Al Kaline Battery

In the wee hours of the past few nights, amid my other deadlines and drama I’ve inevitably found myself IMing with Steven Goldman about my various contributions to It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book. Two nights ago, the topic was 1967 (one of my two narrative chapters), and Tiger great Al Kaline came up for discussion, which is why today’s Detroit Free Press piece about former teammate Denny McLain’s latest tome caught my eye.

In his book, his third autobiography, convicted felon McLain — wow, now that would make a catchy nickname for a ballplayer, Convicted Felon McLain — has some not too nice things to say about Kaline:

McLain knocks Al Kaline for slamming his bat into the rack and injuring himself in the middle of the ’68 pennant race. Some of the players, and even manager Mayor [sic] Smith, McLain says, didn’t think Kaline should have started the World Series.

“As respectfully as I can say about a Hall of Fame player, Kaline wasn’t the most loved SOB in the clubhouse, and we did win the pennant without him,” McLain writes. “Our guys resented Kaline for turning down a $100,000 salary when Jim Campbell offered to put him on par with the top players in the game. While the media played him up as a hero for being so modest, we all knew that it cost us serious dough.”

McWrong. The injury to which the pitcher refers was on June 27, 1967, when he slammed the bat into the rack after Sam McDowell struck him out. He broke a bone in his hand and missed just over a month, but the situation probably didn’t cost the Tigers the pennant; they they went 15-11 with him on the sidelines despite an offense that aside from Dick McAuliffe and Willie Horton pretty much shut down.

Kaline missed five weeks in 1968 after a Lew Krausse pitch broke his arm on May 25. He hit .309/.408/.461 when he returned, an improvement on the .257/.369/382 he was hitting when he got hurt (keep in mind this was the Year of the Pitcher). Further, the Tigers were 24-14 prior to the injury, then 24-13 with him out. Yeah, they really won the pennant without him.

Since McLain is so eager to throw stones from his glass house, it’s worth noting that his own ankle sprain is far more culpable for the Tigers ’67 loss of the pennant. As recounted in Dave Anderson’s Pennant Races: Baseball at its Best, on September 18, a day which began with the Tigers holding a half-game lead on the White Sox and a full game lead on the Red Sox and Twins, Boston knocked McLain out after he allowed four runs in two innings. Mad at himself, McLain kicked his locker with his left foot. Later that evening, he was watching TV at home and was startled by a noise in the garage. He jumped up, but his left foot was asleep, and he crumpled to the floor, his ankle severely sprained.

He would not start again until the season’s final game. Rain forced the Tigers to play doubleheaders on both the Saturday and Sunday of the final weekend. They split the Saturday twinbill, and won Sunday’s opener behind Joe Sparma. With the Red Sox having won their game, the Tigers needed a win to force a tie and thus a playoff. McLain took the hill and was staked to a 3-1 lead in the second, but he couldn’t hold it. He departed in the third with the tying run on base, and Don Mincher greeted reliever John Hiller with a two-run homer. The Angels scored three more in the fourth and never looked back, helping the Red Sox win their first pennant since 1946.

So from September 17 on, the Tigers went 6-6, while the Red Sox went 7-4 and the Twins 6-5. All McLain gave them in that span was four innings of bad pitching, when one good start might have meant a pennant.

In honor of all that, I present an MP3 of “The Ballad of Denny McLain” by the SF Seals, an indie-rock project fronted by baseball fan Barbara Manning from a gem of an EP called The Baseball Trilogy which was put out by Matador Records (whose co-owner Gerard Cosloy runs the wonderfully snarky Can’t Stop the Bleeding). It’s a cover sung by one of Manning’s bandmates and thus not quite as good as her mind-melting psychedelic original “Dock Ellis” — a tribute to the pitcher who threw a no-hitter under the influence of LSD in 1970 — but it’s still pretty good. When Gerard’s jackbooted thugs come to drag me away for copyright violation, ask him why that hopelessly out-of-print EP isn’t part of the label’s voluminous offering at eMusic.

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