The former Detroit Tiger star has died at age 85.
Kaline was my first sports hero of any kind. A great player who played his entire career in the shadow of some greater ones (Mantle, Mays, and Aaron were all roughly in his cohort), he had one of the best seasons ever by a 20-year-old. He was the extremely rare player who went straight from high school onto a major league roster; the fact that he almost immediately became a big star meant that he would spend the rest of his career surrounded by a vague sense that he had never quite become the player that first great season portended.
An interesting comp is Roberto Clemente, who was almost exactly the same age (four months older), and played the same position over the same years. Advanced stats say Clemente had a slightly higher peak, while their career value was basically identical (Of course Clemente probably lost a couple of productive years at the end of his career because of his tragic and heroic death).
Both were tremendous outfielders with fantastic arms, both were very very good but not quite A+ hitters, and both are the first two great athletes I ever really cared about. (For boring personal reasons I knew nothing about American sports on my tenth birthday and was a fanatic baseball fan by my 11th).
Kaline was also an entertaining color man for many years on the Tigers’ TV network — he was the opposite of smooth, but his intelligence about the game shone through his lack of professional broadcasting training. He was also, by reputation and visible demeanor, an unusually humble and self-effacing star, who was respected by everybody (It’s thus fitting in more than one way that he was the first recipient of MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award, “given annually to a player who demonstrates the values Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente displayed in his commitment to community and understanding the value of helping others.”)
It was a horrible weekend for me, as I’m sure it’s been for lots of you, as a close friend of nearly 25 years died somewhat unexpectedly on Friday (possibly COVID related), at the age of 51. This death, while very different, just adds to the sense of doom that has been gathering for four years now, and for the last four weeks in particular.