A Conversation with George Kell

Detroit Tigers Podcast #4 — March 14, 2007

A Conversation with George Kell

 

Mike McClary: Well, we are simply honored today to talk with a Detroit Tigers legend, both on the field and in the broadcast booth, Mr. George Kell, a Hall of Famer, third baseman with the Tigers from 1946-1952, and then as a legendary broadcaster in both TV and radio for the Tigers for nearly 35 years. He partnered with Al Kaline on WDIV, the flagship out of Detroit, for many, many years. And we’re catching up with Mr. Kell at his home in Swifton, Arkansas. Mr. Kell, thank you for joining us today.

George Kell: Well, thank you. It’s an honor.

MMc: Well, the pleasure is all ours. How are things in Swifton today?

GK: Well, everything is great. We’re getting into the springtime of the year, and the weather is good, warming up. It’s in the 60s and 70s, so we’re in good shape.

MMc: Well, that’s great. If it’s spring in Arkansas, that means baseball can’t be that far behind. Let’s talk about your career, jumping right into our discussion here. Looking over your career stats, I noticed that you started your career with the Philadelphia Athletics. I noticed that you played for the legendary Connie Mack.

GK: Yes, he was my first manager in the major leagues. Mr. Mack bought my contract from a Class B Club Interstate League in 1943 at the end of the season, and I went up and played with him one game. Then I went back the next year and started my career.

MMc: What was it like starting your career under Connie Mack?

GK: Oh, it was wonderful. He was getting up in years. He was probably 50 years old at that time, owned the ball club and had been manager for many years, and went on to manage, of course, until he was about 85 or 86 years old. Wonderful man, just wonderful man. The ballplayers were his children, and that’s the way he treated all of us. He was great to me.

MMc: Well, according to the record books, your first major league hit playing under Connie Mack was an RBI triple. What do you remember about that at-bat and that experience?

GK: Well, I went up from my Class B league, reported to Mr. Mack that morning, and he put me in the lineup at third base. The first time at bat I had a triple in the right centerfield and drove in a runner from first base. That was quite a thrill for a 20, 21-year-old kid come into the major leagues from Class B and never expecting a jump like that. And I thought, boy, this is going to be a snap, but that was my only hit that day. I think I went one for five.

MMc: I know the minor league systems were set up differently in terms of how they were labeled back then. How does Class B, perhaps, match up with today’s minor league configuration?

GK: Well, I don’t know exactly how you would compare that. In those days, we had Class C, D, B, A, AA, AAA, and then major leagues.

MMc: So at that time, a B was considered the low minors.

GK: Yeah, it was in the low minors.

MMc: Well, that’s quite a promotion then to have Connie Mack tap you to come to the major leagues from B ball.

GK: Well, Mike, I had a tremendous year in 1943. I hit .396 at Lancaster and that led all the minor leagues in hitting, and I guess that attracted his attention. And he came down to Lancaster on the last day of the season to scout me personally, and that was a great thrill. We played a doubleheader, and I had a good day that day. I remember I had five hits in the doubleheader. He came into the clubhouse after the game and said, Mr. Kell, how would you like to play for the Philadelphia As? I thought, Lord, how I would love that like I like apple pie or something. I said, “Mr. Mack, I’d love it.” He said, “Well, I’m going to take you home with me as soon as your playoffs are over.” The playoffs were extended at that time playing in the Interstate League, and we won it and went all the way.

So I was about two weeks late getting up there, but he put me right in the lineup immediately. I told him at that time that I was committed to coming back to my school in Swifton, Arkansas at the end of the season. He said, well, you come play one game, and then you’ll be on the major league roster next year and from now on. So I played that one game, and then I went home.

MMc: Boy, those must be wonderful memories for you. Do you happen to remember who you got your first major league hit off of?

