Greatest Tiger of them all? It’s either Cobb or Kaline

Ty Cobb and Al Kaline hold almost every batting record for the Detroit Tigers. Their birthdays are a day apart in December.

Whenever the talk gets around to picking the greatest Detroit Tiger of them all, the argument typically boils down to two men: Ty Cobb and Al Kaline. Despite being separated by several decades – Cobb’s heyday was in the Deadball Era of the 1910s while Kaline reached his peak in the power-hitting 1960s – they are remarkably similar in many ways.

Both players broke in as 18-year-olds and played 22 seasons in Detroit (though Cobb concluded his career with two more seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics). Their birthdays are just a day apart: Cobb was born December 18, 1886, while Kaline came into the world on December 19, 1934. The birth dates proved significant when Kaline won the batting title as a 20-year-old in 1955, making him the youngest player – by a day – to ever win a batting championship. Cobb had previously enjoyed that distinction, winning his first batting title as a 20-year-old in 1907.

It is often overlooked that Cobb, like Kaline, played right field. It wasn’t until after he’d been in the league for a few years that the Georgia Peach moved permanently to center field. In fact, Cobb played right field in all three World Series he participated in, with Wahoo Sam Crawford playing center. Although little is said about Cobb’s fielding prowess, his speed gave him great range and his arm was above average, at least until he messed it up by fooling around with pitching. There were no Gold Gloves given out during Cobb’s era, but since the awards seem to recognize those who excel as much at the plate as they do in the field, it’s not unreasonable to think that Cobb might have won a few. Kaline, whose impeccable positioning and accurate arm made him one of the greatest right fielders of all time, earned 10 Gold Gloves during his career.

There was no annual All-Star Game played in Cobb’s time. Kaline was an 18-time All-Star, a remarkable feat that Cobb nonetheless probably would have matched if not exceeded. The one category that Kaline enjoyed an advantage over Cobb is perhaps the most important: World Series championships. Kaline, of course, was a key member of the 1968 champs. Cobb, on the other hand, played in three losing Fall Classics. It irked him to the end of his days. Kaline’s greatest frustration was falling one home run short of being a member of the 400 homer/3,000 hit club, a club that was considerably more exclusive when he retired in 1974 than it has since become.

Finally, both men were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the first year they were eligible – a fitting home for two of the game’s true legends.

Just for the fun of it, here is how Cobb and Kaline match up statistically. Note that the numbers for Cobb include only his seasons in Detroit and not his overall record.

Games played: Kaline 2,834, Cobb 2,806
Career base hits: Cobb 3,902, Kaline 3,007
Career batting avg.: Cobb .368, Kaline .297
.300+ seasons: Cobb 21, Kaline 9
.400+ seasons: Cobb 3, Kaline 0
Career home runs: Kaline 399, Cobb 111
Career slugging average: Cobb .516, Kaline .480
Career RBI: Cobb 1,805, Kaline 1,583
Career runs scored: Cobb 2,088, Kaline 1,622
Career stolen bases: Cobb 869, Kaline 137
World Series batting average: Kaline .379, Cobb .262

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.