For Tigers legend Al Kaline, sweetness of 1955 batting title led to career-long frustration

Al Kaline’s signature accomplishment as the youngest player to win a batting crown quickly became an albatross that nearly derailed a Hall of Fame career.

Sixty-five years ago, in his second full season with the Detroit Tigers, still strikingly skinny and terminally shy, Kaline rolled to the 1955 American League batting championship with a .340 average. He hit safely in 31 of the first 33 games. He batted .429 in April. No player other than Kaline collected 200 hits. The batting race never really was a race at all: He finished 21 points ahead of the runner-up, Kansas City’s Vic Power.

On Sept. 26, 1955, the morning after the season finale for the fifth-place Tigers and the opener for the Detroit Lions — winners of three straight division titles — the main photograph on the sports section of the Free Press featured a pair of casually dressed 20-year-old newlyweds, Al and Louise Kaline.

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The caption read: “Batting title safely tucked away, Al Kaline and his wife, Louise, stroll toward the exit at Briggs Stadium. Al carries his favorite bats with him as he heads for home with a .340 average.”.

His historic title was such a foregone conclusion that it warranted only a small, shared headline on the page: “Kaline and Boone Take AL Crowns.” Yet it became the official moment that haunted Kaline the rest of his career. In an article in the May 11, 1964 issue of Sports Illustrated: “The worst thing that happened to me in the big leagues was the start I had. This put the pressure on me.”.

But in 1955, he didn’t feel pressure. He was an unknown doing the unthinkable. And the man he edged to become baseball’s youngest batting champion: Tigers legend Ty Cobb.

Kaline, who passed away April 6 at age 85, opened his season with five straight two-hit games. He followed that with a game for the ages, going 4-for-5 with a walk against the Kansas City Athletics at Briggs Stadium.

Three hits were home runs — the only three-homer game in his 22-year career. Two of them came in the same inning; he is only the fourth American League player to accomplish the feat.

Kaline finished April hitting .429. On July 1, he was hitting .366 — 33 points ahead of his nearest competitor. At the end of that month, he was leading the league in average (.352), hits (141), runs (91), RBIs (71) and homers (23). Entering September, he led the batting race by 30 points.

Still, Kaline said during the season: “There’s a guy on this club who will beat me out.” He was referring to shortstop Harvey Kuenn, who trailed by 25 points at the time.

Kuenn knew he didn’t have a shot: “He’ll win the batting title with no trouble. Kaline’s got great wrists. He takes the ball right out of the catcher’s mitt.”.

Kaline entered the final weekend against Cleveland with a 22-point lead over Power. Friday’s game was rained out. In the first game of a Saturday doubleheader, Kaline singled to center field in the fourth inning and tripled to center in the fifth, his 199th and 200th hits. He finished 2-for-4 with a run scored in the opener and 0-for-3 in the nightcap with two walks.

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At some point during the Tigers’ 8-2 and 7-0 drubbings, Kaline apparently suffered a sprained or bruised wrist, according to differing newspaper accounts. In Sunday’s finale, a 6-2 victory, he started in his usual spots — No. 3 in the batting order and No. 9 in the field.

In the bottom of the first, Kaline reached on a fielder’s choice grounder to the second baseman. Bubba Phillips replaced him in right field to start the second inning.

Kaline’s final totals: .340 average (200-for-588), 27 home runs, 102 RBIs, 152 games, 24 doubles, eight triples, 121 runs, 82 walks, .421 on-base percentage, .546 slugging percentage, .967 OPS (on-base plus slugging) and 321 total bases.

He led the AL in batting average, base hits and total bases. He finished second in the MVP voting to Yogi Berra, catcher for the pennant-winning Yankees.

Champagne, then expectations

In the Free Press, Hal Middlesworth wrapped up the final day of the Tigers’ season this way:.

“Just like the pennant winner, the Tigers celebrated with champagne.

“First, they beat the Cleveland Indians, 6 to 2, before 17,888 fans to draw the curtain on their fifth-place season.

