Al Kaline passed away Monday at the age of 85. He played 22 seasons for the Detroit Tigers. He began his Major League career in June 1953 as an 18 year old and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1954. In 1955, Kaline won the American League Batting Title with a .340 BA, easily outpacing second place Vic Power’s .319 BA. Mr. Tiger remains the youngest player ever, 20, to win the American League Batting Title. He was one day younger than Ty Cobb when the Georgia Peach won the 1907 Batting Title. Kaline finished second behind Yogi Berra in the American League MVP voting. He finished in the top three of MVP voting four times but never won the award.
The numbers show Al Kaline’s greatness on the diamond. In 22 seasons, Mr. Tiger played 2,834 Games, 10,116 At Bats, scored 1,622 Runs, collected 3,007 Hits, 498 Doubles, 75 Triples, 399 Home Runs, 1,582 RBI, Stole 137 Bases, 1,277 Walks, 1,020 Strikeouts, 55 HBP, .297 BA, .376 OBP, .480 SLG, .855 OPS, 134 OPS+. Kaline’s career 92.8 WAR still ranks 42nd over 40 seasons after he retired. His statistics were not heavily padded by the DH, which was created in 1973. Kaline was the Tigers DH in 1974, his final season.
Al Kaline was an all time great ball player, but an even better person. Mr. Tiger was baseball in Detroit. (Louis Requena/ MLB via Getty Images)
Kaline patrolled the outfield at Tiger Stadium. He won 10 Gold Gloves in an 11 year span, 1955-1967, playing primarily in Right. He was an 18 time All Star in 15 seasons, playing in both Midsummer Classics from 1959-1961. Kaline remained an elite player for much of his career.
Greatness was not confined to the Regular Season. Kaline helped guide the Tigers to a World Series victory over Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968. He played in all 7 Games, in 29 At Bats he had 11 Hits, including 2 Doubles, 2 Home Runs, 8 RBI, scored 6 Runs, 1 HBP, .379 BA, .400 OBP, .655 SLG, and 1.055 OPS. Great players often rise to the occasion in the World Series.
Al Kaline retired after the 1974 season. His 3,000 hits solidified his greatness. In 1980, Kaline received two of baseball’s highest honors. The Tigers retired his #6, the first Tiger to have his number retired; players did not wear numbers during Ty Cobb’s career. Mr. Tiger was also inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Kaline entered Cooperstown on the 1st ballot with 88.3% of the vote.
The numbers and accolades are wonderful. However, the reaction from those who knew Al Kaline speaks about the man. Referring to him as Mr. Kaline, he had the love and respect of his peers, the city of Detroit, and all of baseball. There is no better tribute than an outpouring of love and affection for the man rather than his accomplishments.
Rest easy Mr. Kaline, you are already missed.
In 2008 the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the Devil, becoming the Tampa Bay Rays. Changing their name also changed their fortunes. The Rays have a .535 winning percentage, much better than the Devil Rays, .399. Tampa is winning roughly 22 more games a season since the switch. In 12 seasons as the Rays, Tampa Bay has won at least 90 games seven times, made the Postseason five times, won the American League East twice, and reached one World Series. The Rays success has come while averaging 27th in team payroll.
Tropicana Field was not always home to success. The Devil Rays began play in 1998 and struggled through the 2007 season, their last as the Devil Rays. They averaged 25th in payroll, including ranking 10th in 2000. The 2004 season was the Devil Rays best, winning 70 games and did not finish last. Tampa Bay finished 4th, three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Every expansion team has growing pains as they build a competitive team. Tampa Bay received no breaks in the Expansion Draft. None of their first five draft picks played more than three seasons in Tampa Bay. Teams need players to build around and the Devil Rays did not find a franchise player in the Expansion Draft.
The Devil Rays held the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. Tampa Bay selected Florida Marlins pitcher Tony Saunders. In 1997, the 23 year old lefty started 21 games for the Florida Marlins, going 4-6 with a 4.61 ERA and 1.464 WHIP in 111.1 Innings, allowing 57 Earned Runs, 12 Home Runs, 64 Walks, and 102 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched in the Marlins Postseason run to their World Series victory. Saunders, a young lefty with Postseason experience, was a logical first pick.
