George Kell 1922-2009

Hall of Fame third baseman, ten time All-Star, and 1949 batting champ George Kell has died.

I knew him best as the play-by-play guy for Tigers’ games on WDIV in the 70s and 80s. He was paired with Al Kaline in those days, which made a rare double Hall-of-Fame broadcast combo. Kaline’s unsure commentary made Kell seem better than he was by comparison, I think, and in all honesty they both made me want to turn the sound down and click on Ernie Harwell on WJR for the background noise. Still, Kell was a pleasant presence on Tigers’ broadcasts, and though many will take shots at his borderline Hall of Fame credentials, he was always described as one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, and that came through in his public appearances.

Friend of ShysterBall Mike McClary interviewed Kell over at the Daily Fungo in March 2007. It’s worth a listen.

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Comments

  1. Dan Jeffers said...

    I grew up watching Saturday afternoon broadcasts with Kell and Kaline.  I remember that pitches were not just “high” or “low”, but always “up high” and “down low” and his home run call “he hit it a miiilllle!” and how the morning rock disc jockeys would impersonate him talking about encountering a player “in tha lobby of the ho-tel.”

    RIP George.

  2. Ron said...

    Detroit Tigers’ fans everywhere are in mourning and that is that the best you can come up with? “unsure commentary and turn the sound down”? That is more a lefthanded compliment bordering on an insult to two players, one Spectacular and an all time great in Kaline, and the other Kell, who was the best thirdbasemen before anyone named Mathews, Brett, Schmidt, or Brooks Robinson. Kell did everything at the plate except hit homeruns, and fielded superbly. try again. George Kell was a class gentleman and continued to sign and answer all autograph request up to the end. God Bless him.

  3. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Ron—I’m sorry you took that as a slam on Kell, but it wasn’t intended as such.  I grew up watching Kell and I found him to be a pleasant enough broadcaster, and everything I’ve heard about him makes him sound like a wonderful human being. I’ve gone on at length about how Tiger baseball was really Ernie Harwell for me, however, and to not at least acknowledge that risks rendering whatever nice things I say about Kell sound like disingenous praise. 

    Apologies if that offends you.

  4. Ron said...

    Craig, I appreciate your sincere words and honesty. Thankyou. It will also be a sad day for Tigers fans everywhere when Ernie gets called to the broadcast booth in the sky. We Tigers’ fans have been blessed with great men in the way they announce the games both on the radio and tv.

  5. Bill W said...

    Borderline Hall of Fame credentials? Are you nuts?
    Any ballplayer would be ecstatic to have Kell’s career stats. He was one of the best third basemen to ever play the game. Sure he wasn’t the long ball hitter but he always seemed to get the ball in play plus a .306 lifetime batting average ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

  6. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Bill W:  It’s not my intention to denigrate Kell’s accomplishments, and I don’t feel altogether comfortable talking objectively about his hall of fame credentials for fear that any criticism of him will be perceived (again) as such denigration.

    But the short version: Kell was an excellent contact hitter, but lacked the kind of power people had come to expect of third basemen in the 40s and 50s.  The fact that his numbers were posted in mostly hitters’ parks requires us to make some sort of mental deduction of the raw numbers as well.

    He was competent, but by no means excellent defensively.

    He was always thought of as one of the better players in the game yet (a) he was traded in-season many more times than you would expect an elite level talent to be traded, suggesting that his teams didn’t consider him irreplaceable; and (b) he was a Veteran’s committee selection, meaning that writers who covered his career didn’t consider him a Hall of Famer.  And, it must be added, that the VC of that era consisted of many broadcasters, and has been widely criticized as being too permissive in its voting standards.

    None of this changes the fact that Kell was a great player and a great man.  It simply supports an argument that he does not rank among the most worthy Hall of Famers, and that reasonable people could debate his worthiness for induction.

  7. Bert said...

    Mr. Kell was a class act and will be missed.

