Kaline died Monday at his home in Michigan, the Tigers confirmed. He was 85. The cause of death was not immediately known, but the Detroit News reported Kaline had recently suffered a stroke.
Widely beloved as one of the most congenial and gracious figures in baseball, Kaline is still listed in the Tigers’ front-office directory as a special assistant to the general manager, a position he had held since 2002.
“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 the 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.”
A Baltimore native, the son of a broom-maker father and whiskey-distiller mother, Kaline was considered the best player produced by that city since Babe Ruth, going straight to the majors a week after signing out of Southern High for $35,000 — money he used to pay off his parents’ mortgage. In his early years, Kaline was often called “The Baltimore Greyhound” — a nickname that, over time, would give way to the one he kept for the rest of his days.
Ty Cobb may have been a better pure ballplayer, but Kaline will forever be “Mr. Tiger.”
Over a stellar, 22-year career — all of it with the Tigers — Kaline collected 3,007 hits, smashed 399 home runs, made 18 all-star teams and helped the Tigers to the 1968 World Series title. In 1955, at 20, he became the youngest player in American League history to win the batting title.
But if anything, Kaline was even better on defense, earning 10 Gold Gloves — only Roberto Clemente, with 12, won more as a right fielder — and dominating games as often with his arm or glove as he did with his bat. Once, as a 19-year-old in 1954, he threw out runners on the bases in three consecutive innings. Over time, right field at old Tiger Stadium became known as Kaline’s Corner.
“People ask me, was it my goal to play in the majors for 22 years? Was it my goal to get 3,000 hits someday?” he once said. “Lord knows, I didn’t have any goals. I tell them, ‘My only desire was to be a baseball player.’ ”
In 1980, Kaline was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility — making him at the time only the ninth first-ballot electee since the inaugural Cooperstown class of 1936.
Kaline retired from playing in 1974, but he wasn’t away from the Tigers for long. Beginning in 1976, he served as the primary color commentator on Tigers television broadcasts before retiring from the booth in 2001.
Since 2002 he had served in the Tigers’ front office as a special assistant to general managers Dave Dombrowski (2002-15) and Al Avila (2015-present), although his unofficial role was an ambassador for the franchise — a smiling, elegant, white-haired figure who was a ubiquitous presence behind the batting cage or in the dugout or clubhouse before games.
“Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” longtime Tigers ace Justin Verlander tweeted of Kaline. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years.”
“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,” Major League Baseball Players Association chief 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.”
Read more on baseball: