He was known as “Mr. Tiger” during his 22-year major-league career, and he certainly fit the description. Al Kaline cards first popped out of wax packs a year after the Korean War and were still there as the curtain was closing in Viet Nam.
Kaline’s longevity was no secret. He could hit, run and throw. Underrated and underappreciated outside Detroit, No. 6 was a rock-solid performer for the Tigers. From 1957 through 1965, he won a Gold Glove in every year except 1960. He never hit 30 home runs in a season, but wound up with 399 in his career; he hit 29 twice, in 1962 and ’65.
By the Numbers
He won the American League batting title in 1955 as a 20-year-old, hitting .340 and collecting a league-leading 200 hits, and while his career average fell to .297 (like Mickey Mantle, Kaline’s latter years were injury plagued), Kaline wound up with 3,007 hits. He never won a Most Valuable Player award, but finished in the top 10 nine times and was the runner-up in 1955 and 1963. He never struck out more than 75 times in a season, and that came in his final season (1974).
In 1968, he made it to his first — and only — World Series and excelled, batting .379 with 11 hits, 2 homers and 8 RBIs.
What better way to remember Kaline than to look at six great baseball cards? They all might not be the most valuable cards of the Baltimore native, but the mini list does provide a nice cross-section of his career.
This is Kaline’s rookie card, and he sure looks young. The card was part of Topps’ 250-card set. Cards measured 2 5/8 inches by 3 ¾ inches. Kaline is shown in a vertical card design, with a glorified, color mug shot as the main piece of art. In the background, Kaline is shown in black-and-white, kneeling as if in the on-deck circle.
Kaline is one of three key rookie cards in the 1954 Topps set, along with fellow Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks. It’s also extremely tough to find in high grade. Of the 2,468 cards submitted to PSA for grading, only one Kaline rookie was given a 10 and there are only 19 graded 9. PSA-5 seems to be the most common grade for a Kaline rookie as there are 520 carrying that designation.
It’s a rare find as a high-grade card in SGC, too, with the highest coming back at 96 — and there is only one that grades that high. Two others have graded out at 92.
Kaline led the AL in slugging and OPS in 1959. He was part of this 20-card, unnumbered set that was produced by American Motors to publicize the “Home Run Derby” television program. Those contests were filmed in December 1959 and ran weekly on television from January 9 to July 2, 1960. The contests were held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, which later became the home of the expansion Angels in ’61. The power alleys were a generous 345 feet from home plate, so homers flew out of the park.
The series each week pitted two sluggers against one another and was hosted by the very droll Mark Scott — “It’s a home run or nothing here on ‘Home Run Derby’ ” was his signature line.
Kaline was included in the set on the strength of his 27 home runs in 1959.
Kaline was part of a nine-card set that included five baseball players (the others were Don Drysdale, Harmon Killebrew, Ed Mathews and Mickey Mantle), two football stars (Johnny Unitas and Frank Gifford) and two basketball players (Bob Cousy and Bob Pettit). The cards were issued on the backs of Post Grape-Nuts cereals and are oversized at 7-inches by 8 ¾ inches, covering the entire back of the cereal box. Predictably, the card backs were blank. Full-color photos are framed with a light wood-colored design.
The card front includes Kaline’s name, team and a facsimile autograph. Biographical information was listed on the side panel of the cereal box. Kaline was a natural to be included in the set, since Post was based in Battle Creek, Michigan. Grape-Nuts, by the way, is the oldest cereal in the company founded by C.W. Post, making its debut in 1897.
1961 Jay Publishing
Kaline was a full-fledged star by the early 60s, leading the AL in doubles in ’61 while hitting .324 and scoring 116 runs. His picture is one thousands of kids who visited Tiger Stadium wanted and the souvenir stands were happy to oblige.
From 1958 through 1965, Jay Publishing’s Big League Books division produced 5-inch by 7-inch black-and-white player photos sold at stadiums and via mail order.
The 1961 set shows Kaline kneeling in the on-deck circle. The photos were framed with white borders, and for the 1961 set, the player’s name was in black block letters at the bottom of the page.
This card is a favorite of many Tigers fans, since it was the year Detroit won the World Series. The Tigers rallied from a 3-1 deficit after four games to take the title from the St. Louis Cardinals, the defending Series champs. Kaline is shown in a posed batting stance that was typical of Topps cards during the mid- to late 1960s.
Hampered by injuries in 1968, Kaline played in just 102 games. He batted .287 and was clutch in the postseason. Manager Mayo Smith gambled, wanting his longtime star in the lineup for the World Series — so he took outfielder Mickey Stanley and installed him at shortstop for the Fall Classic.
This is Kaline’s final regular-issue card, although he did appear in the 1975 set as card No. 4, in the subset that honored milestones (“Kaline joins 3000 hit club,” the card reads in capital block letters). The 1974 version shows Kaline playing first base, a position he fielded in 36 games during the 1973 season. By 1974, however, Kaline was relegated to use as a designated hitter. But that enabled him to have 630 plate appearances and 588 at-bats, the most since 1971. Kaline is shown crouching in anticipation at first base, his glove ready. The photo is not a great one, since a shadow caused by his hat covered half his face.
In his final game, on October, 2, 1974, Kaline went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts. He would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980.
You can see the current list of the ‘most watched’ Al Kaline cards on eBay below.