Kaline can still remember days of Southern hospitality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fifty-one years after graduation, on the eve of his alma mater's closing, Southern High's best-known athlete can still warble the old school song.

Al Kaline, baseball Hall of Famer, clears his throat, long-distance, and ...

Hit it, Al.

On the site of old Fort Federal, stands the school we love,

Southern in our hearts forever, we shall rise above.

Kaline stops, sighs.

"That brings back a lot of good memories," he says. "It's a shame there will be no more Southern Bulldogs."

When classes end Friday, Southern, a neighborhood fixture in Baltimore City since 1910, ceases to exist. Come fall, the school, now at 1100 Covington St., becomes Digital Harbor High, its technology-laced curriculum buoyed by a $4 million building renovation.

Digital Harbor's sports teams will be christened the Rams.

Southern's demise saddens Kaline, Class of '53, who rode a stellar high school career straight to a 22-year run with the Detroit Tigers. Two years out of Southern, he led the American League in batting (.340), the youngest player ever to do so.

Kaline retired in 1974 with 3,007 hits, 399 home runs, 10 Gold Gloves and a World Series ring. Cooperstown beckoned in 1980. But he never forgot his Southern roots, the maroon letterman's jacket he earned or the girl he met in the lunchroom. They later wed.

Kaline, 69, and his wife, the former Louise Hamilton, celebrate their 50th anniversary in the fall. They have two grown sons.

"I was always a shy guy," he says. "Girls didn't exactly fall all over me. It's not like I was a great quarterback or something."

At his 50th high school reunion last year, Kaline, special assistant to the Tigers' president, addressed the crowd.

"All of you girls who turned me down, look what you could have had," he said. "But I thank you for it, because I wound up with the best of the bunch."

Classmates recall Kaline as slender and quiet, an average student who made the big leagues his goal. They called him "The Line" and marveled at his exploits. Like the game against Patterson High when he went 6-for-6. Or the day at Hanlon Park when the outfielder with the skinny wrists hit two home runs over the trees and into the Jones Falls stream bed. The balls were never found.

Kaline became the first player named to The Sun's All-Scholastic team for four years.

"I never remember him bragging about his accomplishments, even after he got his jacket with the big 'S' on the front," said teammate Dick Walega, a pitcher. "That was a big, big thing."

Kaline bled Southern's colors (maroon and gold). If he wasn't wearing that jacket, it was a maroon V-neck sweater. The family car was a maroon 1951 Ford.

"Let's face it - I was a jock," he says. "I was proud to wear a Southern jersey. I enjoyed school and being around the guys.

"I got a lot of C's [in class] because I wanted to play ball, and I put all of my efforts into it. Teachers knew that, and gave me a lot of leeway; they didn't come down hard on me if I didn't finish a project.

"Looking back, had I failed to make the majors ... Lord knows what I would have become."

Kaline grew up in Westport, one of the blue-collar, industrial enclaves that fed Southern High. The son of a broom-maker and a scrubwoman, he lived in a row house in the 2200 block of Cedley Street, in the shadow of a grimy power plant. The home site would now be a four-minute ride to Oriole Park.

Every day, on his way to school, Kaline scrambled over railroad tracks, mindful that a lengthy approaching freight train could make him late.

Tardy? Never. "Al had tremendous speed," said Dick Lent, Southern's catcher in '53.

"Not once did [Kaline] create any sort of disciplinary problem," Southern principal John Schwatka told The Sun in 1955.

Recalls Kaline: "I never caused any trouble for teachers, only pitchers."

After school, the Bulldogs' team gathered its gear and hiked to practice at Carroll Park.

"It was about a 40-minute walk," Kaline says. Southern had no athletic fields of its own.

Later on, the gang would meet at a nearby drugstore or candy shop. "We'd play the jukebox, hang out, have some laughs," he says.

At the reunion last year, Kaline and his classmates rehashed those days at Southern, though nagged by the recurring question:

"Why would they change the school's name?"

Over 94 years, Southern produced other star athletes, including baseball's Barry Shetrone (Orioles and Washington Senators); Arlyn Marshall, an All-America lacrosse player at Johns Hopkins; and Augie Waibel, a University of Maryland football alum who went on to lead programs at Edmondson High and Poly and become the third all-time winningest football coach in state history.

But none seems to have represented Southern as well as Kaline, who signed with Detroit for a $12,000 bonus on June 17, 1953 - the day he graduated. At 18, he reported straight to the Tigers without a wink at the minor leagues. From then on, he was Southern's favorite son.

"As a ninth-grader there, in 1956, I remember walking down a second-floor hallway, past a single locker that had been set apart and roped off - and being told it had belonged to Al," says Ron Belinko.

Now, nearly 50 years later, Belinko, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County schools, has his own Kaline keepsakes - an autographed bat and ball, gifts from his wife, which Belinko displays in his club cellar.

"Those [mementos] are even more cherished now, with Southern going into the history books," Belinko says.

And what became of Kaline's locker, painted maroon, with his name scrawled across the top?

"It's here [at the school] somewhere," says Kate Scheminant, Southern's outgoing athletic director. "In all the construction going on, we've just misplaced it."

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