foes. Their batting records are quite similar, too. Both were blessed with incredibly strong throwing arms and are Gold Glove winners. But Cal is a shortstop and Al played right field.

As a high school baseball player, I came to know Al well. My school, Mount St. Joseph, regularly played Al's Southern. At one point, he and I played on the same amateur basketball team that was sponsored by a labor union.

Back then, Al looked even taller than his 6-foot-1 because he was lanky; he didn't weigh more than 170 pounds. He had a thin, craggy face with high cheek bones and a prominent nose. Even as a teen-ager, he looked like what he would become -- a major-leaguer. He ran with a loping gait, but when he rounded first base under a head of steam, his speed became apparent. He was a faster version of Joe DiMaggio. His arms were lean and sinewy.

His stroke was long and quick through the hitting area. Al Kaline hit line shots that routinely traveled some 500 or 600 feet past frozen outfielders and into playgrounds and parking lots. He attacked the ball regardless of who was pitching, high school stars or semi-pro veterans, they were all the same. During his junior and senior summers of high school, he played almost every day.

Scouts from professional teams came to see him in droves. They would gather behind the wire mesh backstops of Carroll, Herring Run, Clifton parks, etc. Out would come the folding chairs, stop watches, clip boards and stoic glares. Never before, nor since, had any Baltimore kid drawn so much attention for playing baseball.

They would come early to see him throw. From center field, Al would charge the ball on a dead run and, in one quick motion, come over the top throwing perfectly to every base. His best move was his throw to home plate. When he fired, with no hops, Dick Lent, an outstanding catcher, would catch the 200-foot fastball with a grimace, a puff of dust would rise from his mitt. When Al threw the conventional one hopper, poor Dick could only grope like a beaten hockey goalie, as the ball pounded against the backstop.

I'll never forget one of his last games here: It was a Mount St. Joseph-Southern matchup at Carroll Park in the spring of 1953. In one play, Al drilled a one-hop, line drive to our shortstop who gunned it to first. Al Kaline tied the throw. In the same game, Al broke from third base on a shot deep in the hole. The shortstop threw perfectly to home plate. Our catcher -- a football fullback -- blocked the plate. Al Kaline slid in hard, spikes first, to a terrifying collision. Our guy held the ball. Coming off the field elated, we quickly grew silent; we were transfixed by two puncture marks from Al's spikes on the catcher's shin guards. It's hard to dent those things with a chisel, much less a pair of spikes. Al was amazing. He had legs like steel springs.

But that's just one of the many Al Kaline stories that those of us who knew him love to tell. He was the first white guy I ever saw dunk a basketball. As an 18-year-old he could throw like Carl Furillo, hit like Joe DiMaggio and run like Robin Yount. Back in 1953, we couldn't believe that he was leaving Baltimore forever, except for an occasional visit.

A week after we both graduated from high school, I watched Al Kaline play with the Tigers in a game against the old Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium in Washington. Just days out of high school, he didn't look out of place.

When I occasionally drive by Carroll Park, which is now overgrown and usually empty, I think of Al and his incredible feats of more than 40 years ago.

Paul Baker, a former college basketball and baseball coach, now scouts for the Washington Bullets. He writes from Cockeysville.

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