Ty Cobb holds Detroit Tigers career records in numerous offensive categories. He’s the franchise’s all time leader in career WAR, hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage, RBI, stolen bases, total bases, doubles, triples... you get the idea.
But he’s not Mr. Tiger.
True, part of that is that it’s usually not considered a good image to make a violent racist sociopath the face of your franchise. But a far bigger part of it was that there was another Hall of Famer who finished behind Cobb on most career leaderboards but left him in the dust when it came to the number of people who could stand to be in a room with him.
Al Kaline was never going to be the subject of a movie with Tommy Lee Jones in full “What if Two Face could hit a curveball?” mode. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer but it always felt like he was also a bit underrated because he never could be defined by a singular career accomplishment or a colorful personality.
Which was a bit of a shame. Because the more you read about who he was, the more it becomes apparent that Kaline was the rare baseball great whose life was defined as much by thousands of little acts of kindness as it was by 3,000 hits on the field.
Kaline’s obituary in The Athletic is a good example (FYI: This link is behind a paywall). Beat writer Cody Stavenhagen’s remembrance of the baseball legend is driven largely by the tributes paid by generations of Tigers who knew him less as a visiting Hall of Fame demigod to be revered and more as a friend and confidante whose company was to be cherished.
It’s common for every team in baseball to employ Hall of Famers as “team ambassadors” and essentially pay them to show up and be themselves. In the process, their greatness on the field sometimes becomes transmogrified into another marketing gimmick meant to separate nostalgia-hungry fans from their money. Those Hall of Famers practically become another mascot — one catering to the crowd who apparently like the Phillie Phanatic but wish he spent more time complaining about “nerds in the dugout.”
In contrast, as generations of players as disparate as Alan Trammell, Robert Fick, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Daniel Norris testified, Kaline was no one’s mascot. The tributes from each baseball figure made clear that — from the 1980s to present day, from superstar to the last guy on the bench — Kaline saw his Hall of Fame position as an opportunity to establish a bond with his fellow players and to make what can be an unforgiving profession a little bit kinder and a little bit better.
“Al Kaline was one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve ever met. He garnered respect that he never assumed. His love & his compassion were staples in the Tiger clubhouse that found their way home with each and every one of us every time he showed up (Which was often... even until his last days). He taught us about baseball but more importantly he taught us how to be better men.”
In many instances across baseball, when a team legend shows up to bask in the adulation of his past accomplishments, modern players justifiably roll their eyes at the prospect of having to endure hours of “back in my day” stories that inevitably conclude that the current generation is soft and lacking in sufficient dedication to the game.
It’s abundantly clear that Kaline lived his life as if to erode that stereotype. In doing so, he became another rarity: a Hall of Famer who remembered how hard the game was and empathized with everyone who played at the highest level. Because of this quality, generations of players always returned the respect and affection that he showed them.
For all his incredible achievements — the 3,007 hits, 399 home runs, 10 Gold Gloves, and a 1968 World Series championship — Kaline’s greatest legacy is that he brought humanity to the game. And that was worth more to the players he met than any trophy ever could be.
Kaline’s last words to former Tigers manager Jim Leyland were a fitting summation of the man. As Stavenhagen related, the two had dinner together for what turned out to be the last time during this past spring training. Right before they parted ways, Kaline pulled Leyland in for a hug and told him, “Thank you for being my friend all these years.”
If you were affiliated with the Detroit Tigers in any way over the past seven decades, Al Kaline went out of his way to make you feel welcomed and loved. If that’s not the definition of “Mr. Tiger,” I don’t know what is.