It was April 17, 1955.
Al Kaline entered this game a prospect, and left it a star. The talk leading up to it was, could he develop into a good player? After the game, it turned into just how great would he be? This was the springboard for a sensational season. It's one that catapulted his name into the discussion with the greats of the game, like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. This season ended up forcing ridiculous comparisons to greats of the past as well. He was the next Ty Cobb.
Kaline signed with the Tigers as an 18 year-old, the day after his high school graduation. They paid him $35,000. The signing bonus was so high that by the rules of the day, the organization was forced to put him on the major league roster. The feeling was, he'd ride the bench for two seasons (they had to leave him on the team at least that long), then go down to the minors. Kaline had just 28 at bats in 30 games in 1953. The following season, he hit only four home runs in a full season of play, 504 at bats. By 1955, Kaline was showing enough promise to be a mainstay. Kaline got married, and apparently, began eating better. "I put on a little bit of weight after I got married and I started hitting the ball with a little bit more authority," says Kaline, 57 years after the fact.
The Tigers were at home taking on the Kansas City Athletics on a Sunday afternoon. The game was scoreless until the third. Kaline was up facing Athletics starter Johnny Gray, with Fred Hatfield on base. Gray delivered and Kaline drilled it to left field. Gus Zernial went back, but it was no use as the ball landed into the seats in the lower deck of left field for a two-run homer.
The Tigers scored four in the fourth and one more in the fifth, making it 7-0. In the sixth, Detroit really opened it up. Kaline led it off by smashing Bob Spicer's pitch deep into left center and gone for another home run, a 400 foot blast. Two walks and a single later, A's manager Lou Boudreau pulled Spicer, bringing in Lee Wheat. He couldn't retire a batter. Bill Tuttle hit a two-run single and Frank House blasted one into the seats in right for a three-run homer. It was now 13-0. After an error, Harvey Kuenn doubled. With Bob Trice now on the mound, Fred Hatfield's ground out scored another run, making it 14-0. It was Kaline's turn again. The tall, skinny 20 year-old smoked another blast to left field and into the seats for a two-run homer, his second of the inning, and third homer of the game off three pitchers. The Tigers won it, 16-0.
"It was just one of those games where I got good pitches to hit, and I
got them up in the air and they went out," says Kaline, thinking back.
"I was very surprised to get two in one inning. It was just one of those
games where everything went right for me. We'd had an off day the day
before, and had an intra-squad game and I hit a home run in that one,
too. I got in what they call one of those zones where you see the ball,
they make a lot of mistakes on you, and you hit it."
The sudden burst of power surprised a lot of people, especially, the young Kaline. "I was totally amazed. I was never, even in high school, a home run hitter. I always hit line drives. I would hit base hits and run like hell. I started getting some more power."
Kaline had become the first Tiger ever to hit two home runs in one inning, and the first American Leaguer to do it since Joe DiMaggio, 19 years earlier. No Tiger would match the feat until 2007, when Magglio Ordonez did it, also on a Sunday afternoon at home against the A's.
Al Kaline would have a phenomenal 1955 season. He belted 27 homers and drove in 102 runs, adding 200 hits. He batted .340, becoming the youngest player ever to win the batting title, beating Ty Cobb by one day. The comparisons were inevitable. There were a lot of fans and writers in Detroit who could remember Cobb and his run of one outstanding season after another. People expected Kaline, at just 20, to continue to ascend toward mega-star status. He didn't. Cobb won 12 batting titles. After '55, Kaline would never do it again. Kaline would never win a M.V.P. Award and never hit 30 homers in a season. When looking back on his 22 year career, you can point to consistency. He had very good season after very good season, collecting 10 gold gloves. He was a really good all-around player with one of the greatest throwing arms in the history of the game. "He was an outstanding star, the consummate Tiger, he could do everything," said Ernie Harwell in a 2007 interview. Kaline would go on to get 3,007 hits in his career. He became the first American Leaguer in nearly 50 years to do it. He ended his career with 399 home runs. With just one more homer, he would've become the first AL player ever to have 3,000 hits and 400 homers. In 1980, Kaline became just the 10th player ever elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.