Any player/Any era: Al Kaline

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 SimmonsAlbert PujolsBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug GlanvilleEddie LopatElmer FlickEric Davis, Frank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack MorrisJackie Robinson, Jim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark FidrychMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

3 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Al Kaline”

  1. Thanks for this article remembering a true great AL KALINE. The Yankees and Red Sox tend to be remembered more. He was an awesome hitter.


  2. I echo Ben’s sentiments all the way. Kaline was one of a kind. Nice to see a such a fine blog about him. Although, I do think for the bulk of his career Kaline was popular and respected by fans and writers. With the exception of Maris’s two great years with the Yanks and Frank Robinson’s Triple Crown season, I think Kaline was for the most part considered the number one right fielder in the AL and would would have been somewhere between the top 1-4 in the majors. I think that unless a great player has played in a huge city like DiMaggio or has been among the one or two most iconic players of their generation like Aaron and Cobb or been outspoken like Ted Williams or done something to utterly change the game like Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth or has tragically died young like Gehrig and Clemente– very often other greats like Kaline, Musial and Frank Robinson tend to fade in the memories of fans and writers as time passes.
    As a kid though it seemed the Tigers often contended and Kaline even through increasing injuries was always there doing something spectacular at the plate or in the field. To me he is one of the unsung five-tool players in baseball history.

  3. Dear Howard,
    I enjoyed your write up on Bobby Veach and concur whole heartedly, he was and still is one of the Tigers all time greats, yes his HR count were not that great but I wonder how many of those HR’s were in the parkers? He could motor, He hit many triples didn’t he? Those deadballs were really dead balls, but he may also have had a beautiful line drive swing, but yes he could have been Ruth before Ruth I was attracted to him as soon as I saw his numbers, he still starts for the Tigers all time great team, It’s him or Horton or Gibson, but Veach had really good D and played all 3 positions,

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