Doug Wolter: Mr. Tiger is gone, the memories live on

Doug Wolter
Doug Wolter

When you lose a childhood hero and the news comes suddenly, unexpectedly, your brain tells you that it’s not true. But you know it’s true, though you don’t want it to be.

I was working from home Monday afternoon when I checked my email. I saw something from a former co-worker friend of mine, Zach Hacker, and he started his note by saying, “Hey Doug. Was sorry to hear about Al Kaline. I remember he was your favorite, so I thought of you right away when I heard the news.”

Oh no.

I went to the Detroit Free Press internet site and my worst fear came true. Hall of Famer Al Kaline is dead. He was 85.

How can this be? How could this happen now? I didn’t even know he was sick.


Incredibly, it happened at a time when I was reading a biography of Al Kaline. I was only two-thirds through the book, and before I’m able to finish it, he passes away.

I was in grade school when Al Kaline became my childhood hero. In the summer, I used to stand in the reflection of a window with my baseball bat outside my Allendorf, Iowa, home and pretend I was Al Kaline. I copied his batting stance. When I played Little League baseball in Sibley, I sorted through the bats with the names of Pete Rose, Mickey Mantle and Tony Oliva on them until I saw the one embossed “Al Kaline.” That’s the one I used.

I kept my baseball cards in a box. I kept each team separate, held each one together with rubber bands. I always made sure Al Kaline was the first one among the Tigers.

Since those Little League days all the way through my baseball and fast-pitch softball seasons, I wore No. 6 whenever I could get it. That was Al Kaline’s number.

In 1967 I was devastated when the Tigers just missed winning the pennant by losing their last game of the regular season. But I had high hopes for 1968. Again I was devastated when they lost the first game of the 1968 season by a 7-3 score.

My dad counseled patience. That’s only one game, he assured me. There’s a long season ahead. And sure enough, they won their next nine games. They were off and running.

I was in the sixth grade when the Tigers took on the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. We listened on a transistor radio to Game One in English class as Bob Gibson embarrassed the Tigers 4-0 by striking out a Series record 17 batters. Everyone in school knew I was a Tigers fan. I felt their giggles.

Before long the Tigers were trailing three games to one, but they won Game Five on a clutch hit by Kaline. They won the next game, too, but Game Seven would be very difficult for them with Gibson back on the mound.


Alas, they beat Gibson. They were World Champions.

And in school, I had the last laugh.

I couldn’t have chosen a better hero than Al Kaline. He was that rare breed -- a supremely talented ballplayer who was as humble as he was great. Now, as the memories pour in, fans and friends marvel at how friendly and accommodating he always was. There wasn’t a classier ballplayer ever made, and he maintained his grace throughout his life.

He never spent a day in the minor leagues, but went directly from high school to the Tigers. He became the youngest batting champion in baseball history at the age of 20, a record that still stands. A practically-perfect right fielder, he won 10 Gold Gloves. He appeared in 18 All-Star Games.

He wasn’t as celebrated as Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, but several of his contemporaries said he was the best all-around player of his generation. Brooks Robinson, judged by many the greatest defensive third baseman of all-time, said of Kaline, “There have been a lot of great defensive players. The fellow who could do everything is Al Kaline.”

The greats all had nicknames. Stan Musial was “The Man.” Ted Williams was “The Splendid Splinter.” Al Kaline was “Mr. Tiger.” He will always be Mr. Tiger.


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