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George Kell

George Kell

Position(s):
3B, 1B, OF, LF, RF, 2B
Born:
August 23, 1922
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 9"
Weight:
175 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-28-1943 with PHA
Hall of Fame:
1983

Considered by some baseball historians to be the finest third baseman to play in the American League prior to Brooks Robinson, George Kell excelled both at the bat and in the field for five different teams during a 15-year major-league career that eventually landed him in Cooperstown.  A lifetime .306 hitter, Kell batted over .300 nine times, surpassing the .320-mark on four separate occasions and capturing the A.L. batting title in 1949 with a mark of .343.  Kell also topped the junior circuit in hits and doubles two times each, establishing career highs in both categories in 1950, when he led the A.L. with 218 hits and 56 two-baggers.  An outstanding fielder as well, Kell led all American League third basemen in fielding percentage five times, while also topping all players at his position in assists and total chances four times each.

Biography:

Born in Swifton, Arkansas on August 23, 1922, George Clyde Kell attended Arkansas State University while also playing minor league baseball.  Originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as an amateur free agent in 1940, Kell joined Lancaster of the Interstate League after being released by the Dodgers prior to the start of the 1942 campaign.  After leading all of organized baseball with a .396 batting average at Lancaster in 1943, Kell was purchased by the Philadelphia Athletics, to whom he reported in late September.  Appearing in just one game at third base for the Athletics, Kell tripled in five at-bats, after which team owner and manager Connie Mack told him, “You’re a fine fielder, but I’m afraid you’ll never hit.”

Undeterred by Mack’s appraisal, Kell won Philadelphia’s starting third base job the following year, batting .268 in his rookie season.  The 23-year-old third baseman batted .272 as a sophomore, knocking in only 56 runs in almost 570 official at-bats.  Looking back at his rather mediocre performances of 1944 and 1945, Kell later said, “What had happened, I believe, was that because of manpower shortages in the majors (during World War II), I was brought up too soon.  Those two years with the A's were formative seasons, which normally would have been spent in the minors.  I just happened to ripen in 1946, that's all."

Peak Years with Tigers:

After being traded to the Detroit Tigers early in 1946, Kell did indeed ripen.  He finished fourth in the American League with a .322 batting average, topping the .300-mark for the first of eight consecutive times in the process.  Kell also led all league third basemen in both putouts (141) and assists (267) for the second straight year, while committing only seven errors in 415 chances at the hot corner for an outstanding .983 fielding percentage. 

Steve O’Neill, who managed the Tigers in 1946, sang the praises of his third baseman, saying, "He fields as well as any third baseman I ever saw.  "He's so versatile that in a pinch I'll bet he could play any position in the infield.  He's got more competitive spirit in his little finger than most players have in their whole bodies."

Kell continued to mature in 1947, placing among the league leaders with a .320 batting average and 188 hits, establishing a new career high with 93 runs batted in, and topping all A.L. third basemen in assists for the third straight time, with a total of 333.  Kell’s outstanding all-around performance earned him a fifth-place finish in the league MVP voting. 

Injuries limited Kell to only 92 games the following year, but he still managed to hit .304.  He returned to Detroit’s lineup full time in 1949, capturing the American League batting title on the season’s final day with a two-for-three performance against Cleveland ace right-hander Bob Lemon.  Kell’s final mark of .3429 enabled him to barely edge out Ted Williams (.3427) in the batting race, thereby preventing the Boston slugger from winning his third Triple Crown.  Kell also struck out only 13 times in more than 600 total plate appearances – the lowest total ever compiled by a batting champion. 

Kell later recalled that Williams gracefully approached him the first time the Tigers faced the Red Sox the following year, saying to him, “You won the batting title, so I’m coming to your dugout.”  The two men went on to become good friends, growing closer after they became Boston teammates two years later.

Kell proved in 1950 that his batting championship was not a fluke, finishing a close second in the batting race with a mark of .340.  He also established career highs with 101 runs batted in, 114 runs scored, and a league-leading 218 hits and 56 doubles.  No other player has since compiled more doubles in a season, and Kell’s eight home runs made him the only player from 1950 to 1985 (Tommy Herr) to drive in 100 runs without reaching double figures in homers.  

Hitting Style:

Discussing his philosophy towards hitting that prevented him from using the same batting stance twice in a game unless he experienced success in his earlier at-bats, Kell said, "Never let yourself get fooled by the same pitcher on the same pitch on the same day."

Kell’s approach at the plate and short, compact right-handed swing enabled him to strike out a total of only 287 times in more than 7,500 total plate appearances over the course of his career.  Although he rarely hit home runs, totaling only 78 long balls in his 15 seasons and never hitting more than 12 in any single campaign, he had good gap power, accumulating more than 30 doubles on five separate occasions.  Kell so impressed fellow Hall of Fame infielder Lou Boudreau, who also managed the Indians during his playing days, that the former player/manager said when he introduced Kell at the latter’s Arkansas Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1964, “I'll put him with Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio when you need to get the run home."

Move to Boston:

After Kell batted .319 and led the American League with 191 hits and 36 doubles in 1951, the Tigers elected to include the All-Star third baseman in a nine-player trade they made with the Boston Red Sox early the following year.  Kell spent two seasons in Boston, batting over .300 each year, before being dealt to the Chicago White Sox early in 1954.  Kell remained in Chicago for two years, before spending most of his final two seasons with the Baltimore Orioles serving as mentor to a young Brooks Robinson.  Kell retired at the conclusion of the 1957 campaign with a .306 batting average, a .367 on-base percentage, 2,054 hits, 870 runs batted in, and 881 runs scored.  In addition to batting over .300 on nine separate occasions, he knocked in more than 90 runs twice and scored more than 90 runs three times.  Kell finished in the top five in the American League in batting seven times, doubles six times, and hits three times.  He appeared in 10 All-Star games and placed in the top 10 in the league MVP voting three times.

After failing to gain admittance to Cooperstown during his initial period of eligibility, Kell was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1983.  Kell, who was known as a player who didn’t swear and who didn’t get thrown out of ball games, displayed his humility during his Hall of Fame induction speech when he said, “I have always said that George Kell has taken more from this great game of baseball than he can ever give back.  And now I know, I am deeper in debt than ever before.”

Broadcasting Career:

Following his retirement as a player, Kell worked as a play-by-play announcer for the Orioles (1957), CBS television (1958), NBC radio (1962), and the Tigers (1959-1963 on radio, and 1965-1996 on television).  From 1975 until his retirement from broadcasting, Kell was joined on Tiger telecasts by Al Kaline as color commentator.  Through the years, Kell's mellifluous Arkansas accent became a welcome and familiar sound to generations of Detroit Tigers fans.

Legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who worked with Kell both on TV and the radio, said of his former broadcast partner, "He had a very laid-back style.  He was easygoing and an expert on the game.  He brought the field to the booth because he played and played well.  He had a conversational style that people took to."

Last Years:

Despite a career that took him far from home, Kell never lost his close ties to his native Arkansas.  He bought a General Motors dealership there in 1963, passing it on to his son in 1990.  He also served on the Arkansas State Highway Commission from 1973 to 1983.  Kell eventually retired to his small hometown of Swifton, where he experienced a devastating house fire in 2001 that took from him most of his baseball memorabilia.  He was later involved in a 2004 car accident that left him seriously injured.  Kell lived another five years, until he passed away in his sleep at age 86 on March 24, 2009.

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Tagged:
All Star, Baseball History, Brooklyn Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, George Kell, Hall of Fame, Philadelphia Athletics, Ted Williams, broadcaster

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