Dazzled Kaline was a true Star in 1955 at 20

Al Kaline played in 18 All-Star Games in his 22-year career with the Tigers. He finished with 399 homers among his 3,007 hits.
Al Kaline played in 18 All-Star Games in his 22-year career with the Tigers. He finished with 399 homers among his 3,007 hits.

DETROIT - Al Kaline was all of 20 years old, not that far removed from Southern High School in Baltimore, when he looked around the clubhouse at Milwaukee County Stadium and stood there in stunned silence.

Kaline, who had signed a professional contract with the Tigers at 18, felt like he was outside looking in, watching the greatest players in baseball assemble for the 1955 All-Star Game.

The American League team had Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, Nellie Fox, and Mickey Mantle - and Kaline, who got more All-Star votes than any of them.

In the opposing dugout he saw Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Ernie Banks, Eddie Mathews, Duke Snider and Roy Campanella. And Kaline got more votes than any of them, as well.

"It was a real honor to be there, it was shocking, it was humbling - it was a lot of things all at once," Kaline said from the FanFest exhibition that is part of the celebration of the 2005 All-Star Game, which will be played tomorrow at Comerica Park.

"I'm a kid who idolized all of these guys growing up, and now I am walking into the same locker room with them, preparing to have them as my teammates. I'm in just my second full year in the league, so I am completely in awe of them. That moment still stands out very clearly in my mind."

Kaline apparently did belong there. That was the first of 18 All-Star Games for a player who in his 22-year career with the Tigers hit 399 home runs, collected 3,007 hits, and had nine seasons in which he hit .300 or better.

But that 1955 season would be one of his best. About two months before the All-Star Game, Kaline made baseball history by becoming the first player since Joe DiMaggio two decades earlier to hit two home runs in one inning.

Kaline hit .340 for the season, and became the youngest player to win the batting title when he did so a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday.

"I had a great season, so I guess looking back I did deserve to be an All-Star," Kaline said. "But I can tell you that at the time, I felt like a kid in a room full of legends. There's Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and me. I was sort of in shock."

When the All-Star Game last came to Motown, in 1971, Kaline was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, but still an All-Star. He saw Reggie Jackson hit a monster home run that was still gaining altitude when it struck a light tower on the roof at Tiger Stadium. Johnny Bench hit another bomb deep to right-center, and all-time home run king Aaron hit the only All-Star homer in his career.

"Reggie Jackson's home run was one of those you never forget," Kaline said. "I remember the tremendous noise when he made contact with the ball, and then watching it from the dugout. It was still on the way up when it hit the tower."

Kaline did not know it at the time, but he was taking part in one of the classics. There were 18 future Hall of Famers on the field that day in Detroit, and all of the runs came on homers hit by current Hall of Fame members.

"It was a great game for the fans, I remember that," Kaline said. "And the American League won 6-4, and it always felt better being an All-Star when you won. Looking back at how many real great players took part, it was without question one of the best All-Star Games."

Kaline, who has remained a part of the Tigers' organization since he retired as a player in 1974, first as a broadcaster and now as a special assistant, said the All-Star Game has grown from a nine-inning event to a grand spectacle since his playing days ended.

"In all of the years I played in this game, you would fly in, play the game, and then catch the next plane out of town," Kaline said. "There was none of this other activity going on. Now it has truly become a celebration of baseball with all of the fan activities, the home run derby, and so on. It has grown into such a huge event since I retired. You are a kid in a candy store when you go to the All-Star Game now."

Kaline, who received about $30,000 in annual salary and bonuses as a young player who made his first All-Star Game some 50 years ago, is aware that a lot of the players in tomorrow night's game will receive more than that just as their bonus for being named to this season's mid-summer classic.

"The world has changed a lot in those 50 years, and certainly the salary structure in baseball has changed dramatically," Kaline said. "But I have to believe that for those guys playing in this All-Star Game Tuesday night at Comerica Park, the thrill is exactly the same as it was for me. When you are honored as one of the best in your profession, that feeling never changes."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.