    As for HOF credentials, how about this: in 15 seasons, he struck out only 287 times, an average of less than 20 times per year. The year he won the batting title, 1949 (when he kept Ted Williams from winning the Triple Crown again), he struck out only 13 times in 134 games. How many players do you know nowadays who strikes out once every 10 games?

    Oh and it’s hard to fuss about someone who had more doubles (385) than strikeouts (287) in their career… Great contact hitter, maybe the best of his time… Ted Williams struck out 709 times in 19 seasons, and he’s considered one of the best ever… Think about that…

    And his .969 fielding percentage at the hot corner wasn’t shabby either… smile

  8. Seth said...

    Craig:  What power hitting third basemen of the 40s and 50s are you thinking of?  The only one that immediately comes to mind is Eddie Matthews.  Matthews no doubt captured the imagination of baseball fans and writers of that era with his towering home runs, but his career batting average was .35 points lower than Kell’s (.271 vs. .306).  The truth is alot of us would be happy to do away with the sportswriters votes. Who do you honestly think is more qualified to judge the talents and abilities of a ballplayer – a bunch of writers (most of whom never played a day of baseball in their lives) or a panel of former players?  Sportswriters have long been known to have an obsession with the “sexier” aspects of the game – home runs, slugging percentage, etc.  Kell may not have been a great power hitter, but he rarely struck out and his consistent excellence both at the plate and at the hot corner won him the respect and admiration of his peers.  Sportswriters may not have been as wowed, but who cares? If you don’t play in the right city (i.e.-New York, Boston) or generate enough off the field controversy you’re likely not going to get as much love from the press.  Just look at how often Albert Pujols gets overshadowed. He’s the best in the game, but because he is not controversial and plays in St. Louis he doesn’t always get the full acclaim that he deserves.  George Kell’s style was understated, no doubt.  Still, he was a 10 time All-Star who hit over .300 9 times in his career. He was an EXCELLENT fielder by all accounts I’ve heard, leading the American League in fielding percentage 7 times.  If you don’t think Kell was excellent defensively, just ask Brooks Robinson.
    The reason I felt compelled to respond to this is because I knew Mr. Kell personally. I grew up in Arkansas, just a short drive from his hometown of Swifton.  He is a legend in our part of the country.  I was lucky enough to have sat in his living room with him 2 years ago to talk baseball.  It was quite a thrill for a 24 year old baseball fanatic.  He was so proud of being elected to the Hall of Fame by his peers.  I remember asking him about his speech and the emotions he had that day.  Mr. Kell began to describe it to me, but suddenly stopped and said “I tell you what, son.  I have the tape.  Would you like to see it yourself?”  So that afternoon I sat in a Hall of Famer’s living room in Swifton, Arkansas and relived one of the greatest moments of his life with him.  It is something I will never forget.  George Kell is a Hall of Famer if there ever was one.

  9. Jim said...

    When Kaline started with Kell, it was a miserable broadcast. Kaline was remarkably bad. He slowly improved, but I always liked Kell. His folksy, genteel approach was similar to Harwell, if not as good. He never left Kaline hanging out to dry and he had some good stories from his playing days.  I miss his broadcasts. RIP Mr. Kell.

  10. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Seth—

    Nothing I say on the subject can (nor should it) diminish your admiration for George Kell, and nothing I say can (nor should it) take away from his accomplishments as a player.  I happen to be a huge Alan Trammell fan.  Alan Trammell is not and likely will not be in the Hall of Fame any time soon.  This doesn’t make him a lesser player to me no matter what anyone writes about him and no matter his vote totals.

    But the issue I’m addressing is not whether George Kell was a great player and great man.  He was. Of this there can be no dispute. The question is where he stands among Hall of Fame players, and whether there is an argument that maybe—maybe—he is less than deserving of induction.  Let’s look at that:

    At the outset I’ll grant you the point about power hitting third basemen.  I had it in my mind that the idea of third basemen hitting for home runs was an older thing, and upon looking at it, I realize that wasn’t the case.  But what of the best third basemen?