The Devil Rays took Tony Saunders with the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. (Jonathan Kirn/Allsport/ Getty Images)
The 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays struggled, finishing 63-99, 16 games behind the fourth place Baltimore Orioles. In 31 starts, Tony Saunders went 6-15 with a 4.12 ERA and 1.570 WHIP in 192.1 Innings, allowing 88 Earned Runs, 15 Home Runs, 111 Walks (league leader), and 172 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched 7+ innings in 10 starts, allowing 3 runs or less in nine of those starts. He won twice. In four of those starts, Saunders pitched 8 innings, allowing three runs or less, yet he lost all four starts. Saunders received 3.37 in run support, while Major League teams averaged 4.79 runs per game. Tony Saunders pitched well for the expansion Devil Rays, despite his record.
Tampa Bay and Tony Saunders entered the 1999 season full of hope. The Devil Rays sought to play more competitive baseball and Saunders looked to build upon his success. Entering play on May 26th, the Devil Rays were 22-24. An expansion team hovering around .500 a quarter of the way through the season had many hoping the Devil Rays would soon contend. The Texas Rangers were visiting Tropicana Field facing the surprising Devil Rays. In the Top of the Third Inning, the Rangers had runners on first and third with two outs, trailing 3-2. Tony Saunders had a full count on reigning American League MVP Juan Gonzalez. Saunders took the sign from John Flaherty and uncorked a Wild Pitch. Gonzalez trotted to first, Rusty Greer moved to second, and Luis Alicea scampered home to tie the game.
Tropicana Field fell silent except for Tony Saunders screaming, writhing in pain on the ground. The pitch broke the humerus bone, the bone connecting the shoulder and elbow, in Saunders’ left arm. Training staff tried helping Saunders up, but the pain was too much. He was carted off the field and taken to the hospital. His season was finished and his career was in doubt.
Professional baseball players are tough. They play through pain and injury throughout the long season. A year after breaking his arm Tony Saunders was pitching again. His rehab assignment began with the Charleston RiverDogs, Tampa Bay’s Single A team. Saunders pitched in two games, throwing 5 Innings, with a 1.80 ERA and 0.800 WHIP, allowing 2 Hits, 1 Earned Run, 2 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. He was promoted to the St. Petersburg Devil Rays, Tampa Bay’s Advanced A team. Entering the Third Inning of his second game, Saunders had pitched 7 Innings with a 3.86 ERA and 1.429 WHIP, allowed 7 Hits, 3 Earned Runs, 3 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. Then it happened again, Saunders broke his arm throwing a pitch. His Major League career was over.
Tony Saunders broke his arm throwing a baseball. The Devil Rays future rested on his left arm. (www.mlb.com)
The Devil Rays retained their rights to Saunders through 2004, when they released him. Less than a month later the Orioles signed Saunders. He pitched in Spring Training for the Orioles, but spent the 2005 season pitching for the Mesa Miners of the independent Golden Baseball League. He pitched 9 Games in relief, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 1.600 WHIP. He threw 10 Innings, allowed 9 Hits, 2 Earned Runs, 7 Walks, and 8 Strikeouts.
There are no guarantees in baseball. Tony Saunders is not alone in having his career cut short by injuries. However his injuries were particularly gruesome. The future of the Devil Rays rested on his left arm, it took years for Tampa Bay to recover. Tony Saunders’ efforts to continue his baseball career did not go unnoticed. He received the 2000 Tony Conigliaro Award from the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. The annual award is given to a Major League player who best overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage. While the award cannot replace his career, it is important to recognize Saunders’ perseverance in his comeback attempts.
Tony Saunders’ final career statistics: 3 Seasons, 61 Games Started, 2 Complete Games, 13 Wins, 24 Losses, 4.56 ERA, 1.528 WHIP, 345.2 Innings Pitched, 343 Hits, 175 Earned Runs, 33 Home Runs, 204 Walks, and 304 Strikeouts.
Oh, what could have been in Tampa Bay.
Lou Gehrig is remembered for three things: his greatness on the field, a speech, and the disease that claimed his life. He left a legacy in baseball and for those facing adversity, especially those battling ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Today is the 80th anniversary of Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium and Gehrig delivering baseball’s most famous speech. He did not focus on his problems, rather he spoke of the good in his life. A life cut short less than two years later.
