Kaline agrees that right field is his position, and the way he says it shows the pride in the reputation he has won. "If I were asked to play center, I'd play it, but I don't enjoy center field. I do enjoy playing right field. Everything seems to come so easy there. I know, too, that there are a lot of people playing center field in the league who are a lot better there than I am." He does not say that there are any who can play right as well.
Born and raised in south Baltimore, Kaline is still remembered there as one of the finest basketball players ever developed in the area. Probably only Gene Shue, now an 11-year veteran with the Bullets of the National Basketball Association, was better. Kaline's mother and father sacrificed everything to give him the chance to become the first member of the family ever to get through high school, and the chance, too, to play baseball. His father worked in a broom factory, and his mother scrubbed floors. Al's three uncles and his father, all of whom were catchers, were convinced that Kaline could become an outstanding pitcher. He didn't lack for opportunities to demonstrate his skill. On weekends he would play three games a day, changing uniforms in the back seat of an automobile as he moved from one game to another. Later, his mother would see him, galloping the bases on the empty sandlot down the street, sliding across the plate again and again with imaginary runs, beating throws from the greatest arms a boy's dreams could build. Today, at 32, he is still considered one of the finest sliders in the game. If a play is close, Kaline's toe or arm or elbow or nose will somehow get to the base before the tag can be made.
His variety of skills, including hitting, moved him beyond pitching, and as he finished high school the Tigers gave him a $15,000 bonus to sign and guaranteed him $15,000 in salary over his first two seasons. The bonus rule then in effect in the major leagues said that any player receiving more than $4,000 to sign had to stay with the parent team for two full seasons. Detroit hoped that after those two years were up, two more seasons in the minors would have him ready to play big-league ball. But Kaline never went to the minors. He moved into the Tiger lineup almost immediately, and two years later, at 20, he hit .340 to become the youngest player ever to win a major league batting championship. That year, 1955, in the first game of the season he went four for five, batted in six runs and became the first man in 19 years to hit two home runs in one inning (the last to do it had been Joe DiMaggio, in his rookie season). But in the three subsequent years Kaline got off to bad starts and in one, 1958, he was benched when his average dropped to .217. In 1959 he started fast again and was hitting .359 when an infielder's throw broke his jaw. Detroit finished a disappointing fourth or fifth in most of these early Kaline seasons, but in 1961, with help from Norm Cash, Steve Boros and Rocky Colavito, Kaline got the Tigers into high gear. They seriously challenged the Yankees for the pennant—they won 101 games that year, only the third time in league history that a team went over 100 victories without winning the pennant—but they lost a critical series in New York and then five more games in a row to fall from 2� games out of first to eight games out in one week. During that bleak period Kaline hit .451.
In 1962 the Tigers were picked by many to win, and Kaline did his part. Late in May he was batting .345 and had 38 runs batted in when the Tigers went to New York to play the Yankees. With Detroit leading 2-1 in the last of the ninth, Kaline made a spectacular falling catch in right field to save the victory, but he broke his shoulder doing it. "I was sitting on the bench hoping Al would catch it," Jim Bunning, then with Detroit, said later. "I spent the rest of the season wishing he hadn't." Hank Aguirre of the Tigers, a close friend of Kaline's, says, "That was the day we won the battle and lost the war." Kaline appeared in only 100 games that year, and Detroit ultimately finished fourth.
Now, in his 15th major league season, Kaline is again the leader. When he won that batting championship in 1955 he was immediately compared to Ty Cobb, whose face is chiseled in bronze on the front of Tiger Stadium with the inscription, GREATEST TIGER OF ALL—A GENIUS IN SPIKES. If he is not considered another Cobb, perhaps he will be recognized as another Hank Greenberg, who has no bronze plaque but whose 306 lifetime home runs are a Detroit record. If Kaline hits 28 homers this year, he will pass Greenberg, and he may pass him on the way to the World Series.
The comparisons with Mantle come to mind again. Whereas Mickey has played in 65 World Series games in his career, Kaline has never been in one. Last week he sat on the bench at Tiger Stadium with his feet propped up against a pole and looked out at the field. "I have never seen a World Series game," he said. "I promised myself a long time ago that the first World Series I ever saw would be one I played in. The team has gotten off to a good start, and I think it's the best start I've ever had myself. I get a little tired once in a while swinging the bat late in the second game of a doubleheader, but I still feel comfortable in the outfield. I really feel good. I think I might get to see a World Series game this year."