Al Kaline is often compared to Roberto Clemente and they are close in the ratings. I have Clemente ahead. Kaline was steady hardly making a mistake. Clemente led right fielders in errors six times, Kaline once. Clemente led right fielders in assists five times, Kaline three times. Baseball Reference has Clemente ahead in career defensive runs saved. Another big difference is Kaline peaked early and Clemente peaked late. The normal peak is 26-28 years old. Clement peak in his early 30s. His four best seasons according to WAR were from 31 to 34. His fifth best was at the age of 36. Kaline peaked early. He started in the major leagues at the age of 18. He had four of his best seasons between age 20 to 24. In my opinion his best year was when he was 20. It is interesting that such different players who covered a lot of the same years accomplished about the same amount in their career.
Detroit was competitive a lot of years but never could win the pennant. In 1968 Kaline got to a slow start in April. He played better in May but got hurt at the end of the month. He missed all of June and Jim Northrup played well in his absence. Kaline came back in July but was a fourth outfielder and backup first baseman. He got into 100 games. Detroit easily won the pennant. Kaline told his manage Mayo Smith not to start him in the World Series as it would be unfair to the other guys who played during the season. Kaline thought he would probably being replacing Jim Northrup if he played and Northrup had a real season. In fact, all three starting outfielders had solid seasons as they were 3 of the top 6 players on the team in Baseball Reference WAR. However, Mayo Smith took a risky gamble. He put Kaline back in the lineup. Moved Jim Northup who played right into center and moved Mickey Stanley who played center to shortstop, the most important position for a position player decide catcher. Detroit’s regular shortstop Roy Oyler became the defensive replacement at shortstop during the series. He was a great fielder, but a terrible hitter. For the year he hit 135 way below the Mendoza Line which identifies bad hitters. He played 111 haves and had 247 plate appearances, but only scored 13 runs and drove in 12.
The strategy worked. Northup, Horton the left fielder and Northup all had good to great World Series with the bat in the World Series. Stanley wasn’t but played shortstop well enough and was a lot better with the bat than Oyler would have been. Detroit won the World Series in seven games.
In game 1 Kaline went 1 for 4 and struck out 3 times. However, he had the only extra base hit off Gibson who struck out 17 Tigers and shut them out 4-0. In game 2 Kaline had two hits and scored two runs in an 8-1 Tiger victory. In the bottom of the seventh Roy Oyler replaced Willie Horton and played short. Mickey Stanley moved to center and Jim Northup moved to left. Al Kaline stayed in right. In the third inning of game 3 Al Kaline hit a home run to put the Tigers up 2-0. St. Louis came back to win the game 7-3. In game 4 Kaline went 2 for 4 getting two of the five hits off Bob Gibson. So far in 18 innings of the series Gibson had given up 10 hits and Kaline had 3 of them. Not that it was doing the Tigers any good. They lost 10-1 and the Cardinals were up 3 games to 1. The Cardinals jumped to a 3-0 lead in game 5. Coming in the bottom of the fourth the Tigers had only a 17 percent chance of winning the game and staying alive in the World Series. The Tigers got two runs, although Kaline grounded out in the inning. He would make up for that later. In the bottom of the seventh with one out Kaline came up with the bases loaded. Kaline got the big hit of the game hitting a single right-center scoring the tying and lead run. Norm Cash batting behind Kaline hit another single giving the Tigers a 5-3 lead. Roy Oyler came into the game in the top of the eighth. The Tigers were still alive.
Game 6 the Tigers won easily 13-1. Kaline had three hits in four at bats, scored three runs and drove in four. Roy Oyler came into the game in the bottom of the eighth. Unfortunately, Bob Gibson would be pitching again. Bob Gibson would get Kaline all four at bats that game. The game was scoreless thru six innings. Al Kaline was probably disappointed after grounding out for the second out with the bases clear. However, Norm Cash then singled, Willie Horton singled. That bought up Jim Northup the guy that Al Kaline didn’t have to replace in the lineup due to Smith’s maneuverings. He hit a line drive with some left to Centerfield. Curt Flood had troubles finding the ball and just miss catching up to it. Northrup ended up with a triple. The Tigers had a two-run lead. It was three minutes later as the next batter Bill Freehan hit double to drive in Northup. Both teams scored a run in the ninth (Oyler came in for defense in the bottom of the ninth) to make the final score 4-1. Al Kaline had his World Championship.