On the diamond, Lou Gehrig was a tremendous competitor, forming the toughest duo in baseball history with Babe Ruth. Gehrig played 17 seasons for the Yankees, 1923 to 1939. In 2,164 Games, Gehrig collected 2,721 Hits, 534 Doubles, 163 Triples, 493 Home Runs, 1,995 RBI, scored 1,888 Runs, Stole 102 Bases, drew 1,508 Walks, 790 Strike Outs, .340 BA, .447 OBP, .632 SLG, and 1.080 OPS. Gehrig’s career numbers ensured his enshrinement into Cooperstown, even without his special election in 1939.
Putting Lou Gehrig’s greatness into perspective, consider his all time rankings today. Gehrig ranks 64th in Hits with 2,271. He is 42nd in Doubles with 534 and 33rd in Triples with 163. His 493 Home Runs still ranks him 28th. His 1,995 RBI are seventh all time. Gehrig’s 1,190 extra base hits are 11th most and his 5,060 total bases are 19th all time. His 1,888 runs scored rank 12th all time. He walked 1,508 times, 17th most. A career .340 hitter, 16th best. His .447 OBP is fifth, his .632 SLG and 1.079 OPS both place him third all time. His 179 OPS+ ranks fourth and his 112.3 oWAR places him 14th. 80 years after his final game, Lou Gehrig remains an all time great.
Hall of Fame numbers are not compiled in a few good seasons here and there, they come from excellence year after year. In Gehrig’s 17 seasons with the Yankees, he played fewer than 13 games in three seasons. Playing 14 full seasons before ALS robbed him of his abilities further shows Gehrig’s greatness. The Iron Horse registered eight seasons of 200 or more hits, leading the league in 1931. In 1927 and 1928 he led baseball in Doubles with 52 and 47 respectively. In 1926, his 20 triples paced baseball. Gehrig was the Home Run King three times (1931, 1934, and 1936). He was perfectly placed in Murderers’ Row, leading the league in RBI five times, driving in at least 109 in 13 consecutive seasons. He led baseball in Runs Scored four times, scoring 115 or more Runs in 13 consecutive seasons. The Iron Horse possessed both power and patience at the plate, drawing at least 100 Walks in 11 seasons, leading baseball on three occasions. Gehrig struck out a career high 84 times in 1927, he would never strike out more than 75 times in any other season. Gehrig hit .300 or better in 12 straight seasons, led the league in Slugging twice, OPS three times with 11 consecutive seasons above 1.000. He had five seasons with at least 400 total bases, leading baseball four times. In 1934, Gehrig won the American League Triple Crown with a .363 BA, 49 Home Runs, and 166 RBI. Shockingly he finished fifth in MVP voting behind a trio of Tigers (Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, and Schoolboy Rowe) and teammate Lefty Gomez. Gehrig did win two MVP Awards (1927 and 1936), while finishing in the top five in six other seasons. The Iron Horse was always a MVP contender.
Lou Gehrig was one of the greatest players to ever step on a diamond. (Mark Rucker/ Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
The Yankees during the Gehrig years were seemingly in the World Series every October. Lou Gehrig played in seven Fall Classics. New York won six World Series with Gehrig (1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, and 1938), sweeping their National League opponents four times. Gehrig played in 34 Games with 119 At Bats. He collected 43 Hits, 8 Doubles, 3 Triples, 10 Home Runs, 35 RBI, and scored 30 Runs. He drew 26 walks against 17 Strikeouts. Gehrig hit .361, .483 OBP, .731 SLG, and 1.214 OPS. The Iron Horse helped the Yankees reach and win multiple World Series.
Despite his greatness on the diamond, Lou Gehrig is best remembered for the speech he gave on July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig Day, as the Yankees honored him as he fought ALS. The Gettysburg Address of Baseball remains one of the most famous moments in baseball history. There is no known full recording of the speech, however we do have a partial recording and a transcript of Gehrig’s words.
“For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such a fine looking men as they’re standing in uniform in this ballpark today? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift- that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies- that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter- that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body- it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed- that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”