What he did: For being a baseball Hall of Famer, and one of his sport’s greatest living players, Al Kaline is a forgotten man sometimes. Sure, the longtime Detroit Tiger has 3,007 hits, a .297 lifetime batting average, and a revered spot in his franchise’s lore. But ask anyone the greatest outfielder of the 1950s or ’60s and talk may sooner center on Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, or Mickey Mantle, among so many others. Limit the conversation to right fielders, and some may still sooner give a nod to Roberto Clemente or Frank Robinson or, if we’re simply talking peak value, Roger Maris or Rocky Colavito.
It isn’t Kaline’s fault that he played in perhaps the greatest generation of outfielders in baseball history. He made the most of his opportunity and has a well-deserved Hall of Fame plaque. In a less star-studded era, though, Kaline’s offensive stats might drop but his legacy could be greater.
Era he might have thrived in: If the 1950s and ’60s were the summer blockbuster season of baseball history, the ’70s and ’80s were like August, a time for second-rate action thrillers, sleeper hits, and the occasional box office bomb. Might Al Kaline have been Keanu Reeves in “Chain Reaction” on the Pittsburgh Pirates of this era? Hardly.
Why: With his foot speed and mix of contact and power hitting, Kaline would have excelled on the artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and a number of other ballparks in these days. Kaline never had the all-out power that came to define baseball in the 1990s, but then, neither did George Brett, Robin Yount, or most other Hall of Famers from their less offensive era. It’s why Mike Schmidt used to lead the National League with less than 40 home runs, one reason why Tony Perez and Jim Rice made Cooperstown with under 400 career home runs and Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy, and Dave Parker could follow suit eventually.
No one would begrudge Kaline hitting .330 with 20 home runs and 100 RBI on a team like the 1979 Pirates. In fact, these numbers and his defense would probably make him one of the best players in the National League. His presence might also make Pittsburgh better longer. For all the joy and warmth the “We Are Family” Pirates evoked beating the Baltimore Orioles in the ’79 World Series, their 1980 club was among baseball’s most historically dysfunctional teams, beset with cocaine abuse. Players like Rod Scurry, Bernie Carbo, and mercurial then-superstar Parker would later figure prominently in the infamous Pittsburgh drug trials of the mid-’80s.
Perhaps a steady, non-assuming person with no hint of scandal during his career, someone like Kaline could have a calming effect on that clubhouse, even if a leader as graceful and respected as Willie Stargell seemingly lost its hold. Who knows, maybe Stargell needed help and someone to assume his mantle with his career winding down. I’ll concede, of course, that Kaline could easily get swept up in the times when players rode the white horse as much as a later generation dabbled in performance enhancers. But I’d like to give Kaline the benefit of the doubt.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature (generally) here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Cesar Cedeno, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Doug Glanville, Eddie Lopat, Elmer Flick, Eric Davis, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gary Carter, Gavvy Cravath, Gene Tenace, George W. Bush (as commissioner), George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack Morris, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Gibson, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Mark Fidrych, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Spud Chandler, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Tony Phillips, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays