LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – George Kell, a Hall of Fame third baseman who outdueled Ted Williams for the 1949 American League batting title and finished his career with a batting average of .306, died Tuesday morning. He was 86.
Kell played 14 years in the American League with Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Baltimore. He won the AL batting title in 1949 when he hit .34291 and Ted Williams hit .34276. Kell hit more than .300 nine times and was selected to play in 10 All-Star games.
After his playing days, Kell was a Detroit Tigers broadcaster from 1959 to 1996.
Kell grew up in Swifton, Ark., and lived in the same house from his birth to when it burned down in 2001, then rebuilt on the same land. He was severely injured in a car crash in December 2004, but was able to walk again with a cane about six months later.
Jackson's Funeral Home in Newport, Ark., confirmed the death.
Kell played from 1943-1957 with five American League teams — the Philadelphia Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles. He batted over .300 each year from 1946-53. He played for the Tigers during his batting duel with Williams, who played for the Red Sox.
Longtime Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell told WWJ-AM in Detroit on Tuesday that Kell was accomplished both on the baseball field and in the broadcast booth. The men became close friends working together in TV and on the radio.
"He had a very laid-back style," Harwell said. "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."
George Clyde Kell, born Aug. 23, 1922, signed a pro baseball contract in 1940. During his 1,573-game career, Kell had 1,847 hits and drove in 778 runs. He hit a career-high 12 home runs with Boston in 1953.
Lou Boudreau, former major league manager, introduced Kell when he was inducted into the Arkansas Hall of Fame in 1964. "I'll put him with Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio when you need to get the run home," Boudreau said.
Kell retired after hitting .297 with Baltimore in 1957 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 along with another Arkansas third baseman, Brooks Robinson, a teammate with the Orioles.
Kell won the 1949 batting title in dramatic fashion. Facing Bob Lemon, he went two for three on the final day of the season and Williams, who would become Kell's teammate three years later, went hitless.
In an interview with The Associated Press the day before Detroit hosted the 2005 All-Star Game, Kell remembered what might have happened if the Tigers hadn't made the final out against Cleveland with Kell in the on-deck circle.
"Bob Feller was pitching in relief and if I would have made out, Ted would have won it," Kell said. "The manager said he wanted to send a pinch hitter in for me, but I said, 'I'm not going to sit on a stool and win the batting title.' What Feller was doing in there in relief on the last day of the season I'll never know. They should have been trying some minor league prospect in there."
The next year, when the Tigers faced Boston, Kell was shocked to see the already great Williams come over to greet him, saying, "You won the batting title, so I'm coming to your dugout." The friendship served him well when he was traded to the Red Sox two years later.
"We were already close when I went to Boston; we were primarily a young ballclub and he was an elder and I was past 30, so we hit it off real good," Kell told the AP.
Kell struck out only 13 times in 1949, the least ever for a batting champ. The next year, he had 56 doubles and drove in 101 runs with only eight home runs. No one hit as many doubles in any year since. From 1950, until Tommy Herr turned the trick in 1985, no one had driven in 100 runs without reaching double figures in home runs.
At one time, Kell said he never used the same stance twice in a game unless he was successful. "Never let yourself get fooled by the same pitcher on the same pitch on the same day," he said.
Kell was known as a player who didn't swear and didn't get thrown out of ball games. He admitted that he lost his temper once when umpire Hank Soar refused to grant his request for a timeout and the pitcher threw a strike before Kell could get back in the batter's box.
"Boy, I was really mad," Kell said. "I started yelling at Soar like I never yelled at an umpire before in my life. I called him everything I could think of — without cursing, of course."
At one time in 1952, Kell described himself as a "windshield farmer."
Pressed for an explanation, he said, "A guy who farms by looking through the windshield of a car. I never get up before eight in the morning and I do my farming by driving around the place, just to see that everything is all right."
Kell led organized baseball with a .396 batting average at Lancaster, Pa., in 1943. On the orders of Connie Mack, Kell reported to the Philadelphia Athletics just before the season ended. Mack, the Philadelphia manager, told Kell he was a fine fielder, "But I'm afraid you'll never hit."
Kell hit .268 in 1944 and .272 the next year. He was traded to Detroit during the 1946 season and finished the year at .322. During the next seven years, he hit .320, .304, .343, .340, .319, .311 and .307.
"What had happened, I believe, was that because of manpower shortages in the majors I was brought up too soon," Kell said. "Those two years with the A's were formative seasons, which normally would have been spent in the minors. I just happen to ripen in 1946, that's all."
In 1946, he handled 417 chances and had only seven errors — his .983 field percentage was best in the league at third base.
Steve O'Neill, who managed the Tigers in 1946, called Kell a marvel.
"He fields as well as any third baseman I ever saw," O'Neill said. "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 was play-by-play man for the Tigers from 1959 to 1996. Beginning in 1980, Kell was the Tigers' play-by-play man on televised games. He also was a member of the team's board of directors.
In 2005, he said he had a special arrangement with the club so that he could keep living in Swifton year-round. Until he retired, he kept an apartment in Little Rock so he could catch flights to ballgames.
"I don't know anybody else who lives 1,000 miles away from their job and gets to commute back and forth. The owner said, 'You can live in your beloved Swifton, but don't you dare miss a game. I had a few close calls, but I didn't miss any."
His Little Rock apartment served him well when the house fire destroyed most of his baseball memorabilia, including a signed ball Babe Ruth gave him at the start of his career. He had kept some items in Little Rock and had copies of documents stored at the University of Arkansas archives.
Then-Gov. Dale Bumpers appointed Kell to a 10-year term on the Arkansas Highway Commission beginning in January 1971. He was commission chairman from 1977 to 1980.
Kell's first wife, Charlene, died in 1991 of cancer after 50 years of marriage. They had met as sixth graders in Swifton and were sweethearts at Swifton High School.