“Then they were guests of president Spike Briggs at a clubhouse party in which they lifted the bubbly stuff to toast:.

“1 – Their biggest victory total (79) since 1950 and their largest attendance (1,181,828) in the same period.

“2 – Al Kaline’s .340 American League batting championship, the first for a Tiger since George Kell in 1949 and the 20th in the club’s history.

“3 – Ray Boone’s 116 runs batted in for the year, tying Boston’s Jackie Jensen for the league title in that department. ….

“Kaline played only long enough to get one turn at bat, forcing Chick King in the first inning – then retired because of a sprained wrist received in Saturday’s double loss to the Indians.”.

Throughout the decades, including the day after the 1955 season, reports of Kaline’s batting title at age 20 inevitably said that he was one day younger than Cobb was when he won his title in 1907.

Although Cobb’s birth date was Dec. 18 and Kaline’s was Dec. 19, Kaline actually was 12 days younger at the time of his title. Kaline won his on Sept. 25, 1955, at 20 years and 280 days. Cobb won his first on Oct. 6, 1907, at 20 years and 292 days.

Cobb, of course, didn’t stop at one batting crown. He won nine straight titles (1907-15), lost to Tris Speaker despite batting .370 in 1916, then won three more in a row (1917-19).

Kaline never won another batting title, although he was a runner-up three times and third twice. The fans expected more titles. The press expected more titles. Even he expected more titles. He frequently became depressed, despite consistent, all-star caliber play.

In a 2012 book titled “Al Kaline: The Biography of a Tigers Icon,” author Jim Hawkins described how the success of 1955 weighed on Kaline:.

“Suddenly Kaline’s biggest challenge became the fact that everybody expected him to do it again.

“Those lofty expectations would haunt Al for the remainder of his Hall of Fame career as he tried, in vain, to live up to the Al Kaline of 1955.

“‘I was lucky that year,’ Kaline would tell people, year after year, when they suggested he had failed to live up to his potential because he was never able to duplicate that fabulous summer of ’55. ‘Everything fell into place.’.

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“Nevertheless, from then on, nothing Kaline ever did was quite good enough for his critics – not when it was measured against his excellence of 1955.”.

‘How much pressure can you take?’

In May 1964, with Kaline in a slump and fans booing, Sports Illustrated put a photo of him swinging on its cover with these words in tiny type: “DETROIT’S AL KALINE ENIGMA OF THE TIGERS.”.

Inside, the article carried this headline: “The Torments of Excellence.”.

The magazine’s Jack Olsen outlined why Kaline, at 29, was an enigma and why there were “no villains in the Al Kaline story.” Olsen nailed the issues on the head, but that wasn’t the surprising part of the piece.

The surprising part was that he somehow got Kaline, always an introverted and reluctant interviewee, to address his inner demons.

First, SI’s Olsen explained why there were no villains:.

“Not the fans who booed; they only know what they see, and they have seen a slumping Kaline. Not the insiders, the habitués of the press box; Kaline has indeed been a difficult subject for them, combining reticence and taciturnity with a seeming indifference and, lately, even rudeness. And certainly nobody can blame Al Kaline himself, the party of the first part, a child who was thrust full-blown into a world in which nothing he ever did was good enough and excellence brought its own torments.

“Kaline is one of the last of an almost prehistoric type of ballplayer, the kid who makes it not because of physique but in spite of it. Walk into a baseball clubhouse nowadays and you see The Body Beautiful all around you: smoothly muscled, superbly built young men like Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle. But not many years ago you would see bandy-legged little guys who make it on gristle and shank, on skills honed in thousands of games on sandlots that no longer exist, on guts and drive and gall.

“Al Kaline is not bandy-legged, but neither is he a strong athlete, and he has had to overcome physical limitations that would have driven a lesser man to pack it in long ago. He has always had osteomyelitis, a persistent bone disease, and when he was 8 years old doctors took two inches of bone out of his left foot, leaving jagged scars and permanent deformity.”.

