DETROIT — Fresh off the train from his hometown of Baltimore and only 18 years old, Al Kaline ran into an immediate roadblock when he tried to join the Detroit Tigers in 1953. Called up to the majors, he couldn’t get past the security guards at Briggs Stadium.
“I finally convinced them I was the guy who just signed a bonus contract for the enormous sum of $15,000. That was a lot back then,” Kaline recalled in a 1999 documentary.
His anonymity was short-lived, and 27 years after having to talk his way into the ballpark, Kaline was inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Kaline, who played his entire 22-season career for Detroit, died Monday at his home in Michigan. “Mr. Tiger” — as he was affectionally known — was 85.
John Morad, a friend of Kaline’s, confirmed his death to The Associated Press. Morad, who spoke first to the Detroit Free Press, said he had been in contact with Kaline’s son. No cause of death was given.
When Kaline hit .340 at age 20 in 1955, he became the youngest player to win the American League batting title, besting Ty Cobb by a day. The rightfielder was an 18-time All-Star and won 10 Gold Gloves.
The beloved No. 6 later sat behind a microphone as a Tigers broadcaster from 1976 to 2001, teaming for many years with fellow batting champion George Kell, and also was a special assistant to the general manager.
“There’s a reason why he was Mr. Tiger,” said Dave Dombrowski, Detroit’s team president from 2001-15. “First-class person, he was humble, he always played hard. He’s the type of guy that everybody could latch onto.”
Jim Leyland, who managed the Tigers for much of Dombrowski’s tenure, also spent time in the Detroit organization as a minor-leaguer in the 1960s and had known Kaline since then. But Leyland didn't call him ''Mr. Tiger'' — “I always called him 'Mr. Gentleman.' ”
Houston Astros star Justin Verlander, who pitched for the Tigers from 2005-17, tweeted his appreciation Monday.
“Such a kind and generous man who meant so much to so many,” Verlander said. “I hope you knew how much I enjoyed our conversations about baseball, life, or just giving each other a hard time. I am honored to have been able to call you my friend for all these years.”
Kaline finished his career with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs (what would have been No. 400 was lost to a rainout). He got his 3,000th hit in Baltimore, slicing a double down the rightfield line in September 1974, his final season.
He had a career slash line of .297/.376/.480, scored 1,622 runs and drove in 1,582.
“Many of us who are fortunate enough to work in baseball have our short lists of the players who mean the most to us,’’ commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Al Kaline was one of those players for me and countless others, making this a very sad day for our sport.”
Kaline never hit 30 home runs in a season and topped the 100-RBI mark only three times, but his overall consistency at the plate and his exceptional fielding and throwing put him among the top AL outfielders.
“There have been a lot of great defensive players. The fella who could do everything is Al Kaline,” Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson once said. “He was just the epitome of what a great outfielder is all about — great speed, catches the ball and throws the ball well.”
Kaline hit .379 with two home runs and eight RBIs in the Tigers’ victory over St. Louis in the 1968 World Series, when Detroit rallied from a 3-1 deficit.
In 1973, Major League Baseball presented Kaline the Roberto Clemente Award honoring the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, community involvement and contribution to his team. In 1980, his No. 6 became the first uniform number retired by the Tigers. The Tigers’ spring training complex in Lakeland, Florida, is on Al Kaline Drive.
Hall of Famers Alan Trammell and Jack Morris, teammates on Detroit’s 1984 championship team, praised Kaline’s influence.
“Today we lost one of our treasures. Al Kaline was an icon, not only to the Tigers organization but to all of baseball. Mr. Tiger was not just a great player but was also a classy person who I held in high esteem,” Trammell said in a statement released by the Hall.
Said Morris: “If you were a Tiger, you followed his lead. Whether he was a player or broadcaster, he was around the field, around the clubhouse and available to have a conversation if you needed some advice. That’s what the Tigers players cherished.”
Larry Herndon was a Tigers outfielder from 1982-88, when Kaline would work with the big- leaguers as a spring training instructor. “He was a golden person, along with being a great ballplayer. Gentle, kind, giving,” Herndon said. “Every good thing you ever heard about Al Kaline, it’s all true.”