RIP Al Kaline

I didn’t like pitching to (Al) Kaline. Nothing against Al. He was a hell of a guy. I just hated the way umpires gave him the benefit of the doubt on almost every close pitch late in his career. I once threw him five straight strikes and walked him. He took a three-and-two slider that started on the outside corner and finished down the middle of the plate. The ump gave it to him. As Kaline made his way to first, I yelled at him, ‘Swing the bat, for Christ’s sake. You’re not a statue until you have pigeon shit on your shoulders.’ Al laughed at me. After the game I complained about the call to the home-plate umpire. He said, ‘Son, Mr. Kaline will let you know it’s a strike by doubling off the wall.’
—Bill Lee, The Wrong Stuff

Hall of Famer Al Kaline, the man who came to define the Detroit Tigers in the 1950s and ’60s, passed away today at age 85. He was noteworthy for being esteemed within the game as much for his personality as for his ability, which is saying something given that he was one of the best players ever.

For me, the power of Kaline’s mystique was distilled in a story told to me by former pitcher Dick Bosman for The Baseball Codes. It took place in 1974, Kaline’s last year, when Bosman pitched for Cleveland. During the game in question, the pitcher’s Indians teammate, Oscar Gamble, got into a little bit of trouble.

“Oscar hit three home runs in Tiger Stadium,” Bosman said. “He hit them upstairs pretty good, and stood and watched them a little bit. I had a 7-0 shutout going in the eighth inning. Ralph Houk’s managing over there, and he brings in Freddy Scherman, who puts his first pitch right into Oscar’s ribcage. Oscar, he’s a little guy, and it hurt him, boy.”

Bosman, of course — as was the way in baseball those days, felt the need to retaliate.

“The inning gets over with, and I get back out there on the mound,” he said. “And guess who the first hitter is? Al Kaline. The thing was, Al was about three hits from 3,000 at the time. So I’m thinking, where am I going to drill him? I don’t want to break his hand or anything like that. If I hit him in the ribs, that might put him out. The guy was a legend. So I figured I’d hit him in the ass. That’s the way it was supposed to be done.”*

Bosman was duty-bound, but determined to execute his task as gently as possible owing to Kaline’s standing. He ended up merely brushing Kaline back.

Baseball has lost a legend.

* As with many baseball stories from the distant past, the details for this one are somewhat different than memory might suggest. Gamble hit only one homer that day, Sept. 9, 1974, the opener of a two-game series. When the teams had met for a three-game set less than a week earlier, however, Gamble homered twice in one game and once in another, so Detroit’s patience may have been tried. Also, it wasn’t Scherman who drilled Gamble, but Vern Ruhle, in his fourth inning of work. Scherman, who had spent the previous five seasons in Detroit, had been traded to Houston the previous winter. At the point Bosman brushed him back, Kaline was 15 hits from 3,000. He would finish the year, and his career, with 3,007.

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