DETROIT -- Hall of Famer Al Kaline, fondly known as Mr. Tiger for a career that spanned 67 years with the only Major League team he knew, passed away Monday at age 85.
Kaline spent virtually his entire adult life as a Tiger, signing with the club as an 18-year-old the day after his high school graduation in Baltimore. He made his Major League debut a week later on June 25, 1953, and embarked on a 22-year playing career that included 18 All-Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves in the outfield, a batting title at age 20, a World Series title in 1968, 3,007 career hits, induction into the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot and his No. 6 retired by a grateful organization.
The son of a broom maker grew up to become one of the greatest ever to swing a bat. No player, not even Ty Cobb, has played more games (2,834) or hit more home runs (399) in a Tigers uniform than Kaline. He’s the only player other than Cobb to lead the franchise in a cumulative offensive category, and had he hit one more homer, he would be on a list that includes only 10 players in big league history with 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. When Kaline won the American League batting title in 1955, he bested Cobb by a day to become the youngest batting champion in league history.
Unlike Cobb, Kaline spent his entire career as a Tiger. Until Alan Trammell, Kaline was the only Tiger ever to spend an entire career of at least 20 years in the organization.
"I’m proud I was a Tiger for my entire career," Kaline said in 1986. "And you know what they say, it looks good on the back of your bubble-gum card if there’s only one team."
"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. A lifelong Tiger, Al was a true gentleman and one of the National Pastime’s most universally respected figures. I appreciated his friendship, humility and the example that he always set for others since he debuted as an 18-year-old rookie.
"On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Al’s wife, Louise, their family and friends, his admirers and the generations of Tiger fans who looked up to him."
“One of the most distinguished and decorated players in the history of baseball, ‘Mr. Tiger’ was one of the greatest to ever wear the Olde English ‘D,’” The Tigers said in a statement. “The Hall of Famer has been a pillar of our organization for 67 years, beginning with his Major League debut in 1953 and continuing to present in his duties as Special Assistant to the General Manager. Our thoughts are with Mr. Kaline’s wife, Louise, and family now, and forever.”
Indeed, Kaline’s playing days were just the start of his Tigers tenure. After hanging up his spikes shortly after joining the 3000-hit club in 1974, he stepped into the broadcast booth as a television analyst, becoming familiar to a new generation of Tigers fans. He also taught the next generation, working with future Tigers outfielders, such as Kirk Gibson, in Spring Training.
“He was always in my corner from day one. That’s just the way his personality was,” Trammell said. “Al was not pushy. He was always there if you needed him. And if you had a question, he always had great baseball knowledge.
“The look of his era, the way he dressed, he did everything to me better than most. Not that I was trying to be him, but I took notice of the things that he did, how he spoke, how he treated people. It was very special to be part of the Tiger family, and Al Kaline is really at the top. There's no question.”
Kaline spent a quarter-century as a Tigers broadcaster, then stepped aside to accept a role in the club's front office in 2001. His title was special assistant, but he was one of the more influential voices in the organization for then-general manager Dave Dombrowski and later Al Avila, for the late owner Michael Ilitch and then his son Christopher, helping in everything from on-field instruction to player development to player evaluation. He was still a fixture on the field in Lakeland, Fla., for outfield drills in Spring Training last month.
“Baseball lost a titan today,” Tigers chairman and CEO Christopher Ilitch said in a statement. “Anyone who knew Al Kaline would describe his gentle soul and passion for baseball as an unbelievably powerful combination, making him one of the most respected players in Major League Baseball history. My mother, father and I cherished the special relationship we had with Al Kaline, who was a trusted advisor and dear friend for many years.
“His dedication to Detroit was unparalleled and he was affectionately known as ‘Mr. Tiger.’ His positive contributions will forever be realized by baseball fans everywhere. The impact of his life is far-reaching, and he will be greatly missed by millions in Detroit, the state of Michigan and across the baseball community.”