GK: Yes, a big left-hander, Al Milner, with Cleveland most of his career. But we were playing the St. Louis Browns at that time. I called him one day when I was broadcasting for the Tigers. He lived in Cleveland. I said, hey, Al, do you remember me? He said, yeah, I remember you. I said, no, do you remember the first time at bat? He said he didn’t remember that. I said you were the first batter I faced in the major leagues and I had a hit off of you. He said, oh, gosh, George, I followed your career, but I don’t remember that. I wouldn’t expect him to.

MMc: It really is fascinating. Speaking of pitchers, who was the toughest you ever faced in your career?

GK: Well, Bob Feller without a doubt, without a doubt. He’s the first pitcher I ever heard of that threw 100 miles an hour, no doubt about it. There weren’t any machines or anything like today, but he threw 100 mile an hour consistently. He started the game at 100 mile an hour and finished it that way. And a good curve ball and a great competitor, and just absolutely a top pitcher.

MMc: Rapid Robert is still going strong. I saw an article about him in the New York Times recently. In that same regard, who was the best player you ever played against or played with I should say?

GK: That’s hard to say, I’m not sure. The best all-around player I ever played against or with or had any connection with is Mickey Mantle. He could do everything. He had a lot of power, hit a lot of homeruns. He could run like a deer, an outstanding outfielder, and led the league in hitting one year, so a good batting average for a power hitter. I played against DiMaggio, who was outstanding, but he didn’t run like Mantle. And I played with Ted Williams who’s probably the best hitter I’ve ever seen.

MMc: What was that like playing alongside Ted Williams for the Red Sox?

GK: Yeah, when I was in Boston, Ted Williams was there. In fact, it was sort of a sliced-up thing. He was there when I got there, then he was called into the Korean War as a pilot, and he served part of a year, and then came back to the Red Sox.

MMc: Was he a good teammate?

GK: Oh, he was great, absolutely great. Ted, anybody who liked or anybody that treated him nice, he was just a perfect gentleman. A lot of newspaper people picked on him he thought mainly because of the contrast between he and DiMaggio and New York and most of the writers in New York taunted him at times because he wasn’t a great outfielder like DiMaggio. He could be very aloof to people like that. But to me and his teammates, he was absolutely outstanding. To the day he died, we were good friends.

MMc: Let’s talk about your broadcast career. Now, you walked into the broadcast booth pretty much right off the field immediately after you career ended, is that true?

GK: Yes, when I retired from baseball in 1957, I had no idea I was going into broadcasting and I headed for Swifton, Arkansas, where I was going to live the rest of my life. I got a call from CBS Sports asking me if I would work on the Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, and I said, yes, if it’s just for the weekend. I don’t want to be gone from home too much. And they were only on Saturdays, so I could leave here on Friday and be back Saturday night.

One year there, and the Tigers called and said, “Hey, we didn’t know you wanted to broadcast, and if you’re going to broadcast, you belong in Detroit.” Well, I didn’t want to go to Detroit because it was fulltime work, but I did. I signed a five-year contract, and I told them that would be all. I couldn’t be gone from home anymore. I did radio and television with Ernie Harwell. We split it. We only had two announcers in those days, and I’d do the first half on TV and the second half on the radio, and we’d switch booths between halves.

At the end of five years, true to my word, I told them I was figuring to quit, and they couldn’t believe me, but I did. I came home and I stayed out a year. But during that summer, they called me and said don’t sign with anybody else because ABC Sports had already contacted me about working on the weekend for them on the Game of the Week. I went back up there and signed a contract for the rest of my life I guess, 32 more years for doing TV game only, something like 40, 45 a year. And they allowed me to live in Swifton, my hometown, fly in and out for the television games. My family liked that and I liked it, and I did that for the next 35 years. And finally in 1987, I retired after 37 years in their broadcast booth.

MMc: Well, it sure sounds like they didn’t give you much time after your career ended to make any other career decisions. But before that point, did you consider managing after your career was over?

