In the 1970 World Series, the entire planet found out what the good folks in Baltimore already knew: Brooks Robinson was an amazing defensive third baseman.
Three times during that series, Robinson made dazzling plays on hard-hit balls off the bats of some of Cincinnati’s most fierce sluggers.
“That man,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said, “beat us with his glove.”
In the most epic play of that 1970 Fall Classic, Robinson ranged far to his right, his momentum taking him into foul territory to snare a hard smash off the bat of Lee May.
“The throw was more amazing than him getting to the ball,” Anderson said in amazement after Game One, which Baltimore won 4-3, thanks to the amazing defensive play by their third baseman.
While it isn’t fair to simplify it this way: Robinson’s defensive flashes in that series are what vaulted him to Hall of Fame status. It took him from being a very good infielder for a team that many people in the country didn’t know much about, to being an integral part of an Orioles dynasty. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983.
And when Robinson accepted his plaque on the steps of the Baseball Hall of Fame, sitting only a few few away was a friend who was also being honored that day. A man who helped make Robinson a legend.
For two seasons late in his own brilliant career, George Kell mentored Brooks Robinson on the ways of playing the hot corner in the big leagues. The two men, separated by about 15 years, spoke the same language: both were from Arkansas. They were similar spirits: quiet, southern gentlemen with a burning fire in their belly to be the best. Kell taught Robinson how to navigate the big leagues and how to be a man in a sport filled with tough characters. But Kell didn’t have much to say to Robinson about fielding.
“He was great at everything,” Kell said. “I didn’t have to teach him a thing.”
But Robinson knew better, and on that warm day in Cooperstown in the summer of 1983, he took time to thank Kell.
“George was gracious,” Brooks said in an interview years later. “He never acted threatened that some young teenage kid was taking his job. [He] showed me how to a big leaguer.”
The forgotten career of baseball legend George Kell
Kell is in dire need of a publicist. He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t make headlines and he didn’t ruffle feathers. He came to the ballpark prepared, ran out every grounder, and battled day-in and day-out. He was tough too. Joe DiMaggio recalled an incident where he hit a sharp grounder to third that took a bad hop on Kell and broke his jaw.
“It was the damndest thing I ever saw in baseball,” DiMaggio said. “There were two out and the bases loaded. The ball hit George and knocked him down. He got up and stepped on third to make the third out. The shock must have knocked him silly, because he cocked his arm to throw to first, and then boom, he fell down.”
Kell was a southern gentleman, he lived in his native Arkansas his entire life, only a few miles from his childhood home. He was understated, he was kind, he worked hard. He was one of the best defensive third basemen to ever play the game.
Kell split his career with five teams, but not because he wasn’t a good ballplayer: because he was wanted.
After Gentleman George retired with a batting average over .300 and a batting title to his credit, he worked as a broadcaster for decades. He was the man who brought popular radio play-by-play man Ernie Harwell to Detroit, he brokered the deal that brought Sparky Anderson to the Tigers, two moves that changed the fortune and history of the franchise.
Kell, always dapper in a suit and tie, endeared himself to millions of fans who heard his Arkansas-twang start every broadcast with “Hello everybody, I’m George Kell.” He had one of the longest careers in baseball history, 32 years in the booth after 18 years as a professional ballplayer.
Yet somehow, Kell is remembered as a second-rate Hall of Famer, a mistake made by a committee. But he was much better than advertised: a stellar defensive player with quick hands, quick feet, and a remarkably accurate arm. He also defeated Ted Williams to win his batting title.
Rawlings started handing out Gold Glove Awards in 1957, the final season of Kell’s playing career. Had the company started a decade earlier, Kell would have won a lot of them.
Late in his life, after he was elected to the Hall of Fame, Kell escaped death twice. When he was 79 years old, the home Kell had built in Swifton, Arkansas in 1946 burned to the ground. Kell was rescued by a fireman who had to carry the former ballplayer from his bedroom with smoke and flames filling the house. Three years later, Kell’s car struck an 18-wheeler and he was pinned to the floor of his automobile. Several operations later, Kell recovered. His wife sat at his side for a month as he recovered in an Arkansas hospital.
George Kell was “the other voice of Tigers baseball” for years, the one we heard on television with Al Kaline after that great outfielder retired. For a generation of Tigers, George was a welcome visitor in our homes for countless Detroit victories, and two World Series titles. He was also appreciated by the greatest defensive third baseman to ever play the game. For that, Mr. Kell deserves to be remembered.