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Great Grandma and her favorite Detroit Tiger, Al Kaline

James Larsen II

My Great Grandma Carolyn’s favorite earthly possession was a sun-faded baseball that sat on top of her dresser for years.

This most treasured of gifts came courtesy of a family friend named John J. Cortese, who had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Columnist Bob Talbert wrote in an August 21, 1979, Detroit Free Press article about a man named John J. Cortese who found himself in the middle of history as a 13-year-old boy in 1926.

Shortly after arriving near Navin Field, later called Tiger Stadium in Detroit, Cortese saw a ball exiting the park over right field. He gave chase as it sailed over the Checker Cab building. Upon besting a nearby cab driver to the ball, he laid claim to what would later be deemed the longest home-run ball that Babe Ruth ever hit.

Ruth hit a second home run in the 11th inning that proved to be the game winner for the visiting New York Yankees. After the game, Cortese was able to secure an autograph from the Bambino himself on the ball.

Former Detroit Tiger and Baseball Hall of Famer Al Kaline throws out the first pitch before the start of the Tigers’ game against the Boston Red Sox on April 8, 2017, in Detroit. (AP file photo)

Grandma spent her summers yelling at the radio as Ernie Harwell called the action between the chalk lines for several generations of Detroit Tigers fans. While she loved all her Tigers, it was “Mr. Tiger,” Al Kaline, she most adored.

Near the twilight of a distinguished career spent entirely i

n Detroit, Kaline went 2 for 4 and scored a couple of runs in a 5-3 win over a bad Milwaukee Brewers team at Tiger Stadium on May 24, 1972. It was the day John J. Cortese again found himself in the right place at the right time at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues.

After retrieving a foul ball, Cortese waited patiently outside the stadium shower room after the game in hopes of landing an autograph. When Kaline emerged, he graciously signed and dated the ball. In turn, Cortese just as graciously gave it to Grandma.

Although I was a very young boy when she died, I most vividly remember Grandma setting aside treats for me whenever we’d visit. Recollections linger of eating cookies while playing in the living room and being happy about both of those pleasures.

A few years after she passed away, my Great Grandpa Ray surprised me with the greatest gift I’d ever received in all my 8 or 9 years on earth. Underneath the discarded paper was a faded baseball dated 1972 and signed by the rifle-armed Kaline.

I hadn’t known of the ball until then and was honored to be deemed its worthy caretaker. As I look at the ball today, I still marvel at how Grandpa Ray had entrusted a boy of such tender years with his soul mate’s favorite possession.

When I was a newly minted 18-year-old senior in high school, I reached out to John J. Cortese. As I look over the letter a then-89-year-old Cortese wrote back to me, I’m filled with admiration for two men I’ll never get to meet.

The first passed away in 2008. He wrote to me of Tiger Stadium and the baseball and of his friendship with my great grandparents.

The other just passed away on April 6. He is beloved for his years playing and broadcasting games at Tiger Stadium. By all accounts, he was a fine human being as well. What I most appreciate is that he took a few moments to make my Grandma happy.

As I look at the date on the letter and stamped on the envelope, April 6, 2002, catches me off-guard. That was 18 years to the day of Al Kaline passing away. Just coincidence, I say, but the number 18 strikes me nonetheless.

Baseball is a game of numbers and those numbers can tell a story. Al Kaline was 18 when he played the first game of a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. To go along with his cannon of an arm and a soft glove, the right fielder hit 399 home runs. He became the youngest batting champion when he hit for a .340 average as a 20-year-old and ended up collecting over 3,000 hits in his career.

The number 1 is most impressive to me. One hard-fought championship in 1968 helped heal a city reeling from the wounds of race riots. It also offered sweet redemption to a team that let the pennant slip through their fingers on the final day of the 1967 season. One championship team for all 22 years of his career. That’s something we may never see again in a Tiger uniform. More than any one person, Al Kaline was and is “Mr. Tiger.”

As I look at a nearly 50-year-old baseball with the name “Al Kaline” scribbled across it, I imagine Grandma sitting at a card table with a bowl full of chips on a summer afternoon. I feel the skin-warming summer sun as it shines through the living room window. This was made all the more pleasant by a light breeze coming courtesy of an open window in the kitchen. The radio is on and a man from Georgia describes the scenes unfolding below the Tiger Stadium press box as only he can.

A 3-and-2 count and the pitcher winds and delivers. The unmistakable crack of a bat is heard across the airwaves. The right fielder races back on a hard-hit ball to the corner. His white uniform is almost blinding as the midday sun reflects off it. Ball hits glove as body hits wall. He tumbles and the pristine jersey is now dust covered and stained with earth.

Elation turns to sorrow somewhere between the batter’s box and second base. No. 6 has robbed yet another visitor of extra bases. The batter veers course heading back to the dugout. The hometown crowd’s approval echos through the transistor speakers.

If we listen, we can still hear the voice of summer paint a scene so vivid, our mind’s eye can bring it back to life.

James Larsen II is the advertising manager at The Mining Journal.

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