GK: Well, I was offered a manager’s job in Detroit after I’d been broadcasting about five or six years. I told Jim Campbell, the General Manager of the ball club, I don’t want to manage, I’m a broadcaster. It’s a safe, secure job. I can live at home, and I always wanted to manage. It if happened before I started broadcasting, I think, yes, I would have jumped at it. He finally told me, well, Mr. Fetzer, who owns the ball club, wants you to manage, and you’ll have to tell him that you don’t want to. And he put him on the phone and I explained it to Mr. Fetzer. He said I understand. If you don’t want to manage, you stay right where you are, which was the best decision I ever made. If I’d been manager, I’d have been gone, what, three or four years with the best at five, and broadcaster I stayed.

MMc: Well, something I was going to ask you, it’s kind of related to that, how you turned down the job knowing that it would be a short-term proposition. What did you think when the Tigers hired Alan Trammell as their manager back after the 2002 season? Did you see that being a long-term marriage for both Trammell and the Tigers?

GK: Alan Trammell is one of the nicest guys I ever met in my life, and he’s going to be a big league manager someday. But it was thrown into a tough situation there. It was not a good ball club. They were rebuilding entirely, a lot of veteran ballplayers and a rookie manager, and it just didn’t work out. It didn’t work out, and I don’t know, was he there two, three years? And they replaced him with the present manager. By then, the rebuilding was in good shape, they had a good ball club, and last year they won the playoffs and went into the World Series. They’ve had a wonderful ball club, they still do. They have a fine club this year.

MMc: Well, you brought up the postseason and I have to ask – American League Championship Game 4, you threw out the ceremonial first pitch. What was that like coming back to Detroit under those circumstances?

GK: Well, I was really honored to be picked as one of the ex-players/ broadcasters to come back and throw out the first ball, and that was the final game of the playoffs it turned out to be because they beat Oakland four straight. The homerun by Ordonez in the ninth inning won it, and the crowd of 43,000 or so going wild, it was just, well, goose bumps all over you for something like that. Just a great honor to me to go back and throw out that first ball.

I hadn’t been in Detroit in seven or eight years, and I thought maybe they’d forgotten me. But, gosh, when I walked out to the mound to throw out the first ball, they gave me a standing ovation. I told my wife I stood there for a minute and saluted the crowd. Lord, I turned around to the outfield and they were all standing in the bleachers, and I waved to them. And I said wait a minute, I’ve got to throw this ball out and get out of here.

MMc: Well, I was there at that game, and I was one of the 43,000 giving you that ovation.

GK: Were you there?

MMc: I was there, yeah.

GK: Well, you remember that.

MMc: I do, yeah.

GK: You remember me turning and waving to the outfield?

MMc: I certainly do, and I like to think you were waving right at me.

GK: I was waving at you. That’s something, isn’t it?

MMc: That is, that sure is. Where do you think that game and how it ended up rank in Tigers baseball history?

GK: That’s the best of the best. I couldn’t believe it. That’s the best of the best. You go into the ninth inning, you’re one run down. If you don’t win, Mike, you’ve got to go back to Oakland, and anything can happen going back to the other team’s hometown. He hit that homerun, and it was just one of the great moments in Tiger baseball. I can’t think of another moment that’s anymore dramatic. Greenberg hit a homerun to win the pennant in 1945 in St. Louis in the rain in the ninth inning with the bases loaded. That was very dramatic that sent the Tigers into the World Series. But that was on the road, and this was at home with a sellout crowd that was just sitting on the edge of their seats.

MMc: Well, what are your thoughts then on the World Series? Are you surprised at the way the Tigers performed?

GK: I was surprised they did not perform as they could. It’s hard to explain what happened. I think a lot of things entered into it. Number one was the big layoff between the time that they cinched it and the World Series started. You play among each other for six or seven days, and I don’t know, something happens in that time. Plus the fact we went into the World Series with young pitching. A rookie pitcher started the World Series and a rookie pitcher finished the World Series, the first and the fifth games. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a young man, 21 years old. He did so well all year long, but this is the World Series, and it really is the World Series. It’s seen all over the country and everybody is watching. And the Cardinals had a good ball club. They played like we did during the season. They had their droughts where they lost seven or eight in a row, and then they’d come back and lose again. But they rose to the occasion and I give them all the credit in the world. They played extremely well.

