Al Kaline: Forgotten hero? Underappreciated: Hall of Famer Al Kaline, a Baltimore sandlot and high school star in the 1950s, isn't revered in his hometown the way Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken are.

September 30, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,SUN STAFF

The night Al Kaline got his 3,000th hit at Memorial Stadium, only 11,492 people showed up. Orioles attendance has improved since 1974. The hype surrounding major-league milestones has increased. Yet the Baltimore-born Kal in his hometown.

Kaline is one of 25 Hall of Famers appearing at this weekend's baseball card and memorabilia show sponsored by the Babe Ruth Museum. Baltimore's forgotten baseball hero is coming home.

Part of the reason Kaline's accomplishments often go unnoticed is that he left Baltimore after his second major-league season.

Kaline was the son of a Westport broom maker. His father, Nicholas, wound metal wires around brooms for 30 years. His mother, Naomi, scrubbed floors and then worked in a pill factory. His two sisters quit school at 15 to help support the family. Kaline played baseball.

"I asked my parents if they wanted me to do something, get a paper route or something, and they said, 'Nope,' " Kaline said. "They always encouraged me to enjoy my youth because they said sooner or later you're going to have to work for a living."

His parents eventually saw baseball as Kaline's way out of his working-class South Baltimore neighborhood, his escape from the surrounding factories and smokestacks.

"They felt he was outstanding. We all did," said Kaline's oldest sister, Margaret Vracar, 71, of Glen Burnie. "It proved to be right."

A basketball and baseball star at Southern High, Kaline played summer baseball for Sheriff Fowble and Walter Youse and earned a reputation on the city's sandlots as a potential major-league star.

"I wished I'd have signed him," said Kaline's high school teammate and close friend, Richard Walega, 60, of Brooklyn Park. "He's the greatest I've ever seen."

Walega, a pitcher, and Kaline, an outfielder, signed professional contracts after graduation. Walega toiled in the minor leagues for four seasons. Kaline never spent a day there. He went straight from high school to the Detroit Tigers.

Forty years ago this month, Kaline became the youngest player to win the batting title. He was two months shy of his 21st birthday.

The comparisons to Tigers Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, who was one day older when he won his first batting title in 1907, were inevitable.

"It hurt me a great deal," Kaline said. "It put a lot of pressure on me because I was at a young age and the writers around here and throughout the league started comparing me to Ty Cobb. It put a lot of pressure on me."

Cobb won 11 more batting titles. Kaline never won another, though he finished his career with a .297 average. Kaline also hit 399 career home runs, 15 to 20 a season, and was a superb right fielder known for his strong arm. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980. But the Detroit fans wanted more.

"Kaline got booed here," said Detroit News columnist Joe Falls, who started covering Kaline when he broke in in 1953. "They wanted him to be Mickey Mantle, and he would never be Mickey Mantle."

Kaline didn't have Mantle's skills or Mantle's New York media exposure.

The press didn't know how to deal with Kaline's shyness, depicting him as quiet, moody, often brooding. Sports Illustrated's Jack Olsen once wrote, "Talking to Kaline is like making funeral arrangements."

"That was just my personality," Kaline said. "They never realized until later that they asked me about myself and I didn't like talking about myself."

"I was never one to get up in front of people and talk," Kaline added. "I was able to express myself on the athletic fields. I don't have to talk to you, but you can see that I can play. I want to play. I loved playing. That was the way that I talked, through my playing."

Kaline, a television commentator for Tigers games, always did his best talking on the field. He came through when the Tigers reached the World Series in 1968, hitting .379 with two home runs and eight RBIs and helping Detroit defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

Today, Kaline lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., with his wife, Louise, whom he met at Southern.

Though he may have been booed occasionally during his career, Kaline has become a beloved figure in Detroit. In fact, a street next to Tiger Stadium is named Al Kaline Drive.

Without fanfare, Kaline returns to Baltimore almost every season to broadcast Tigers games. He visits his sister, Margaret, and they go to see their 88-year-old mother, Naomi, in an Arnold nursing home.

His friends, such as Walega, keep the memories of Kaline's accomplishments in this town from being totally forgotten.

"He was one in a million," Walega said. "He was just a natural."

Babe events

The Babe Ruth Museum is holding two events this weekend: a baseball card show at the Fifth Regiment Armory and a black-tie dinner dance tonight at Du Burns Arena.

Admission to the card show is $5. The show runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow. Attending will be 25 Hall of Famers and six 500-homer hitters, including Frank Robinson and Willie Mays.

The dinner event begins at 6:30 p.m., and tickets, priced at $150, are expected to be available at the door. Hall of Famers also will attend the dinner.

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