    There are nine in the Hall of Fame, making them the most underrepresented position:  Frank Baker, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Jimmy Collins, Kell, Fred Lindstrom, Eddie Matthews, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt and pie Traynor.  Kell ranks thusly in the following categories:

    Avg: sixth of nine

    HR:  seventh of nine, but number nine was a deadballer (Collins)

    OBP: fifth of nine

    SLG: seventh, but again, last is Collins

    RBI:  eighth of nine

    Runs: ninth of nine

    SB: seventh of nine

    This doesn’t take into account a couple of third basemen who aren’t in the Hall but probably should be (Darrell Evans, Ron Santo) and two who probably will be (A-Rod, Jones). 

    Again, this does not mean that Kell wasn’t great. Indeed, given that the thirdbasemen are under represented suggests that, yes, he may very well belong there.  But it’s inescapable that Kell is closer to the bottom of the all-time elite third basemen than the top.

    That’s all I’m saying.  It shoud not be construed as a slam.

    Finally, as for the BBWAA vs. the Old Veterans’ Committee, I suggest getting a copy of Bill James Hall of Fame book (it’s had a couple of names, but used to be “The Politics of GLory,” which shows just how much horse trading went on with the old VC.  In contrast, though many guys like me complain about the BBWAA, the majority of their selections have been good ones, and on the whole, have gotten it mostly right.

  11. Bert said...

    OK, I’m jumping into this one hip-deep, being a fellow Arkansan and die-hard stat junkie…

    Craig: So what you’re saying is that Kell is clearly in the Top 9 third baseman of all time, but he might need deserve to be in the HOF?

    How about looking at another stat, which is so important for a third baseman: Fielding Percentage… As I mentioned before, Kell had a career .969 average at third… Looking at 3B FP only for the others you mention:

    Brooks: .971
    Kell: .969
    Boggs: .962
    Lindstrom: .959
    Matthews: .956
    Schmidt: .955
    Brett: .951
    Traynor: .947
    Baker: .943
    Collins: .929

    Only Brooks Robinson was better fielding that position, among those you listed. I’d say that’s some pretty heady company.

  12. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Bert—if you’re a die hard stat junkie, you’ll know that fielding percentage is perhaps the worst stat out there for judging defense. Why? Because it credits a player for not getting to balls. If a ball is hit to Derek Jeter’s left and he (a) gets a bad jump; (b) runs slowly; and (c) dives and still doesn’t get within ten feet of it, he is not penalized. In fact, such a terrible play is totally invisible to fielding percentage.

    However, if someone else breaks instantly on a ball that no mortal would ever field, lays out for it and actually touches it but has it go just off the end of his glove, there’s a pretty decent chance that he’ll be charged with an error, thus lowering his fielding percentage. Never mind that he may have saved the ball from going into the gap, thereby turning a runner on second into a runner on third.

    I don’t know whether Kell’s FP is a function of low range leading to lower errors, and I’m certainly not an expert on more advanced fielding metrics.  But I do know that Kell has never been said to have a sterling defensive reputation, so if you’re going to make a case for him as the best or near-best fielding 3B of all time, I’m going to have to see more evidence than this.

    Again, because I don’t want to be misconstrued: I’m not slamming Kell. If anything, I’m just trying to inject a little perspective at a time (i.e. immediately after a man’s death) when perspective is often lacking, even if it is for good reason.

  13. Randy said...

    I sort of grew up with the Tigers in the 60s – My dad worked at Tiger Stadium and I spent a LOT of time there.  I met Mr Kell on several occasions.  He was always a gentleman and never hesitated to talk to anyone – even a “star-struck” kid … It amazed me that I was talking to the “guy-on-the-radio”, even though I would spend hours shagging fly balls for Northrup, Horton, Kaline, Mcauliffe, Cash, Brown, etc etc. and never think much of it.  Baseball has lost one of its greatest Class Acts.  You will be missed Mr Kell, Thank You and RIP.

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