At 20, Kaline becomes youngest batting crown winner

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

The race of the 1955 American League batting title had been effectively decided for weeks before the season ended on Sept. 25, 1955.

But that didn’t make Al Kaline’s feat any less impressive.

On the final day of the 1955 season, Kaline went 0-for-1 – grounding out against the Indians’ Bud Daley in the first inning before leaving the game in favor of Tigers teammate Bubba Phillips. Kaline’s batting average stood at .340, 21 points better than runner-up Vic Power of the Kansas City Athletics. The third-place finisher, White Sox third baseman George Kell, finished 28 points behind Kaline.

The 20-year-old Kaline thus became the youngest batting champion in history, one day younger than Ty Cobb when he won the first of his record 12 batting crowns in 1907.

“I did really well all year, until maybe the last month of the season when I went into a little bit of a slump,” Kaline said. “But I was still able to lead the league by quite a few points.

“(But) winning the batting title meant nothing to me. I just wanted to play.”

Kaline’s incredible 1955 season also included an AL-best 200 hits and 321 total bases, along with 27 home runs, 102 RBI and 121 runs scored. He finished second in the league MVP race to the Yankees’ Yogi Berra and earned the first of his 18 All-Star Game selections.

Kaline went right from high school to the big leagues in 1953, debuting on June 25 at the age of 18. He appeared in 30 games that summer, totaling 30 plate appearances, then won the job as the Tigers’ right fielder in 1954 when he hit .276 and finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.

In 1955, he began the season with two hits on Opening Day and continued to swing a hot bat well into the summer months.

“(At our home opener) in Detroit (on April 14), I hit two triples off Mike Garcia, a great pitcher for Cleveland, and that gave me a lot of confidence,” Kaline said. “I had a chance to play all the time (that season) and things just fell in to place.”

Kaline extended his hot start into the summer months, hitting as high as .379 as late as July 8. By the end of the year, Kaline’s on-base percentage was .421 and he was widely regarded as one of the best hitters in baseball.

The next season, Kaline drove in a career-best 128 runs and hit .314. And though he would never again win a batting title, Kaline retired after the 1974 season with a .297 batting average, 399 home runs and 1,582 RBI. He won 10 Gold Glove Awards for his play in the outfield – a figure that would likely be higher if the award had existed prior to 1957 – and he became just the 12th player ever to record 3,000 hits when he reached the milestone in the last month of the 1974 campaign.

In 1968, Kaline led the Tigers to the World Series title, hitting .379 with two homers and eight RBI in Detroit’s seven-game victory over the Cardinals.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1980, passing away on April 6, 2020.

“It’s still a little big embarrassing to have people refer to me as one of the greatest players in the world,” Kaline said. “That’s going overboard, because I’m not. But I am a Hall of Famer, and I appreciate that.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series