It was over a month ago that one of the heroes of my childhood died. Detroit Tigers’ great Al Kaline died April 6 at age 85.
I regret I never got to see Kaline in his prime. By the time I got to see him after my family moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., Kaline was the revered “old man” of Detroit baseball. I know that, in 1955, he won the American League batting title at age 20, the youngest player ever to win the title. He finished his career with 3,007 hits and 399 home runs. He also won a bunch of gold gloves for fielding excellence.
He also got hurt . . . a lot. He was out several times in his career with injuries. As an example, he missed a good portion of the Tigers’ magnificent 1968 season due to injuries. The Tigers’ outfield had been set with Jim Northrup, Willie Horton and Mickey Stanley. Manager Mayo Smith knew he needed Kaline’s bat in the lineup if they wanted to win the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, so Stanley played shortstop.
It worked, as Kaline was brilliant (he batted .379 for the Series) and Stanley surprisingly good at his new position. Of course, if it hadn’t worked, Smith would likely have had to leave Detroit under an assumed name.
It's worth noting the Tigers' management removed a section of seats on the right field foul line at Tiger Stadium because Kaline kept running into them and hurting himself.
All this talk of injuries got me to wonder how would things have been different for Kaline if he had been playing today. Training and conditioning today are different from what they were in Kaline’s prime. We know a lot more about sports conditioning and injuries now. Indeed, much of training and conditioning today is done with the goal of preventing injuries.
Over the last 50 years, it has becoming increasingly clear that many of the injuries that were so common back in the old days can be prevented with the right training and conditioning.
Someone else I can’t help but wonder about is the player Kaline was often compared with, Mickey Mantle. He accomplished great things, but his career was filled with one painful injury after another. Buck O’Neill said it was a shame Americans never got to see Mantle play a full season on two good legs. I can’t help but wonder what his career numbers would’ve been like with today’s training and conditioning.
Another player along the same lines was Sandy Koufax. We now know the effect repetitive motions like pitching have on joints and muscles. Koufax developed arthritis in his pitching elbow because he didn’t learn to properly pace himself early in his career.
It was Dodgers' pitching coach Larry Sherry who told Koufax to pace himself and stop trying to always through harder. He went from a so-so pitcher to one of the greatest left-handers ever.
Perhaps if one of today’s pitching coaches had shown him early in his career how to pace himself instead of always trying to throw harder, he might have become a great pitcher some years earlier than he did, and he might have stayed in the big leagues longer.
As it was Koufax retired at age 30 so he wouldn’t ruin his arm. At the time, he remarked that it couldn’t be good for him to be “high” on painkillers all the time.
Of course, injuries still happen today, just as they always will in sports. Aaron Hill, the man Parker’s Little League field is named after, broke his hand in a game and has never been the same. The D-Backs’ Jake Lamb was hurt a while back, and he’s still trying to come back.
What today’s training and conditioning show is that some injuries can be prevented. I can’t help but wonder what sort of things Kaline, Mantle and Koufax might have accomplished if they had had some of the training that could’ve prevented their injuries.