Hall of Famer Kell passes away
Third baseman edged Williams for AL batting crown in 1949
Hall of Famer George Kell, who followed up his legendary playing career by connecting with new generations of fans as a longtime Tigers broadcaster, has passed away. He was 86.
According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Kell died in his sleep early Tuesday morning at his home in Swifton, Ark. He had recovered from an automobile accident five years ago that had briefly left him unable to walk, but he spent most of his time at home.
Kell's 15-year career with the Philadelphia Athletics (1943-1946), Detroit Tigers (1946-52), Boston Red Sox (1952-54), Chicago White Sox (1954-56) and Baltimore Orioles (1956-57) established him among the game's great third basemen, not just of his era, but of all time. One of just 11 third basemen elected the Hall of Fame, he was a 10-time All-Star who set standards at his position for defense and offense alike.
A career .306 hitter, Kell is best known as a player for his American League batting crown in Detroit in 1949, winning a race with Ted Williams that went down in history for its minuscule gap and stellar hitting. Down 10 points in late September upon returning from a jammed thumb, Kell went on a finishing tear that brought him within three points on the season's final day. While Williams went 0-for-2 with two walks, Kell's 2-for-3 outing erased the gap. He was on deck against Cleveland's Bob Feller, pitching in relief, when Eddie Lake hit into a game-ending double play.
Kell not only hit .3429 that year, edging out Williams at .3427 and denying the Red Sox star the Triple Crown, but his 13 strikeouts that year stands as the lowest total for a batting champion in Major League history. He went on to post nine .300 hitting seasons before he retired at age 35 following the 1957 season in Baltimore.
Just as solid if not more so than his bat, however, was his sure glove and strong arm. Seven times, he led all American League third basemen in fielding percentage. Four times, he led the league in assists from the hot corner. His nine errors in 1950 stood for nearly a quarter-century as the fewest by an AL third baseman with enough games to qualify.
"He's a seven-day-a-week ballplayer," former Tigers manager Red Rolfe once said.
Little did Kell know when he was playing that he would earn a similar regard by getting behind the microphone once his playing days were over. Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell introduced him to the profession by inviting him to the booth while he was injured during that 1957 season in Baltimore, where Harwell was working at the time.
"He sat in the booth with me after he'd been hurt and did a couple of innings with me," Harwell told WWJ radio Tuesday. "And that got him started in radio and TV. And then, when he got the job at the Tigers broadcasting with Van Patrick, and Van left, George called me and asked if I could come to Detroit."
After handling pregame work for CBS Television in 1958, Kell was back in Detroit, replacing the late Mel Ott on Tigers radio and television broadcasts. Except for 1964, he remained a voice of the Tigers in various outlets through 1996. Together, Kell and Harwell became the voices of the Tigers through generations.
Kell was as welcome a presence as a broadcaster as he was a player.
"George Kell was a professional in everything he did -- on the field, in the broadcast booth and the way he treated everyone he met," Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson said in a statement. "He led by example. Baseball will never forget him."
"What a gentleman," said Cubs bench coach Alan Trammell, who played for the Tigers when Kell was the team's broadcaster. "What a super man. I'm sorry to hear that -- we've lost a Hall of Famer.
"You think about Tigers broadcasters, and the first one who comes to mind is Ernie Harwell, but George Kell did the TV and did it well," said Trammell, who recalled Kell's southern drawl. "He called many of my games. It's a sad day. George was a friend to many people and was a solid man and a good man."
One of those who remembers the way Kell treated people was a young Tigers Minor League catcher and manager named Jim Leyland, who would come over to Major League Spring Training on occasion.
"Whenever I'd come over to help out here, or I'd see him over here, he just went out of the way to be [friendly]," said Leyland, the Tigers' current skipper. "He just always went out of his way, him and Al Kaline both, to just be so cordial. I couldn't believe it, really. I really didn't know him that well, but I remember the respect everybody had for him. He always loved the Tigers, and he just seemed like a genuine human being."
It was Kaline who teamed with Kell to form a longstanding partnership as the Tigers' television team, after they barely missed each other as teammates in the early 1950s. When Kaline became a broadcaster on Tigers games in 1976, he was paired with Kell, one of the rare players to become a long-running play-by-play voice.
"George was a great friend and like a big brother to me," Kaline recalled in a statement. "When we broadcasted together, I was a rookie, and he was a veteran, and he was a great mentor to me. I will miss him very much."
They remained a broadcasting pair until Kell retired. Along the way, they chronicled the Tigers' rise to prominence in the 1980s, including a World Series championship in 1984.
"I thought he was as much the sound of summer as Ernie," said current Tigers radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson, who grew up watching Kell. "Obviously, you listened to Ernie more, because there weren't as many TV games, but really, I just thought he had just about a perfect delivery for TV, the game. He had an understated delivery, but when it got exciting, he got excited, and you paid attention."
Fellow Tigers broadcaster Jim Price worked briefly with Kell and Kaline in the mid-1990s.
"He was a funny guy and just a class act," Price said. "I really had a ball listening to the stories with Al and George. Working with George on the air, I really loved to get George laughing."
Once Kell retired, he went back home to Arkansas, where he had maintained a keen interest in state politics. He remained active with the Baseball Hall of Fame, well after he was inducted by the Veterans Committee in 1983.
"There's no one who loved and respected the game more than George," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. "Not only was he one of baseball's true legends, but he was a fan, too. He loved coming to Cooperstown and sharing in the camaraderie with his Hall of Fame family, and we will miss him."
Funeral services will be held Friday at 1 p.m. CT at the Swifton United Methodist Church. Donations to the church are encouraged in lieu of flowers.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.