By Marty Appel
In an era before free agency, it was unusual to find a player of Hall of Fame quality play for five teams during a career of just 14 full seasons.
And George Kell was no ordinary player, as demonstrated by his ten All-Star selections, his .306 lifetime average, a batting championship, and as many as 218 hits in a season.
He even led the league’s third baseman in fielding percentage five times.
So why was he traded every few years?
The answer probably lies more with his being in demand than with his not living up to billing. The Athletics, the Tigers, the Red Sox, the White Sox and the Orioles all went after him with zest, and all solved their third base problems with his arrival. When the Red Sox traded him to Chicago in May of 1954, they even got $100,000 in cash – which was a lot of money back then.
Kell was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers out of Arkansas State, but they released him after two seasons in their system, despite a .310 average in 1941. He went on to spend his entire Major League career in the American League, beginning with Connie Mack’s tutelage with Philadelphia.
Kell did just fine with the A’s, proving to be a .300 hitter right from his rookie season, but as was Mack’s style, he sent him off to the Tigers in 1946. There, Kell had his biggest seasons, hitting .343 in 1949 to take the batting title by an unimaginably tiny margin over Ted Williams – .3429 to .3428 (both rounded to .343). He went 2-3 in the final game of the year; Williams went 0-2. Kell struck out only 13 times in 612 plate appearances, which more reflected the contact hitters of the deal ball era than the free swingers who had come along after World War II.
He followed this in 1950 with a .340 season, and league leading figures in both hits (218) and doubles (56). Billy Goodman won the batting championship.
Kell became a teammate of both Williams and Goodman when he joined them in Boston in 1952 in a trade that sent Johnny Pesky to the Tigers. After his sale to Chicago, he concluded his career with the Orioles, where he got to pass on his knowledge of the game to a fellow Arkansan who was about to replace him at third, Brooks Robinson. Both Kell and Robinson would go into the Hall of Fame together in 1983.
With the end of his playing days, another door opened for the likeable Kell. He would be tabbed to replace Mel Ott in the Detroit broadcast booth in 1958 following Ott’s death in an auto accident. That would launch a 40-year broadcast career for Kell, much of it as Ernie Harwell’s partner, where he won over new generations of fans.
Kell died in 2009 at the age of 86, in the town of his birth, Swifton, Arkansas.