The score was tied 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth inning of a wild baseball game at Detroit's Tiger Stadium last Friday night. Not once during the evening had the Tigers been able to get ahead of the Washington Senators, but now Dick McAuliffe stood at third base carrying the go-ahead run, and throaty growls and loving whistles came up from the knowing crowd as Al Kaline (see cover) walked from the on-deck circle, rubbed his hands together and slowly smoothed out the batter's box with his spikes. This year vital hits have been coming off Kaline's bat almost as fast as automobiles are being returned for checkup and, sure enough, with a count of one ball and two strikes against him, Kaline lashed a single through the middle to score McAuliffe, and the Tigers went on to win again.
As the pennant races passed Memorial Day the Tigers were fighting the White Sox for the American League lead, and despite the foul weather this spring, their home attendance had soared 100,000 above what it was at a similar point in 1966, a year in which Detroit had finished a forlorn third, 10 games removed from the World Champion Baltimore Orioles. From Belle Isle Park to the bars of Hamtramck the word has gone out that this is the year of the Tiger, and that for the first time in 22 frustrating seasons a pennant is going to fly above that charming, old, all-green ball park out at Michigan and Trumbull. College students are standing in front of Tiger Stadium selling bumper stickers which read TAG 'EM TIGERS, and the voice of announcer Ernie Harwell is being listened to with more interest than the Motown Sound of The Supremes or Martha and the Vandellas. Kaline was leading the league in hitting and in runs batted in, and he was—last week, anyway—tied with Frank Robinson of the Orioles in homers. But though he is the unquestioned star of the team, there are other elements to the Tigers this year.
There is, for example, marvelous and muscular Willie Horton, a 24-year-old slugger with a body that Fisher could never build. Recently, during one seven-game period, Willie hit seven tremendous home runs. When he trots to his position in left field the fans stand and cheer, because Willie was not only brought up in Detroit, he is the first Negro star the team has ever had. There is McAuliffe, a shortstop last year, a second baseman this season, whose strange, foot-lifting batting style seems to be one part Helen Keller and one part Mel Ott. There is Bill Freehan, the big catcher, who is hitting back to his form of 1964 when he batted .300. There is Jim Northrup, known at 27 as "The Grey Fox" because of his hair; last Thursday Northrup produced his second grand-slam homer of the season—the first went to right field and the one last week went to left. And Don Wert and Norm Cash—who between them had 43 homers and 163 runs batted in last year—have not really started to hit this season the way they can. Cash, a humorist who knows that his bat will get hot when the weather does, says cheerfully, "If they have to bat me sixth or seventh, we just might win this pennant by 20 games."
The Tigers' batting power was expected. Pitching was the question. The expensive moves that General Manager Jim Campbell made during the winter when he hired Mayo Smith to manage and John Sain, Wally Moses, Hal Naragon and Tony Cuccinello to coach seem to be paying off handsomely. Through April and May the Tigers used only four pitchers in the starting rotation, and two of the big question marks of the spring, left-hander Mickey Lolich and right-hander Joe Sparma, have been solid and dependable, with a combined won-and-lost record of 9-3. Of the nine games that Sparma started, the Tigers won eight. Earl Wilson and Dennis McLain, the organ player who tends to give up home runs in bunches, appear to be coming around, too.
But the new pitching love of Tiger fans is the big reliever, Fred Gladding, known as "The Bear." When the situation gets tight and Gladding begins to warm up, the customers start to chant, "We want The Bear! We want The Bear!" and in comes Gladding, all 225 pounds of him. Gladding loves playing The Bear. He stomps around on the mound like a grizzly, and he mauls opposition hitters. Through May 27 he had pitched 16? innings for Detroit, had won one game, saved six others and had yet to give up a run. As the season goes on, Gladding and the rest of the Tiger bullpen may tell the story for Detroit.
So far, Mayo Smith is pleased with the all-round performance of the Tigers, and his major experiment of moving McAuliffe to second base and putting Ray Oyler at shortstop has worked well. Smith sits on a high seat in the dugout and claps his hands constantly. He has made some daring tactical moves as manager, and one debilitating physical one. A week or so ago he raced out to left field to assist Willie Horton, who had crashed into the outfield fence and fallen in a heap. On the way Smith pulled a muscle in his leg, and since then he has walked like Chester on Gunsmoke. But Smith will not worry about his leg holding up, just as long as Horton does, and Gladding does, and his starters do. And he may not even have to worry about all that if Kaline continues to play ball the rest of the season the way he has through April and May.
Ever since coming to the Tigers as a scrawny-looking 18-year-old back in 1953, Kaline has been the darling of baseball connoisseurs. For 12 straight seasons he has won a place on the American League All-Star team (and his batting average in those All-Star Games has been an impressive .324). In the American League today, there are only two active players with five years or more of experience in the league whose lifetime batting averages are over .300. Mickey Mantle is one, at .306; Kaline, at .304, is the other.
Kaline is that rarity in professional sports nowadays—the athlete who is as exciting to watch on defense as he is on offense. His batting style, with the hips and shoulders parallel to the ground and the arms and wrists coming through smoothly and snapping at exactly the right instant, is classic. The finest description of how Kaline appears to a pitcher was given a couple of years back by John Wyatt, a slippery relief pitcher now with the Red Sox. "Man," said Wyatt. "The Line' is the best hitter anywhere. You got to do some scufflin' with that guy. He just grin at me all the time like he know he gonna hang me out to dry. The Line, he just stay in there and swoosh! You leavin' the game with an L."
In the outfield, Kaline's ability to judge and get fly balls and the strength and accuracy of his throwing arm are extraordinary. He is so much at home in the environment of right field that he has mastered the delicate skill needed to dupe opposing players into either holding up on the bases when they should be running or running when they should be holding up. Last week, for instance, in a game against the Red Sox, a line-drive single was hit toward Kaline in right field when a Boston runner was leading off first base. Kaline jogged in casually as though he had a routine catch, and the runner, fearing he might be doubled off first base, took only a few steps and waited, watching the outfielder. The ball hit safely, and Kaline, moving quickly then, gloved it, threw to second and caught the base runner, thus turning a hard-hit single into nothing more than a forceout.
At times in recent years Kaline has been asked to play center field, and he has done it without argument, even though he does not like the position. There were rumors this spring that Kaline would move to center again, but these were quickly stopped by Mayo Smith, who said he would keep Kaline in right. Smith added, "He made his reputation as one of the best right-fielders ever."