#Shortstops: Song for a Tiger

Part of the SHORT STOPS series
Written by: Bill Francis

Jeff Daniels wanted a way to memorialize his childhood hero, so he penned a song entitled “Al Kaline.” Today, those lyrics call the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum home thanks to the songwriter’s generous donation.

When the award-winning actor, recognizable for his acclaimed work in movies, television and the theater for the past four decades, first heard of “Mr. Tiger’s” death at the age of 85 on April 6, 2020, he knew he had an outlet to express his emotions.

“Al passed away, and like all of us who admired him and revered him, it was a sad day,” said Daniels in a recent phone call from his Michigan home. “And I picked up the guitar, like I do with a lot of things in my life, and just chronicled it. It’s like a musical diary for me. Sometimes things end up being able to played in a club, but sometimes I just write them for me. That’s kind of what this was.”

Kaline, Hall of Fame Class of 1980, was a schoolboy star in Baltimore before making his big league debut with the Detroit Tigers at the tender age of 18 in 1953. Calling Tiger Stadium’s right field home for his entire 22-season career, the 18-time All-Star, who led the American League with a .340 batting average in 1955, retired in 1974 with 3,007 hits, 399 home runs and a .297 batting average.

After stints as a broadcaster and front office executive, the Motor City legend worked for the franchise a remarkable 67 years.

After Daniels, 65, shared his tribute to Kaline – who he crossed paths with a few times over the years – with Detroit television anchor Devin Scillian, a friend and fellow musician, they decided to broadcast it soon afterward on WDIV.

“I sent it to Devin knowing he might play it on his show because he loved Al and knew Al well, just to get some feedback on it,” Daniels said.

“And Devin sent me an email back saying I have a Sunday morning news show, would you mind if we do a video tribute to Al Kaline this coming Sunday – this was a Monday or Tuesday – and use your song. I said I’d be thrilled. So they put a tribute to Al together and they played it at the end of the program. Locally it lit up.

“There were a lot of people that expressed that young boy looking up at a hero kind of thing, which is what baseball often provides those of us who were lucky enough to be exposed to it at a young age. In our case it was Kaline. And it touched a lot of people. Grown men were crying when they were watching it.”

He was just a ballplayer, and I was just a kid;
All I ever wanted was everything he did.
And just like him, I reached for more than I could ever be;
My childhood hero died today along with a little bit of me.

Soon after the song was used on the televised tribute, word got to Daniels that the Hall of Fame was interested in the handwritten lyrics to “Al Kaline.” Having penned the song on an iPad, Daniels offered to print off an older version and revise it by hand to what turned into final result.

“I made the pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame, as any true baseball fan should do, maybe in the late ’80s or early ’90s,” Daniels said. “So to get the phone call from the Hall of Fame was not what I expected when I sat down to write it. It was not on the radar, let me put it that way. It was almost, ‘Who’s pranking me?’ But it was pretty legit pretty fast.

“Apparently there’s more than one way to get in the Hall of Fame. I think that’s the lesson here.”

Asking Daniels, who was raised in Chelsea, Mich., why it was for him Kaline instead of other Tigers stalwarts of the era, he initially paused before looking back to his childhood memories.

“To a young boy, Kaline always got the hit, Kaline always made the catch, Kaline never made an out,” said the Tigers season ticket holder. “When he got it in the right-field corner he turned and he whirled, he threw a rope on a line from the right-field corner at Tiger Stadium all the way to Don Wert’s glove at third base. Wert never had to move his glove and the runner was out. That’s how you remember him. Perfect.”

Much like a Gold Glove-winning shortstop, Daniels has range as an actor.

His big screen appearances include such varied fare as Terms of Endearment (1983), Something Wild (1986), Speed (1994), Dumb and Dumber (1994), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and The Martian (2015). He also appeared in the baseball flick The Catcher Was a Spy (2018), where he portrayed OSS Director Bill Donovan.

On Broadway, he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play in God of Carnage (2009), Blackbird (2016) and To Kill a Mockingbird (2019).

Daniel’s television roles include Emmy-winning turns in The Newsroom (outstanding lead actor in a drama series in 2012) and Godless (Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie in 2017). Currently he can be seen in Showtime’s The Comey Rule, where he portrays former FBI Director James Comey.

“As I grew older and went through acting and the industry, there’s Hollywood and commercialization of being an actor,” Daniels said. “Then there’s the art of it and the respect you have for those who came before you who were great and those who will came after. You find a place for yourself in the midst of all these great actors from before you and now.

“It was the same thing with baseball. Kaline had such a respect for the game. The game was bigger than he was. And you don’t always see that today whether it’s in baseball or movies or acting or Hollywood or in politics. And he had a respect for the game that he carried with him. He was certainly aware that he was on everyone’s version of the Detroit Tigers’ Mount Rushmore, but he always looked you in the eye; he never made you look up to him.

“He had such class, such elegance and such a respect for a game that was bigger than he was. And I didn’t realize that until later.”

According to Daniels, a high school first baseman who shared that he hit .361 as a junior with a unique ability at scoop balls out of the dirt, the song “Al Kaline” was autobiographical, telling the story of a young boy attending his first Tigers game in the mid-1960s and receiving a life-altering possession in the process.

“I remember the turnstiles, I remember Bat Day, I remember the guy just turning and grabbing a bat. He may have heard me say something about Kaline to my dad,” Daniels said.

“He handed me the bat and it was an Al Kaline bat. It’s the magic wand, it’s the sorcerer’s sword. You clutch it you your chest. And I still have it. It’s hanging up in my basement down there in the man cave.”

Early summer 1964;
Nine years old and ready for more.
Just like Christmas comes once a year;
Tiger Bat Day was finally here.

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the SHORT STOPS series