In 1983, I was involved in the baseball card/sports memorabilia business. That January, I happened to be in Indianapolis, visiting with Lou Brock, who at the time was a member of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee.
Knowing that I was a friend of George Kells, Brock leaned over and whispered, Dont tell anybody, but were going to put George into the Hall of Fame this year. Ive talked to some of the other guys and Im sure we have the votes.
I needed another autograph guest for my next card show, so, without saying a word about the Hall of Fame, I called Kell and asked if he would appear.
Kell was elected, just as Brock had predicted. As a result, George was more popular than ever when he appeared at my show shortly after the announcement was made.
This was good timing on your part, Kell said as he signed baseball after baseball for the fans and collectors in line.
It sure was, I replied, smiling.
I never had the heart to tell him I probably would not have invited him to appear had it not been for my inside tip.
But, knowing George, had I told him Im sure he would have laughed.
In the 40 years that I knew George Kell, I never once heard him raise his voice.
Kell made himself into a Hall of Famer, first as a player and later as a Tiger broadcaster.
They said he couldnt hit. Connie Mack, who managed in the big leagues for 53 years, and Al Simmons, who batted .381 one season and .390 the next, both told George so -- to his face.
But Kell didnt let that, or anything else, stop him. I knew there were a whole lot of players who had more natural talent than I did, Kell once said. But I promised myself that no one was going to work harder than I did. I played like that for my entire career.
Kell made himself into a fine hitter. He did such a good job of it, in fact, that he beat Ted Williams -- the self--proclaimed greatest hitter who ever lived -- out of the American League batting title in 1949, winning the crown by the narrowest margin in history, .3429 to .3427, with a 2-for-3 effort on the final day of the season.
In the field, Kell made himself into the premier third baseman of his day, leading all AL third sackers in fielding four times. He made a science out of playing his position, just as he did at the plate, studying his opponents until he knew precisely where each batter was most likely to hit the ball.
He never stopped using his head. As Tigers' Hall of Fame slugger-turned broadcaster Harry Heilmann, who himself won four batting titles, once observed, George is all brains out there.
In 1948, with the bases loaded and two men out, New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio smashed a wicked grounder off Kells chin. The ball shattered Kells jaw in two places and caused him to black out.
Kell didnt remembered grabbing the ball off the ground and stepping on third base for the force out, or stumbling blindly around the field like a drunk who had just been bounced out of a bar.
Later, when Kell came to his senses in the clubhouse, the first thing he wanted to know was, Did I get the man out?
Kell didnt play again the rest of that season.
Traded to Detroit in 1946 because Connie Mack, the financially-strapped Philadelphia Athletics owner, knew he couldnt afford to pay Kell a $2,000 end-of-the-year bonus that had been promised, George quickly began a favorite of Tigers fans -- and of Tigers owner and automotive magnate Walter O. Briggs.
During a doubleheader at Briggs Stadium, Kell, his uniform seriously soiled as usual from diving after balls in the opener, was warming up for the days second game when he heard someone in the stands calling his name.
Briggs, who had been stricken with polio, was confined to a wheel chair. But an attendant had wheeled him down next to the railing between games.
Mr. Kell, the attendant shouted. Mr. Briggs would like to have a brief word with you.
Worried that he had done something wrong, Kell trotted over to the edge of the grandstand.
George, Briggs said softly, dont you have a clean uniform you can put on for the second game?
When Kell put down his bat and glove and sat down behind a microphone as a Tiger broadcaster, the Arkansas-native with the Southern accent worked just as hard to make himself into a polished, professional broadcaster.
No flash, no flamboyance -- just the facts. For 37 years.
After retiring from the Tigers broadcast booth in 1996, Kell, who was rejected from military service during World War II because of loose cartilage in both knees, nearly lost his life twice -- first in a 2001 fire that destroyed his home of 55 years, and more recently in a serious 2004 auto accident.
But George never lost his love for life -- or for the Tigers.