George Kell, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Detroit Tigers who edged Ted Williams for the 1949 American League batting title and became a Tigers broadcaster for nearly 40 years, died Tuesday. He was 86.
An announcement from the Hall of Fame said he died in his sleep at his home in Swifton, Ark. The cause of death was not reported. 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 in the American League, hitting better than .300 nine times and compiling a career average of .306. An excellent fielder with a strong arm, he led American League third basemen in fielding percentage seven times. 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."
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 on 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."
George Clyde Kell grew up in Swifton in northeast Arkansas and lived in the same house from his birth on Aug. 23, 1922, until it burned down in 2001 and then was rebuilt on the same land.
In 1949, Kell 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."
In the final game of the season, Bob Lemon started for the Cleveland Indians against Detroit; then future Hall of Famer Bob Feller came on in relief. Kell was in the on-deck circle in the ninth inning.
"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.
The two sluggers became teammates when Kell was traded to the Red Sox in 1952. He spent two years in Boston before he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1954. Two more years went by; then he was traded to Baltimore.
Kell was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as a free agent before the 1940 season and played in the minor leagues. He reached the majors with the A's in 1943 and hit .268 in 1944, his first full season. He went from Philadelphia to Detroit in 1946.
His brother Everett "Skeeter" Kell also played one season in the majors, with the Philadelphia A's in 1952.
Kell had his most productive seasons with Detroit. In 1950, he had his overall best year, batting .340 with 218 hits, 114 runs, 56 doubles, eight home runs and 101 runs batted in in 157 games. He made only nine errors that season, finishing with a .982 fielding percentage.
His final season, 1957, he moved from third base to first, to make room for the Orioles' up-and-coming third baseman Brooks Robinson.
Kell was elected to the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee in 1983, the same year Robinson was inducted.
"Changes your life, getting into the Hall of Fame," Kell told Sports Illustrated in 2007. "For the rest of my life, I'll be known as Hall of Famer George Kell."
Kell's wife of 50 years, Charlene, died in 1991. His son George Jr. died in 2007.
In addition to his brother, Kell's survivors include his second wife, Carolyn; daughter Terrie Jane Lawrence; five grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and six step-great-grandchildren.