A look back at the life of Al Kaline, the Detroit Tigers great, who died on April 6, 2020, at age 85.
Detroit Free Press
Tom Selleck doesn’t get nervous much. But when the actor spotted Al Kaline coming toward him in the spring of 1991, his stomach began knotting up.
He was sitting at his locker stall inside theDetroit Tigers’ clubhouse in Lakeland, Florida, getting dressed so he could take the field for practice — he was there doing research for a movie called, “Mr. Baseball.” Suddenly, Kaline pulled up a stool to chat.
“And as I was looking at him, I noticed the players all looking at me,” Selleck said. “But Al kept talking, asking how I was doing.”
Right about then, Selleck stuck his foot into a cleat, and into a mess of goo. One of his “teammates” had filled his shoe with skin salve. Kaline had come over to distract him.
“He suckered me,” Selleck said. “He loved pulling pranks.”
The Detroit-born actor is known almost as much for the Tigers cap he wore on his hit 1980s show, “Magnum P.I,” as he is for his mustache. The baseball cap is in the Smithsonian — along with the Hawaiian shirt his character sported.
As for the mustache? It should probably be there, too.
Kaline used to joke with him about the mustache, and joke with him in general. He made him feel like one of the guys, even as he had to pinch himself that he was chatting with his childhood hero.
“I felt complimented,” Selleck said, especially when the guys put icy hot in his jockstrap.
No, that wasn’t Kaline, though the legendary Tiger got a kick out of hearing about it. Yet humor and pranks aren’t the reason Selleck wanted to talk about Kaline on Tuesday.
“I thought the nation should know a little more about who he was,” Selleck said. “He’s a huge loss. So active in the formation of so many players. Such an influence. You always wished you had more time with someone like that.”
Selleck, who is 75, was devastated when he heard that Kaline had passed Monday. Kaline was his favorite player.
“I’d see him on the game of the week sometimes,” he said, after his family had left Detroit in 1948 for Los Angeles, where he still lives.
He got to see Kaline in person, too, when the family packed up the car and drove across the country to see relatives. They drove straight through — Selleck’s father made his money selling real estate and didn’t get paid if he couldn’t earn commission. So he bolted across the country as fast as he could.
Every summer back in Detroit, Selleck would go to a Tigers game. He once got into the clubhouse and got to meet Kaline.
He was 10 or 11.
“I just admired him as a ballplayer,” Selleck said. “The way he played, with a kind of grace and dignity and commitment. The way he moved, cruising around right field. He looked like he was just loping after a ball down the right field line, until he hit the stands, and he’d tumble over, and I’d realize how fast he was traveling.”
Because of those trips back to Michigan, and because Los Angeles didn’t have a baseball team — the Dodgers didn’t move there from Brooklyn until 1957 — the Tigers were always his team. And when he got the role of Thomas Magnum and knew the character needed to wear a baseball cap, it was never a choice as to which cap he’d choose.
For a stretch in the ’80s, Selleck helped make the cap MLB’s top seller.
“I’ve always been very proud of that,” he said.
As his fame grew — he made a few hit movies as well — he got more opportunities to spend time with Kaline. But it wasn’t until his movie prep for “Mr. Baseball” took him to spring training did he really get to know him.
One day while he was stretching on the field, Kaline approached him and asked him to play catch.
“Long toss,” Selleck said.
Again, he tried to keep his cool. It helped that he’d lived as a celebrity for more than a decade and knew better than to ask a lot of questions. By then, he’d worked with other famous actors and was used to being around the buzz (though he admits he had to stay calm the first time he met Faye Dunaway).
Playing catch and chatting with Kaline was different, though. Childhood awe can stick with you in that way.
“I just tried to have regular conversation,” Selleck said.
About baseball. The Tigers. Life.
Before Selleck finished his apprenticeship that spring, Sparky Anderson, the Tigers’ manager, told Selleck he was going to give him an at-bat. One day, the Reds came to town. They were the defending World Series champs. One of their closers, Rob Dibble, threw high-90s heat and was known for an intense, scowling presence on the mound.
It was the seventh inning when Anderson called upon Selleck to grab a bat. Just then, Dibble entered the game. Anderson, not wanting to get Selleck killed, told him to wait.
The next inning Selleck took his stance in the batters’ box against another, more predictable, pitcher. He struck out.
“But I fouled off four pitches,” he said.
He hadn’t made a fool of himself in front of his idol. He still remembers the feeling.
That’s how it is with heroes, even if you’re a kind of hero yourself. No matter how much your fame grows, you can never outgrow the view you had as a child.
For Selleck, and for so many others who love the Tigers, Kaline was the shooting star, gliding across the galaxy.
“I looked up to him,” Selleck said. “And I’m proud to say I knew him.”
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.