George Kell, the Hall of Fame third baseman who edged Ted Williams for the 1949 American League batting title and became a Detroit Tigers broadcaster for nearly 40 years, died Tuesday. He was 86.
Jackson's Funeral Home in Newport confirmed the death but did not give a cause. The Hall of Fame said he died in his sleep at his home in Swifton. Kell was severely injured in a car crash in 2004 but was able to walk with a cane about six months later.
Kell outlasted Williams for the 1949 batting crown, hitting .34291 while the Boston Red Sox great finished at .34276. Kell played 15 seasons, hitting more than .300 nine times and compiling a career average of .306. He was a 10-time All-Star.
"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."
Kell grew up in Swifton, remaining there even after his home burned down in 2001.
"George Kell is an Arkansas legend and a true treasure," Gov. Mike Beebe said. "No matter the heights George reached, he always remembered where he came from, and he called Swifton his home for his entire life."
Kell attended Arkansas State University and was a big supporter of the school's baseball program. Arkansas State's home field is named after Kell.
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Mr. Kell," Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee said. "He left a tremendous impact not only on Arkansas State University, but on the entire nation with his accomplishments both on and off the baseball field. His loyalty to the ASU family will always be remembered by the fans that enter our stadium."
George Clyde Kell was born Aug. 23, 1922, in Swifton. He played from 1943-1957 with the Philadelphia Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and the Orioles. He topped .300 each year from 1946-53.
After he retired, Kell broadcast Tigers games from 1959 to 1996 -- every year except 1964. Longtime Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell and Kell became close friends while working together in TV and radio.
"He had a very laid-back style," Harwell told WWJ-AM in Detroit on Tuesday. "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."
Kell had a unique arrangement to stay in Swifton while broadcasting for the Tigers. He kept an apartment in Little Rock so he could catch flights to games.
"I don't know anybody else who lives 1,000 miles away from their job and gets to commute back and forth," Kell said with a laugh. "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."
Al Kaline, a Baltimore native and Hall of Famer for the Tigers, also was a broadcasting colleague of Kell's.
"George was a great friend and like a big brother to me," Kaline said Tuesday. "When we broadcast together, I was a rookie, and he was a veteran and he was a great mentor to me."
Kell played for the Tigers when he and Williams waged one of the closest batting races in baseball history.
"I beat him out, but not many people beat him out," Kell said years later. "That's why it was so fascinating. But it happened."
Kell was always proud of the way it happened. Cleveland pitched Bob Lemon in the finale against Detroit, then brought in future Hall of Famer Bob Feller in relief. Kell was in the on-deck circle in the ninth.
"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,'" Kell told The Associated Press. "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 final out was made before Kell had to hit, preserving his slim margin over Williams.
Kell reached the majors in 1943 and hit .268 in 1944, his first full season. He went from Philadelphia to Detroit in 1946. A's manager Connie Mack called Kell to his hotel suite and told him he had been traded to the Tigers.
"Mr. Mack said, 'It's going to be the greatest break you've ever had,'" Kell recalled.
Kell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983 by the veterans committee. He was joined in that year's class by Brooks Robinson, another third baseman from Arkansas. Kell and Robinson were teammates with the Orioles as Kell's career was winding down and Robinson's was beginning.
"He was a class act through and through," Robinson said. "The crowning moment was when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. I went in with my hero, George Kell."
Kell struck out only 13 times in 1949. The next year, he hit .340 and drove in 101 runs. He had 56 doubles but only eight home runs.
Kell once 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 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."
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."
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.