In 1964, Kaline injured his troublesome foot during spring training and never really recovered. It was so bad he skipped the All-Star Game. But he limped through 146 games. A special shoe helped a bit in 1965, but two seasons of agony didn’t end until he had surgery in the offseason.

After his breakout 1955 season, hitting for average and power, playing a dynamic right field and displaying a keen sense for the game far beyond his years, Kaline heard the comparisons to the all-time greats. And, looking back, he admitted to feeling pressure and resentment.

He told Olsen in 1964: “Everybody said, ‘This guy’s another Ty Cobb, another Joe DiMaggio.’ How much pressure can you take?

“What they didn’t know is I’m not that good a hitter. They kept saying I do everything with ease. But it isn’t that way. I have to work as hard if not harder than anybody in the league. I’m in spring training a week early every year. I’ve worked with a heavy bat in the winter, swinging it against a big bag. I’ve squeezed rubber balls all winter long to strengthen my hands. I’ve lifted weights, done push-ups, but my hitting is all a matter of timing. I don’t have the kind of strength that (Mickey) Mantle or (Willie) Mays have, where they can be fooled on a pitch and still get a good piece of the ball. I’ve got to have my timing down perfect or I’m finished.

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“Now you take a hitter like me, with all the concentration and effort I have to put into it — I’m not crying about it, it’s just a fact — and imagine how it feels to be compared to Cobb. He was the greatest ballplayer that ever lived. To say that I’m like him is the most foolish thing that anybody can make a comparison on. Do you realize there’s old people that come to Tiger Stadium and they saw Cobb play ball, and they look at me and they say, ‘How can I be as good as Cobb?’.

“They threw all this pressure on my shoulders and I don’t think it’s justified and I don’t think it’s fair to compare anybody with Cobb. I’ll tell you something else: I’m not in the same class with players like Mays or (Stan) Musial or Henry Aaron, either. Their records over the last five seasons are much better than mine.”.

Kaline also addressed a different kind of pressure that came from the Tigers’ brain trust: “They told me to be more colorful, that I could bring more people into the ballpark if I was more colorful. But how could I do that? I could jump up and down on the field and make an ass out of myself arguing with umpires, but I’m not made up that way. I could make easy catches look hard, but I’m not made that way, either.”.

Olsen offered other poignant observations:.

• “It is true that Kaline at 29 seems overplayed, tired both physically and emotionally.”.

• “The main difference in Al Kaline is that the new 1964 model does not seem to be having any fun. … You might suppose that a man with a .309 lifetime batting average (same as Mantle’s) and a place in the record books alongside Babe Ruth and a $62,000-a-year salary and plenty of outside income would be having the time of his life, an orgy of joy. But talking to Kaline is like making funeral arrangements.”.

• “He sounds, at times, like an old lady with sore feet, and, in fact, he is a young man with sore feet. Very sore feet. No one except Kaline himself will ever know the agonies that have accompanied his long career as an athletic cripple, mostly because he has kept his mouth shut about it. … All Kaline will admit publicly is that his foot sometimes hurts him – ‘it’s like a toothache in the foot.’ But there is a clearly discernible difference in his running as the game goes on. The Kaline who lopes out to his rightfield position in the first inning runs almost normally; the Kaline who comes in after the last out is in pain and favoring the left foot. He is forever having his foot rubbed by trainer Jack Homel to restore the circulation and relieve the pain.”.

• “The good people of Detroit will have to live with their problem. With a couple more problems like Al Kaline, the Tigers would be the Yankees.”.

“Everything I did was right that year,” Kaline said years later about the magic of ’55. “For a long time, the pitchers didn’t think I was for real. By the time they found out, the season was over and I had the batting championship.”.

Gene Myers retired from the Free Press in late 2015 after 22½ years as sports editor. He served as editor for “Mr. Tiger,” a new Free Press book commemorating Al Kaline’s amazing life on the field, in the broadcast booth and in the front office. To order “Mr. Tiger” for $16.95, go to www.Triumphbooks.Com/mrtiger or call 1-800-888-4741 Monday-Friday between 10 a.M. And 6 p.M.

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