Throughout sports history, certain players have become synonymous with their respective franchises. Derek Jeter, for example, is a physical embodiment of the New York Yankees; on the basketball court, Kobe Bryant could only be a Los Angeles Laker. For Detroit Tigers fans, Al Kaline embodied what it meant to play baseball in the Motor City.
While Mr. Tiger died on Monday afternoon, he had a historic career on the diamond during his playing days. That career, however, was only made possible by a simple pair of shoes.
Al Kaline’s early Tigers career
Growing up, Al Kaline played baseball, football, and basketball. A cheek injury, however, put an end to his career on the gridiron. Looking to fill the void, he tried out for his high school baseball team; there was no room on the pitching staff, though, and Kaline moved to the outfield.
Despite the change in position, Kaline proved to be a natural. He made the all-state squad every year of his high school career; after his senior season, he signed a contract with the Detriot Tigers. Kaline made his MLB debut a week later and became a starter within a season.
In 1955, Kaline announced himself as a true star. Although the outfield was only 20-years old, he produced like a veteran. Over the course of the year, he racked up 200 hits, 27 home runs, and 103 RBIs while batting .340; he finished the campaign with the American League batting title but lost out on the MVP award to Yogi Berra. While he would never reach those heights again, Kaline remained a dominant force at the plate and a strong defensive presence in right field.
A career-saving pair of shoes
While Al Kaline found early success with the Detroit Tigers, he was still struggling. As a child, he developed osteomyelitis; that infection caused a long-term problem with his left foot.
In the mid-1950s, the pain became too much to bear; Kaline didn’t feel comfortable at the plate and couldn’t run well on the base paths. The outfielder went to see Dr. Robert Kerlan, who helped Sandy Koufax with his elbow, hoping for some assistance.
When Mr. Tiger arrived in Kerlan’s office, the doctor was shocked at what he saw. “The pinky and middle finger don’t touch the ground. The fourth toe is stretched. The second and third are shortened,” Milton Grosse wrote in 1965. “The first and third toes overlap the second and the fourth is beginning to overlap the big toe, which has begun to bend to the left. It is hard to believe, but for all of his career with the Tigers while he has been called the perfect player, Kaline has bordered on being a cripple.”
Although Kerlan couldn’t fix Kaline’s foot, he did offer a solution. From then on, the outfielder wore orthopedic shoes, even on the baseball diamond.
Those cleats changed Al Kaline’s career
While even Al Kaline fell victim to natural decline, his special cleats prolonged Mr. Tiger’s career. Rather than retiring in the mid-1960s, he played until 1974, taking the field 2,834 times before hanging it up for good.
Although his resume was still impeccable—he batted 2.94 for his career, piling up 3,004 hits, 399 home runs, and 1,582 home runs—it’s impossible not to wonder what could have been. During his prime seasons, Kaline was still playing with a bad foot; it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have been even more prolific.
In the wake of his death, baseball fans everywhere will pay tribute to Al Kaline and his fantastic career. Behind the scenes, however, a pair of shoes made all the difference.