Skeeter Kell was the spittin’ image of brother George in many ways

Skeeter Kell played one season for the Philadelphia A's in 1952.

Skeeter Kell played one season for the Philadelphia A’s in 1952.

He must have been a natural hitter, because his older brother — who won a batting title — never gave him any tips but he still made it to the big leagues. Or maybe Everett Kell just inherited the same athletic genes as his famous brother.

“George never taught me anything about hitting. He never even tried — he doesn’t believe a fellow can be taught,” the younger Kell said in 1952 when he was turning heads in spring training with the Philadelphia Athletics on his way to earning a spot on their roster as a rookie second baseman. “He figures every man has to work out his own style.”

Ironically, the younger Kell’s “style” was so close to that of big brother George’s that it was eerie. Known as “Skeeter” since he was a youngster running around rural Arkansas, Kell was seven years younger than George, who starred for Detroit and four other American League teams in a 15-year career that included 10 All-Star selections and a batting crown in 1949 with the Bengals. Skeeter stood at the plate just like George, with a wide stance, and he even had a few of George’s signature habits like stretching his arms out at the plate to relax and the habit of tugging at the top of his cap a lot. The physical resemblance to George was uncanny. Observers swore the younger Kell had the same picture-perfect right-handed swing as George, but the results weren’t the same.

The Tigers could have had Skeeter. In 1949 they invited him to spring training but could not guarantee George’s little brother a spot in their organization, so the 18-year old opted to continue his first year in college. But that summer he drove with his father Clyde and brother George (who was sidelined with a jaw injury suffered on a line drive by Joe DiMaggio) to St. Louis to see the Browns play the visiting A’s, accepting an offer from Connie Mack (owner and manager of the Philadelphia club) to tryout at Sportsman’s Park. After a three-day trial in which Skeeter showed off the Kell swing and did a fine job with the leather in the infield, Mack signed him to a minor league contract. George had started his big league career with the A’s six years earlier, and he was tickled to see Skeeter get a chance.

“That weekend [in St. Louis] I got to see my brother play more than I ever had, because by the time he was playing ball back home, I was off playing for Mr. Mack,” George said during an interview in the early 1990s. In fact it was difficult to see Skeeter play baseball at all in their hometown of Swifton because the high school was so small (less than 25 in the graduating class) that they did not have a baseball team. Skeeter (and George before him) had to play on private club teams that traveled throughout the state to face competition. Tiny Swifton (population 520 in the mid-1940s) proved to be a baseball breeding ground though, as both Kells were fine players and Bobby Winkles (who was a year behind Skeeter) went on to play seven years in the minor leagues and later managed the Angels and Athletics in the 1970s.

In his first taste of pro ball, Skeeter, who was the same height as George but a little lighter, fared well. He hit .288 and earned a promotion to Cordele (GA) in 1950 where he tore the cover off the ball, hitting .353 with 30 doubles in 122 games. He vaulted up to Savannah where he hit .300 over two seasons before Mack summoned him to big league training camp in ’52. After his stellar play that spring, Skeeter went north with the club and made his major league debut on April 19, in the A’s fourth game of the season at Fenway Park in Boston. The young Kell was a defensive replacement in that game, going 0-for-1, but a week and a half later he started against the visiting Indians in Philadelphia at Shibe Park. Wouldn’t you know it? Skeeter had to face Tribe ace Bob Feller, but in the second inning he singled for his first major league hit. He had joined brother George in the big league hit register. later he added another single and earned an RBI.

But Skeeter was not George, and the ’52 season proved to be his only shot at big league action. Mack used him as his everyday second baseman for the first half of the season, pairing him with veteran shortstop Eddie Joost, a 36-year old fireplug who made the All-Star team that season. Joost did his best to help his young double play partner along in the field, but he couldn’t help Skeeter at the plate. Young Kell was hitting an anemic .217 in late June when he was benched in favor of 36-year old A’s lifer Pete Suder, who wasn’t much better at the plate but at least Mack felt more comfortable with him in his lineup. None of it mattered that much — the Athletics finished in fourth place, 32 games back of the mighty Yankees. For Skeeter Kell the gap may as well been 1,000 miles, because he played sparingly after July 31st. The highlight of his season (and his career) came on May 4 at Shibe Park when he banged out three hits in a doubleheader sweep of the Tigers, equaling the hit total of brother George, who played third against his younger brother during the twinbill. The ’52 season proved to be a notable one for George too — he was traded on June 2 to the Boston Red Sox. His Tigers’ playing career was over, though he would spend decades as the voice of the team on radio and later television.

Though Skeeter looked a lot like George, that wasn’t enough to help him crack the big leagues again. In ’53 he was back in the minors and after one last season in 1954, he quit the game and returned to Swifton, Arkansas. He went back to Arkansas State University and finished up a few classes to earn his degree in physical education. The university later named the field after Skeeter and George, who also attended the school.

Now 84 years old, Skeeter still lives in Swifton, Arkansas, where his brother passed in 2009. Skeeter’s name lives on through Skeeter Kell Sporting Goods in Kennett, Missouri. Skeeter started the sporting goods store in the 1950s with help from an investment from former big league pitcher Ted Lyons. He sold it a few years later, but his name still looms large on the signs.

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