Wednesday, March 25, 2009
George Kell, 1922-2009Hall of Famer was voice of summer
Tom Gage / The Detroit News
He was our summer nights, our Saturday afternoons.
Feet up on the couch, television on, watching Tiger baseball -- listening to George and Al.
Or to George and Ernie, or any other of his broadcast partners.
But always George.
For all that he accomplished in his Hall of Fame playing career, or in his much understated, but influential political career -- Bill Clinton once said, "I would not have been president without him" -- George Kell was, above all, a welcome voice.
But a voice that was stilled by his passing at age 86 on Tuesday.
Kell, with his Arkansas accent, was the man who told us when Willie Horton "hit that ball a mile."
Or whenever a "big, strong right-hander" was on the mound.
If you weren't listening to Ernie, you were watching George -- generation after generation, growing up with both of them.
Growing frail, Kell had fallen recently, suffering a painful shoulder injury, but he was home from the hospital, perhaps even knowing his end was near.
His wife, Carolyn, had called a few close friends to prepare them. She told them he was at peace -- that it could happen soon. And it did.
Remembered by many
Quickly, the tributes poured in. From neighbors and dignitaries. From Al Kaline and Sparky Anderson to Judy's Cafe in Swifton, Ark., Kell's hometown, and the former governor and U.S. senator of that state, Dale Bumpers.
"George was a great friend, and when we broadcast together, he was a great mentor. I will miss him very much," Kaline said.
"Baseball will never forget him," Anderson said.
"I've known George my whole life," said Peggy Gray, who works at Judy's. "I'm talking 70 years. My house is across the street from his. He always had a kind word. Always waved, always said hello.
"He was everyone's friend in Swifton. This whole town is in mourning."
Bumpers also lost a friend.
"George and I, as close as we were, and as often as we were thrown into combat, never had a cross word or disagreement," he said over the phone. "He was just a remarkable guy. I frankly don't know of any flaws in his personality."
Nor were there many flaws in the way Kell played baseball.
He hit .300 or better nine times.
As a third baseman, he led the American League in fielding percentage seven times. Joe DiMaggio once broke his jaw with a hot shot to third, a play about which Kell once said, "I got up, made the play, and passed out."
Ted Williams would have won a third Triple Crown in 1949 had it not been for Kell. They went down to the final day with the AL's batting title hanging in the balance.
Kell went 2-for-3 in the final game, finishing with a batting average of .3429. Williams went 0-for-2, finishing at .3427.
Kell could bunt, once leading the league in sacrifices.
He could also rip a pitch down the left-field line -- and often did. His 56 doubles in 1950 rank third on the Tigers' all-time single-season list -- trailing only Hank Greenberg's 63 in 1934 and Charlie Gehringer's 60 in 1936.
After years of waiting and hoping the day would someday come, Kell was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1983, missing the annual ceremonies after that only when his health prevented him from attending.
"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."
Kell's long association with Detroit began on May 18, 1946, when the Philadelphia Athletics dealt him to the Tigers for outfielder Barney McCosky, a major trade at the time.
Despite playing for three teams after the Tigers, he played longer for them (1946-52) than for any team. It was a loyalty he felt the rest of his life.
When contacted by phone on Opening Day last year, Kell was right where he was expected to be -- in front of his television, watching his Tigers.
"I watch all the games, or every one I can," he said. "Some of those on the West Coast get a little late for me. But I start out watching them."
Kell's playing career ended with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957. By 1959, he was back in Detroit as a broadcaster -- and when Van Patrick's spot in the booth opened up after that season, Kell recommended Ernie Harwell for the position.
By 1960, both were on their way toward long, legendary careers as Tigers broadcasters.
"I'm thinking about the good times," Harwell, 91, reminisced. "What a career he had. He was a Hall of Fame ballplayer, a great broadcaster and a great friend to so many people. I'm going to miss him a lot.
"We got to know each other in Baltimore, and later on, he helped me get my job with the Tigers. That's where we became close friends, playing golf together, going to church together and doing the games together.
"After he went to television from radio, we stayed good friends. George did a great job of bringing strategy and the background of being a player to the booth. He would broadcast the game in a straight, simple fashion that people enjoyed. He let the game be the game.
"He also gave you the impression of being your close friend when you listened to him. Everyone had that feeling."
'Smooth, Southern charm'
Mario Impemba, one of the current Tigers broadcasters, certainly did.
"He had a unique voice that featured a smooth, Southern charm," Impemba said. "People knew they were watching Tigers baseball when they heard George's voice every summer."
Politics were almost as much a passion for Kell as baseball. From 1973-83, he was served on the Arkansas Highway Commission. But before that, he directed Bumpers' gubernatorial campaign, helping to guide the previously little-known Bumpers to victory over incumbent Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1970.
Four years later, Bumpers unseated U.S. Sen. William Fulbright in a primary and went on to serve four terms. Bumpers and Kell remained close friends.
They were also bonded by their Methodist faith, though Kell kept his religious life private.
"It was only in the course of a conversation with him that I stumbled onto that fact," Bumpers said, explaining in a phone conversation with The Detroit News' Lynn Henning that Kell allowed his daily life to speak to his values.
Dan Ewald, the Tigers' former public relations director, also learned of Kell's faith while writing the 1998 book "Hello, Everybody, I'm George Kell."
"Obviously he was a terrific ballplayer," Ewald said. "You don't make the Hall of Fame by accident. But if I had to sum up George Kell with three points, his playing career would be third.
"Second would be his professionalism in whatever he did. He took as much pride in his broadcasting as he did in his playing career. There was nothing that meant more to him than being a true professional.
"He carried that over into how he treated people. People could walk up to George, meet him for the first time, and come away with the feeling they'd known him for 25 years.
"What I admired most about George, however," Ewald said, "was that he was a Christian in the true sense. He didn't go around preaching and trying to influence people. His influence came from his actions. He lived the Christian life -- and he was proud of it.
"But he did it in a subtle way."
Kell did influence people, though,
"He was like a big brother to me," said Larry Osterman, a Tigers broadcaster for most of the years from 1967-92, and Kell's television partner from 1967-77. "It was George who really made me feel like I was part of it all.
"It was humbling to have someone of his stature treat me as he treated me. But it was just a terrific relationship. I learned more baseball from him than from any one man I've ever known."
Maybe the rest of us learned a lot, too.
If not what we learned from him, though, it's what he left us with -- the memory of his phrases that we heard hundreds of times as we watched and listened all those wonderful days and nights.
To use one of his favorites in closing, if it's heaven to which Kell has now gone, "They're going to wave him in."
News Staff Writer Lynn Henning contributed to this report. You can reach Tom Gage at email@example.com
. http://detnews.com/article/20090325/OBI ... 004/sports