Al Kaline sat across from Jim Campbell, the Tigers general manager.

Between the two men was a new contract offer, waiting for Kaline’s signature.

For the first time in his illustrious Tigers career, the dollar figure the Tigers were throwing at Kaline for a season included six digits.

The $100,000 a year contract was a nod to Kaline’s humble greatness wearing the Old English D. It was, frankly, the least the Tigers could have done. Campbell would have agreed.

Kaline was nearing the end of his great career, but he had a few more years left in the tank. The $100,000 offer came prior to the 1971 season, Kaline’s 19th in Detroit.

To Campbell’s amazement and chagrin, Kaline refused to sign the offer.

Not because it wasn’t enough—because it was too much.

“I don’t feel that I earned that offer,” Kaline told Campbell in so many words.

To no. 6, his 1970 figures on the field didn’t warrant six of them on a contract.

Campbell couldn’t get Kaline to budge. The $100,000 offer—huge money in the big leagues at the time, reserved only for the game’s superstars—was torn up. Kaline signed for $95,000.

A year later, Campbell finally managed to get Kaline’s John Hancock on a $100,000 contract.

In the early-1960s, outfielder Rocky Colavito was a darling in Detroit. The Tigers acquired The Rock just before the 1960 season from Cleveland for Harvey Kuenn, straight up. It was the first—and  only—time that a previous year’s HR champ (Colavito) was traded for the previous year’s batting champ.

Indians GM Frank Lane famously crowed about the trade.

“I feel like I traded hamburger for steak,” Lane proclaimed without class.

Kuenn was a bust in Cleveland, but Colavito continued to slug home runs. He had Hollywood good looks, the arm of a cannon and he combined with Kaline and Norm Cash to form a Detroit version of “Murderer’s Row.”

But during his stay in Detroit, Colavito made a strange demand. He wanted to be the highest paid Tiger.

Campbell, who took over as Tigers GM in 1961, would have none of it.

“As long as I’m here, no baseball player in Detroit will be paid more than Al Kaline,” Campbell said to the press.

Colavito grumbled. It wasn’t long before Campbell, tired of Rocky’s bellyaching, traded Colavito out of Detroit.

Kaline, through it all, never went public with any contract demands, even as Colavito’s were very high profile. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Kaline seemed almost embarrassed when the newspaper men wanted to know his take on Rocky’s demands.

Today, Kaline continues to be revered by Tigers fans the world over. A large part of that reverence has to do with Kaline’s humility.

Barry Sanders was, at the same time, the most electric runner in NFL history and the least exciting—when he scored a touchdown.

The docile manner in which Sanders would toss the football to the official after reaching paydirt is almost as legendary as his brilliant runs.

In a league known—and sometimes derided—for caustic end zone celebrations, Sanders’ lack thereof made him an even bigger hero, at least in Detroit.

Barry Sanders—another humble Detroit athlete.

Steve Yzerman spoke softly and carried a big stick—literally.

Yzerman, the unquestioned heart and soul of the Red Wings for so many years, carried himself with the humility and grace that the Detroit sports fan adores.

Whether it was explaining away another heartbreaking playoff series loss or reveling in another Stanley Cup won, Yzerman’s demeanor really didn’t change. His words were always measured, always well thought out. He didn’t have an ounce of hubris in his body.

For his quiet leadership and class, Steve Yzerman is almost as popular in Detroit as the automobile.

David Bing arrived in Detroit in 1966 in an old, beat up Volkswagen that he drove to Michigan from Syracuse, NY.

The Pistons desperately wanted to draft local hero Cazzie Russell in the summer of ’66. Cazzie, a basketball icon playing 45 minutes west on I-94 for the University of Michigan, wanted to be a Piston as badly as the Pistons wanted him to be a Piston.

But the Pistons, as was their luck in those days, lost a coin flip with the New York Knicks. Cazzie went to Manhattan. Bing was drafted second by the Pistons, out of Syracuse.

Bing, a skinny point guard and a virtual stranger to Pistons fans—all dozen of them—arrived in Detroit to play for an NBA team that, in the back of its mind, saw him as sloppy seconds to Cazzie Russell.

But Bing could shoot the ball and make passes that nobody on the Pistons had seen any guard make—ever.

Russell had a decent, albeit well-traveled NBA career. But it was nothing like that of David Bing’s.

Bing saved pro basketball in Detroit. That’s not an exaggeration.

He left Detroit with some acrimony, traded to Washington in 1975 by Bill Davidson, who didn’t appreciate Bing’s desire to renegotiate his contract in 1974.

Bing played for the Bullets and the Boston Celtics before retiring in 1978.

But when his playing days were over, Bing returned to Detroit and became one of the city’s most successful businessmen. He handled himself with style, class and grace.

Those things, combined with his business success and his wisdom, helped elevate Bing to the mayor’s office in 2009.

Bing is on the other side of 70 now but remains in Detroit, still supporting the franchise that traded him away in 1975 amid some rancor from both sides.

They are all around us—these graceful former Detroit athletes.

There’s Bing’s old teammate and coach, Ray Scott, as fine a gentleman as you’ll ever meet.

There’s Lem Barney, who’s always been a friend to the city’s youth.

There’s Willie Horton, who also left Detroit as a player with some bitter feelings, but who returned and is as much of the fabric of the city—not just the Tigers—as all the coney islands and Vernors you can shake a stick at.

We’ve lost a few recently, of course.

Charlie Sanders immediately comes to mind.

And, of course, Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe.

Howe’s death is, without question, the biggest blow that anyone alive has ever experienced, when it comes to former Detroit sports stars.

It’s bigger than Joe Louis’ passing, which came in 1981.

It’s bigger than Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, for a variety of reasons that you could probably surmise on your own.

It doesn’t get any more iconic than Howe.

But after having had a few days to reflect on Gordie’s passing last Friday, it occurred to me that we’ve been pretty damn lucky in Detroit to have cheered for athletes who were such fine men, on and off the battlefield.

Humility, grace and class. We like that in our Detroit sports stars, don’t we?

Thank goodness we have a lot of experience in that regard.

 

Advertisements