March 25, 2009
I see by the papers that George Kell died yesterday. He was 86 years old. Kell played major league baseball, and played it well, for 15 years. He narrowly beat Ted Williams out of the 1949 American League batting title, and he is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame – based largely on his tenure as the third baseman for the Detroit Tigers. The story about the 1949 batting race is one of the most often repeated episodes in the history of the game. On the last day of the season, the Tigers were playing the Cleveland Indians who inexplicably sent in their prize starter, Bob Feller, as a reliever. With Williams and Kell tied for the title, Tigers manager Red Rolfe suggested a pinch hitter for Kell in the ninth inning, but Kell refused to sit on the bench and win the title by not making an out. As it turned out, the game ended before he had to bat, and he beat Williams .34291 to .34276. Kell was reputedly one of the best contact hitters in the modern era. He was also a man universally admired, both as a baseball player and a baseball broadcaster. People speak of him with affection that a later generation might not have for, say, Alex or Manny Rodriguez. An bit of information in the reports of Kell’s death was that he lived in the same house in Swifton, Ark., from his birth in 1922 until the house burned down in 2001, and then lived – and died – in the house that was built on the same spot. It was an appropriate detail in the biography of a man known for steadiness, dependability. A salesman who used to call at my grandfather’s grocery store told me one day that he figured that I would stay in that store in that town for the rest of my life, as had my father and his father before him. That wasn’t for him, he said, he was going to see the world. I don’t know whatever happened to that man, but I doubt that his death will evoke the kind of sentiment I have seen today in papers around the country, prompted by the passing of a quiet man from Arkansas who never strayed from home.