Just hours before his high school prom ceremony, Al Kaline signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers. Two years later he was the American League batting champion at the age of 20. It was Kaline’s coming out party, the first of many great achievements in his baseball career.
Kaline spent 22 seasons roaming the outfield for the Tigers. But his Hall of Fame career was almost ended on several occasions. Considering his series of injuries and a physical deformity he’d struggled with since birth, it’s amazing that Kaline played so long and with such great success.
A bone disease in childhood had deformed Kaline’s left foot, leaving him with constant nagging pain. The bone caused him trouble throughout his playing career, especially after he turned 30. There were a string of injuries and illnesses that robbed Kaline of playing-time throughout his career, including:
– A chest cold that limited his play and effectiveness at the end of the 1957 season;
– A fractured cheekbone in June of 1959, which caused him to miss nearly three weeks;
– Kaline broke his collarbone while making a game-saving catch in Yankee Stadium on May 26, 1962. The injury kept him out of the lineup for two months. At the time of the injury, Kaline was batting .345 and leading the league in homers and RBI;
– He was shelved in September of 1963 with a nagging knee injury, causing him to miss the remainder of the season. The injury had occurred in May, after he collided with the outfield fence in Los Angeles in a game against the Angels. When he finally succumbed to the injury in September, Kaline was in the thick of a batting race with Carl Yastrzemski. He eventually finished second, nine points back;
– Suffered a rib injury in an attempt to make a diving catch on August 19, 1965, missing 18 games;
– Kaline underwent surgery on his left foot in October of 1965. The foot had been hampering him for more than two years and was a result of the deformity;
– In a game in June of 1967, Kaline struck out against Sam McDowell of the Indians. When he returned to the dugout, Kaline angrily slammed his bat into the rack and broke his thumb. He missed 26 games with the injury;
– In May of 1968, Kaline was struck by a pitch from Lew Krausse that broke his left forearm. He was placed on the 21-day disabled list and missed more than a month. When he returned the Tigers were in first place and manager Mayo Smith used him at first base for the first time in his career, so as to not unsettle his outfield of Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, and Jim Northrup;
– Starting in 1967, Kaline started to miss games here and there with back problems. He’d miss a game or so a month, sometimes more, due to a stiff back.
In 1969, when he was still just 34 years old, stories started to circulate that Kaline would retire after one more season. Every year there would be speculation on that subject, but Kaline would play five more seasons, resting his sore, banged-up body more frequently. In 1974 he collected his 3,000th hit, becoming just the 12th player to reach that plateau. Considering his injury-marred career, it was incredible that Kaline had done so. Despite his injuries, Kaline drove himself to become one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.