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In a world fraught with inconstancies, unpredictabilities and galloping variables, it is a pleasure to report that spring has sprung in the traditional manner in Detroit. The flowers are popping up in Belle Isle park, the automobile plants are booming night and day, and everybody is wondering what's the matter with Al Kaline (see cover). Everybody has been wondering what's the matter with Al Kaline ever since he made the tactical error of winning the American League batting championship at the age of 20, the youngest player in history to make that mistake. To understand why this is a mistake, one must first understand a baseball truism most recently re-expressed by that skilled practitioner of brushback and typewriter, James Patrick Brosnan, as follows: "Fans want the player to be not what he inherently is but what they think he ought to be." Fans think that anybody who wins the batting title at 20 should win it again four or five or 12 times. Kaline hasn't. Therefore something must be wrong with him.
If there has been any change at all in Detroit's attitude toward the lean and shy outfielder, it is merely quantitative. Of late, the Kaline enigma has been discussed more and more loudly and more and more persistently by college professors and semiskilled seat-spring assemblers, waitresses and grandes dames, by everyone in Detroit who can tell a baseball from a free balloon. As a result of all this discussion, the expectable human reaction has begun to set in. What people cannot figure out they tend to dislike. And Al Kaline, the best all-round ballplayer the Tigers have had since Charley Gehringer, is finding himself disliked. Not long ago he stepped to the plate in a home game to the accompaniment of a Shostakovich symphony of boos and catcalls. One would have thought that Joe DiMaggio had put the old pinstripe back on and returned to hit against the Tigers with the bases loaded; not even Liberace has been booed like that.
While these hostilities were being ventilated, a kindly and gifted sportswriter, long addicted to the wonders of the Tigers and their star right fielder, was stomping about the windswept press box announcing to all who would listen: "As far as I'm concerned, Al Kaline can go take a jump. I've had 10 years of Al Kaline and that's enough!" A few feet away, another expert was collecting his own thoughts about Kaline and coming to a conclusion that he was later to proclaim over the electric radio: "Personally, we feel Kaline should be traded now before his value to the team diminishes even more." The ultimate in non sequiturs was expressed by someone who should know better, and who therefore shall remain nameless. "Maybe the Tigers should trade Kaline," this man observed. "After all, they've never won a pennant with him!" This particular approach to the laws of cause and effect would have made a shambles of the good names of Baron von Richthofen, Haile Selassie and Chuck Klein, but rationality has never been the long suit of the disgruntled baseball fan.
In fact, there are no villains in the Al Kaline story. Not the fans who booed; they only know what they see, and they have been seeing a slumping Kaline. Not the insiders, the habitu�s of the press box; Kaline has indeed been a difficult subject for them, combining reticence and taciturnity with a seeming indifference and, lately, even rudeness. And certainly nobody can blame Al Kaline himself, the party of the first part, a child who was thrust full-blown into a world in which nothing he ever did was good enough and excellence brought its own torments.
Kaline is one of the last of an almost prehistoric type of ballplayer, the kid who makes it not because of physique but in spite of it. Walk into a baseball clubhouse nowadays and you see The Body Beautiful all around you: smoothly muscled, superbly built young men like Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle. But not many years ago you would see bandy-legged little guys who make it on gristle and shank, on skills honed in thousands of games on sandlots that no longer exist, on guts and drive and gall.
Al Kaline is not bandy-legged, but neither is he a strong athlete, and he has had to overcome physical limitations that would have driven a lesser man to pack it in long ago. He has always had osteomyelitis, a persistent bone disease, and when he was 8 years old doctors took two inches of bone out of his left foot, leaving jagged scars and permanent deformity. This slowed Kaline down only slightly, and only temporarily. His father, Nicholas, his uncles, Bib and Fred, and his grandfather, Philip, had all been semipro catchers from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a place that had spawned major leaguers as Miami Beach spawns gaucherie. One may assume that the first long discussions heard around the family hearth by the infant Albert William Kaline were not about the repeal of the Volstead Act or high protective tariffs. The Kaline family was poor, proud and hungry—no Kaline had ever graduated from high school—and before long the whole clan had decided that little Al was going to be something different.
Down the street from the family's brown-front row house in south Baltimore was a vacant lot (such things are now extinct in cities) where the men of the gas and electric company assembled at lunchtime to sneak in 30 or 40 minutes of softball. After the games Kaline's mother would see the boy, not yet old enough for school, running pell-mell around the bases, all alone, ruining his pants with daring slides to beat throws that were never made. At the ripe old age of 6 he was adjudged skilled enough to be permitted to shag flies and warm up pitchers for the lunchtime frolickers, and within a few years he was welcomed into the game as an equal. At 11 he flung a softball 173 feet 6 inches to set a new elementary school record. The judges did not believe their eyes; so he repeated the feat. Naturally, he became a hard-ball pitcher; the best ballplayer in any neighborhood always seems to be asked to pitch, no matter what his natural position is, e.g., Stan Musial, Babe Ruth. In a league of 10-to-12-year-olds, Kaline's record was 10 and 0. In high school the coach reckoned the boy was too small to make it as a pitcher and too fragile to make it as a second baseman; so he planted Kaline in the outfield. In four years he hit .333, .418, .469 and .488 and made the All-Maryland team each year, a feat last accomplished by Charlie Keller.
By now the Kaline family had staked the boy's whole future on baseball, the way Lower East Side families used to stake a son's future on the violin. On Sundays he would play in two and sometimes three games, with his father and his uncles shuttling him from game to game while he changed uniforms in the car. For one team he was hitting .824 at midseason, but tailed off to .609 at the end. By the time Kaline was signed to a $30,000 bonus-salary arrangement with the Tigers at 18, he had played as much baseball as the average major leaguer plays in five or six seasons, a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why he was able to win the batting championship at 20 and has not won it since: he was at his peak at 20, and the pitchers, looking at the raw young kid of 150 pounds, simply could not bring themselves to admit that he was as good as he was. As Kaline says, "They've been cuter with me ever since."
A childhood like Kaline's may produce a star ballplayer, but it is not guaranteed to produce a barrel of laughs. Says Kaline: "I suffered a lot as a kid playing in all those games. You know how Baltimore is real hot in the summer? When everybody was going on their vacations, going swimming with all the other kids, here I was Sundays playing doubleheaders and all because I knew I wanted to be a ballplayer and my dad always told me, 'You're gonna have to work hard and you're gonna have to suffer if you're gonna be a ballplayer. You're gonna have to play and play all the time.'
"There was a couple times when I told my dad I wasn't gonna play Sunday, I was gonna go down to the beach with my girl or with a bunch of the guys to go swimming. And he says, 'Now look, like I told you in the beginning when you agreed to play for these people, they're gonna be counting on you, so if you're not gonna play tell 'em to tear your contract up.' So I would go play, but it was these things he did to me that showed me the right way and pushed me the right way."