“This is an exceptionally sad day for all of us in the Detroit Tigers family,” Avila said. “Al Kaline was a giant in this industry, a man of great humility, and has been a friend to me and many in this community for decades. I was blessed to sit with him during nearly every home game at Comerica Park, and I hold close our bond that has been created over nearly two decades of working together.”
Dombrowski and Kaline also developed a friendship that continued well after Dombrowski’s time in Detroit.
“We worked very closely together,” Dombrowski said. “He was a wonderful human being. He loved the Tigers, loved Detroit, had a passion about the game of baseball. He was humble, hard-working, you could see why people loved it. But I'd have to say for me it was much different because we developed a wonderful friendship. He knew my children, Darbi and Landon. He was very close with them. My wife Karie and his wife Louise, the four of us became close friends.”
More than anything, to many players who came through Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park, he was a sage voice and a good friend. He was Mr. Kaline, but he drew instant recognition and respect when he spoke.
"As a young player with the Tigers, I came to understand the depth of Al Kaline's connection to the baseball community and the city of Detroit," MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said in a statement. "He set a standard of excellence with his achievements on the field. But those of us who considered him a mentor will remember him equally for his class, humility and generosity of spirit. The MLBPA extends its sympathies to Al’s family, the Tigers organization and all of those whose lives he touched as a Hall of Fame player and ambassador for the game.''
That ability to connect continued through the generations, to current players whose grandparents likely remembered Kaline’s playing career, and it was just as much of a gift as his athleticism. His grace off the field matched his grace on it. Kaline traveled to Double-A Erie and helped former Tiger Nick Castellanos transition into the outfield on his way through the Tigers system. When Castellanos went to the Cubs in a trade last summer, he wore number 6 in part to honor Kaline. When former Tigers catcher James McCann returned to Comerica Park last year with the White Sox, Kaline went to the visiting clubhouse and hugged him.
“Mr. Kaline will always be remembered as the greatest Detroit Tiger of all time,” McCann tweeted Monday, “but to me he was more than that. He was a friend and I feel blessed to have known him. His wise words about baseball and life will never be forgotten. Thank you, Mr. Kaline. You will be missed.”
“Mr. Kaline truly is one of the kindest most welcoming ppl I’ve ever met,” Tigers pitcher Matthew Boyd tweeted. “From shaking his hand the 1st day I was a tiger to seeing him every single Sunday at the park, he was always genuine. Greeting every player with kindness and a listening ear. I’m going to miss you Mr. Tiger.”
Said Dombrowski: “He related well to young players, just because he liked being around people, I think. He could relate to everybody. That was unique, to be able to do that with people with the age difference. But he did it easily. My children loved him.”
“Al Kaline brought such dignity and grace to our game, and to the Hall of Fame," Hall of Fame chair Jane Forbes Clark said in a statement. "As one of baseball's greatest right fielders, every new generation of Hall of Fame Members were in awe of Al, not only as the player he was, but also as the true gentleman that he was. He will be missed throughout the game – and honored forever at the Hall of Fame. We join the Detroit Tigers and the entire baseball community in mourning the passing of a true legend, and we extend our deepest sympathies to the Kaline family.”
Kaline was in Lakeland for Spring Training last month. While he spent time around the ballpark and connected with players, he also had dinner with former Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
“We go to dinner that night and we talked 1953 Tigers up until 2020 Tigers, all the old guys, the old coaches, the old managers,” Leyland said. “It was one of those evenings you never want to leave. And when we got back, he hugged me and said, ‘Thank you for being a friend for all these years.’”
Though Kaline was born (Dec. 19, 1934) and raised in Baltimore, he and his wife Louise made Michigan their home for life when he became a Tiger. He alternated between the Detroit area and Lakeland during his later years until recently moving back to Michigan. The couple's grandson, Colin, was drafted by the Tigers and played two years in the organization before going into coaching. He became a head coach at Oakland University in Michigan before stepping aside last month.
Kaline is survived by Louise, his wife of 65 years, their two sons, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He also leaves behind a legacy that might never be matched in Detroit.
“He'll be missed,” Trammell said, “but never forgotten.”
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.