No. 6 Is Still No. 1 in Motown

By Kevin Glew

Six comes before seven, 21, 24 and 44, but you wouldn't know it when you listen to people talk about baseball stars from the 1950s and 1960s.

Sporting No. 6 in Detroit, Al Kaline was overshadowed by No. 7 (Mickey Mantle), No. 21 (Roberto Clemente), No. 24 (Willie Mays) and No. 44 (Hank Aaron).

Sure, Mr. Tiger didn't perform with the flair of his contemporaries, but it's hard not to be impressed by his numbers: 3,007 hits, 15 all-star selections, 10 Gold Gloves, 399 home runs and a .297 batting average. These statistics helped secure Kaline a plaque in Cooperstown.

"Fundamentally, Kaline just seemed to do everything right," said Brook Haske, who owns the No. 3 Current Finest Kaline Master Set on the PSA Set Registry. "Playing the field and batting, he just had really good baseball sense. He seemed to understand the game very well and he produced."

"I remember Al on the field and I always thought he had impeccable fielding skills and I thought he had great baseball judgement," added Alex Korittnig, who has compiled the registry's No. 6 Current Finest Master Set. "He was a solid player. He was never flashy like Mantle or any of those guys, but he was somebody that Detroit could always count on."

Longtime Kaline collector Gary Martin says it's a combination of the Tiger great's talent, modesty and love of the game that inspired him to assemble his Kaline registry sets.

"Kaline actually turned down a raise," said Martin. "The Tigers wanted to make him their first $100,000 ballplayer and he turned it down. He said that no ballplayer was worth $100,000. Can you imagine that today?"

Like Martin, Dave Buchanan, proprietor of the registry's No. 2 Current Finest Master Set, grew up in Michigan idolizing No. 6. His Kaline collection has taken on a special meaning in his family.

"My kids (three grown sons) all know of my collection and passion for Kaline cards and that Kaline was my childhood hero," he explained. "In 2007, my wife began her road to recovery as a breast cancer survivor, so I tell my kids constantly that she's my life's hero. I gave each kid a Kaline card from her birth year (I won't tell you what year or she'll kill me) that Christmas with a little note about the significance of it. Each kid genuinely loved that gift."

Kaline, a devoted family man himself, would be touched by Buchanan's story. He would also likely be surprised to learn that so many hobbyists are pursuing his Basic (22 cards) and Master (209 cards) sets on the PSA Registry.

The key to a Kaline collection is, of course, his rookie card (1954 Topps (#201)). Demand for high-grade copies has grown in recent years. A PSA MINT 9 example sold for $10,320 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in August 2010.

Poor left-to-right centering frequently hampers Kaline's rookie and the top border on the front is susceptible to chipping.

Haske has had trouble finding a centered copy of the 1955 Bowman Kaline (#23).

"To get that card centered well is part of the problem," noted Korittnig.

The brown borders are also susceptible to chipping. Of the 1,048 Kaline singles submitted, there has yet to be a PSA GEM-MT 10 and there are 14 PSA 9s. A PSA 9 sold for $960 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in August 2010.

The yellow name version of Kaline's 1958 Topps single (#70) is another coveted card. This single generally commands a premium over its white name counterpart. There are just five PSA 9s of the yellow name version and one sold for $2,100 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in August 2010.

Arguably, the most difficult mainstream Kaline to find in mint condition is his 1960 Topps single (#50). Of the 917 evaluated, there has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just six PSA 9s. Martin notes that poor centering hampers this single.

But it's the 14 Venezuela Topps cards – produced from 1959 to 1968 – in the Master Set that seem to present the greatest challenge for collectors.

"First, they are very hard to get. And second, it's hard to get higher than a (PSA) 2, unless you really want to pay a lot of money," said Buchanan.

Martin agrees, adding that these cards are plagued by a variety of condition woes.

"The climate of Venezuela is not conducive to storing cards, and then a lot of them were glued into albums. So a lot of them have paper loss on the back when they were removed from the album," he said.

Korittnig says that the 1964 Topps Venezuela A.L. Bombers card (#331) that showcases Kaline along with Roger Maris, Norm Cash and Mickey Mantle might be the most elusive in high grade. The two existing PSA EX 5 copies represent the highest-graded examples. One of these fetched $1,057.50 in a Robert Edward Auctions sale in May 2011.

Not as rare as the Venezuelan cards, but still elusive in high-grade, are Kaline's O-Pee-Chee cards. Printed in smaller quantities than Topps, these Canadian singles are notorious for centering problems and miscuts.

"The O-Pee-Chee cards are tougher, but for some reason they don't carry the premium that you would expect them to. The demand is not quite as high on those," said Buchanan.

Tracking down these tough issues is just one of the challenges facing Kaline enthusiasts. They also have to compete against fellow hobbyists.

"Everybody in Michigan still talks about Al Kaline. It seems like everybody in Michigan has good things to say about him," said Haske. "He's a positive role model and a leader, and as far as I can tell, he's got great ethics."

The modest Kaline might blush at the popularity of his cards, but he'd also likely be proud that his career is still celebrated.

Joe Falls might have summed Kaline up best in his book, Baseball's Great Teams: Detroit Tigers, when he wrote: "Al Kaline . . . magnificent ball player, decent person, family man . . . who for 22 years conducted himself with great presence as a Tiger player. Not an Aaron. Not a Mays. Not a Mantle. He never pretended that he was. He was a man who simply went into the right field corner, played that double-carom shot, and fired the ball into second, holding the runner on first."

No, Kaline wasn't as flashy as his contemporaries, but No. 6 does deserve mention in conversations about the best players from the '50s and '60s. Fittingly, Kaline's number was the first to be retired by the Tigers, proving that in Detroit at least, six will always come before seven, 21, 24 and 44.