I remember my father’s eyes would light up whenever he would talk about players like Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Denny McLain, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Gates Brown.
But to many Tiger fans my father’s age, nobody inspired more excitement than Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline.
During his career, Kaline hit .297 with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs. A 15-time All-Star with a cannon for an arm, Kaline had 10 Gold Gloves to his credit.
Kaline was also one of the first major league players to earn the Roberto Clemente Award for his efforts on the baseball field and in the community.
But being 11 in the early 1990s, I did not carry with me the same appreciation for Kaline as my dad did. At the time, I had found my own heroes in Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Cecil Fielder and Mickey Tettleton.
This was not to say I was not drawn to playing outfield like Kaline was. While many boys my age tried to avoid playing outfield like the plague, I became obsessed with preventing baseballs from thumping the ground.
My father played a part in this of course, for I will never forget the hot summer days he would take me to a local ballpark, deploy me to the outfield and then proceed to launch fly ball after fly ball to the point of sheer exhaustion.
Naturally, some baseballs found their way to the turf, mostly because I was sucking wind after shagging nearly four dozen fly balls in a row.
“You’ve got to practice the way you play,” my dad always used to say before beginning the next round of stitched artillery.
“Why the heck does he always say that?” I used to ask myself as my dad reared back to whack another fly ball. “It’s so annoying.”
Ticked off, I proceeded to catch anything and everything my father would smack my direction just so he would not speak that malarkey any longer.
Flash forward a decade later.
After earning a reputation as the best defensive outfielder who could not hit worth a darn, I joined the United States Air Force. After traveling the world a bit, I received orders to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Ft. Meade is a gigantic Army base located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
While stationed at Ft. Meade I lived in Fells Point, a richly historic sea town just east of Baltimore City. It was here I learned a lot about the city—the good, the bad and the ugly.
Never in a million years however, did I think I would learn what I learned about Kaline.
One day while doing research on the town, I came across the Westport Development website. Intrigued by this future community, I logged on to Wikipedia to learn more about Westport.
Lo and behold, to my amazement I read the following sentence.
“This neighborhood was the home town of Al Kaline, who graduated from Southern High School in 1954 and was recruited by the Detroit Tigers for the then-all-time high amount of $35,000.00. Al Kaline also coached the Westport Methodist Baseball League.”
As a lifelong Tigers fan I was floored to learn one my father’s favorite players was born and raised in a working class town right here in Baltimore. Sure, I knew Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken Jr. were legendary natives of this historic city.
But Al Kaline?
Upon further inquiry, I learned the man who played 22 seasons with the Tigers grew up on 2222 Cedley Street, where he played ball on the sandlots near the broom factory his father worked at. More research revealed Kaline whacked his 3,000th hit versus the Orioles at Memorial Stadium on September 24, 1974.
As it turned out, many Baltimoreans I spoke with did not know Kaline grew up in the city. I guess that is what happens when guys like Ruth and Ripken steal headlines. But for me, I gained a new appreciation for this legendary ballplayer my father rooted for as a kid.
More importantly, while reading articles on Kaline, I finally learned where my father got that annoying quote he always used to holler before whacking fly balls my direction when I was a kid.
During an interview, Kaline once said, “What gets me upset about with the newer players is their lack of intensity. They tend to go through the motions a bit. They don't understand that you've got to practice the way you play.”