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Al Kaline, who starred at Baltimore’s Southern High and became a Hall of Famer with the Tigers, dies at 85

Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline, the Detroit Tigers legend who was born in Baltimore, died Monday at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, the team and Major League Baseball announced. He was 85.

Kaline was known as “Mr. Tiger,” but he was already a local legend when he signed with Detroit out of Southern High School. He would go on to play 22 seasons with the club and played in the All-Star Game in 18 of them.

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The cause of death has not been disclosed, but The Detroit News quoted a family friend saying that Kaline had recently suffered a stroke.

"Many of us who are fortunate enough to work in baseball have our short lists of the players who mean the most to us,'' MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “Al Kaline was one of those players for me and countless others, making this a very sad day for our sport.”

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During a big league career that stretched from 1953 to 1974, Kaline batted .297 with 3,007 hits, 399 home runs and 1,582 RBIs. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980 and his No. 6 was retired by the Tigers that same year. He got his 3,000th hit in Baltimore, hitting a double to right field in a 5-4 loss to the Orioles on Sept. 24, 1974, at Memorial Stadium.

Two years out of Southern, at age 20, he led the American League in batting (.340), the youngest player ever to do so.

Following his retirement as a player, he remained close to the Tigers for the rest of his life, as a color commentator for decades and later as a consultant to team officials.

"His playing record speaks for itself,'' said former Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, who grew close to Kaline during their nearly 15 years working together. “He was a first ballot Hall of Famer. He was ‘Mr. Tiger’...'Mr. Detroit.' You couldn’t meet a better person — a humble guy who loved everything about the Tigers and the state of Michigan. He was also a very dear friend to me and my family, so this is a very sad time for us.”

Kaline grew up in humble circumstances in the neighborhood of Westport, not far from where the Orioles now play, in a row house in the 2200 block of Cedley St. in the shadow of a power plant. He was one of the top prep players in Maryland all four years at Southern, which closed in 2004 — 51 years after he graduated — and became Digital Harbor High.

In a 2004 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Kaline looked back fondly on his high school years, though he was quick to admit that he was not a terrific student. A quiet kid, he had spent most of his time dreaming about playing in the major leagues and working hard to make that dream come true.

“Let’s face it — I was a jock,” Kaline said. “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.”

In 2014, on the eve of the Tigers’ American League Division Series against the Orioles, Kaline serenaded his Detroit colleagues with the Southern fight song during a front office dinner at McCormick & Schmick’s.

"I can't remember what I did yesterday, but I can remember my high school's song," Kaline said.

He was known throughout his career and life as one of the true gentlemen of the sport, which is why many Tiger fans choose to overlook the irascible Ty Cobb and consider Kaline the greatest player in the franchise’s 120-year history. He won baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award in 1973, honoring the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team.

"He was absolutely the classiest guy you would ever want to run into,'' an emotional Brooks Robinson said Monday, “and also just a hell of a player, too. He won a batting title when he was 20 years old and just kept on hitting.

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"Oh, man, I miss him. My son called me to tell me that he had passed and it was quite a shock.”

Fellow Hall of Famer Jim Palmer also remembered Kaline as a terrific hitter and a better guy.

"He was a marvelous, elegant player,'' Palmer said. “Five tool player. Won 10 Gold Gloves. Was a very good base runner. Hit almost 400 home runs ... batted almost .300 ... 3,000 hits ... played his whole career as a Tiger. But when you look at him as a person, he was like Brooks. He was just a fabulous guy.”

The sad news took Palmer back to 2012 and the weekend that the Orioles unveiled his statue at Camden Yards. The Tigers were in town and Kaline showed up for the luncheon honoring Palmer and the unveiling of the statue, which included a poignant moment when Palmer’s stepson Spencer — who suffers from autism — took part in the celebration.

“Two weeks later, I saw Al and he told me that every time thought about Spencer, he teared up,” Palmer said. “That just gives you an idea of how humble and caring and compassionate this guy was. I tweeted today, that ‘I always wanted to go to Detroit, because I knew that Al Kaline would be on the field.’”

Last summer, the baseball diamond in the southeast part of Swann Park in South Baltimore was officially dubbed “Al Kaline Field” by Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

“He’s one of the most talented baseball players ever to come out of the city of Baltimore,” Councilman Eric Costello, the bill’s sponsor, said.

Former Sun baseball writer Jim Henneman, who starred at Calvert Hall in the early 1950s, has fond memories of playing against Kaline. They remained friendly throughout their divergent careers.

“I think the best thing you could say about him is, if you were in his company and you didn’t know his story, you would never have known he was a Hall of Famer,'' Henneman said Monday. “All of us who played against him knew that from the get-go.”

Though he was a three-sport athlete who also played football and basketball, Kaline was a shy kid who wasn’t particularly popular with the girls. He addressed that from the podium when he returned to Baltimore in 2003 for his 50th high school reunion.

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

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He is survived by his son Mark and his wife of 65 years, the former Madge Louise Hamilton.

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