MMc: How do you think the team will fare this year?

GK: I think they’ll do well. I talked to Al Kaline last night. He’s in Lakeland and he lives down there, and he works with the ball club, works out with them every day, travels with them when they’re on the road doing games. He said, George, I think we’re better than last year. Well, I hope they’re as good as they were last year.

MMc: Yeah, wouldn’t that be something?

GK: Oh, they’re going to be good, there’s no doubt about that. They added the fellow from New York. Hey, I’m getting old, I can’t remember.

MMc: Gary Sheffield.

GK: Sheffield and I really like him as a hitter. And Al says he’s a good team man. Everybody likes him and he’s a great hitter and a good outfielder. I think he’s going to add a whole lot to our ball club. He’s going to give us some right-handed power that we’ve needed.

MMc: Well, how does this team then rank up there with all the teams you’ve watched following the Tigers over the years?

GK: I think they’re better. We had some good ball clubs, especially in the late ‘40s – ’46, ‘47, ‘48, ’49, and ’50. In 1950, we almost won the pennant. We led the league all year long until the Sunday before the final Sunday of the season. We lost that day, and the Yankees caught us, and then they beat us a couple of games. The next week, they won a couple that we lost, and they won the pennant. But we had an outstanding ball club that year. But this ball club is awesome. They’ve got more power. They’ve got good pitching. We had great pitching in those days with Newhouser and Trout, and Hutchinson, and I’m sure I’m missing some people. We had an outstanding pitching staff.

But this ball club, I don’t know. It looks like they’ve moved a step forward, and Jim Leyland is just an outstanding manager. Al Kaline last night could not say enough good things about Leyland. He said this guy is so honest with his ballplayer. When he makes a mistake, he tells them, hey, I was wrong there, but we’re going to get this right. He said they believe in him, they worship him. So that’s a great start.

MMc: Well, before we let you go, we have a couple more questions. And the first one is I know a lot of listeners would be curious how you’re spending your days in Swifton. What are you up to?

GK: Mike, I’m the laziest guy in the world. I am retired completely. My wife and I live in a home in this small town, go to bed late, and we get up late.

MMc: As it should be.

GK: Well, it is. At first, I wasn’t used to that sort of thing. I thought, well, this is wrong. It’s a shame, but that’s the way a man should retire. I serve on two bank boards and a rural electrification board, so that gives me something to do other than just sit around the house. But I enjoy retirement, we really enjoy retirement.

MMc: Well, you’ve certainly earned it after all those years of traveling as a player and as a broadcaster. One last question I have for you. And I was doing the research for this interview, I noticed and I didn’t know this before, that you had a brother that played in the major leagues as well.

GK: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. He played for Philadelphia, for Mr. Mack. Mr. Mack signed him when I played in Detroit, and he went on to play a couple of years in the major leagues. And in fact, Skeeter and I went back to Philadephia this past year in November. They have an annual reunion every year, the Philadephia As reunion, of all players who have played there. They asked me to come back and speak there. I told them I would if Skeeter could come with me because I need somebody to help me along the way with my airplanes and everything. So we went back, and we just had a wonderful weekend there.

MMc: Does he live there in Swifton also?

GK: No, he lives in Conway. That’s about 90 miles or so, right outside of Little Rock. And he’s been a very successful businessman for 30, 35 years. He’s retired now, and his son-in-law is taking over his business.

MMc: Well, Mr. Kell, we’ll let you get on with your day. We really appreciate you taking time to talk with us, and hope you have a good summer and enjoy watching the Tigers this year.

GK: Well, I appreciate it. I appreciate you remembering an old man in Arkansas.

MMc: Well, I think it’s safe to say there are millions of people around Michigan who remember George Kell.

GK: Well, I still hear from a lot of people. I get a lot of mail from Michigan and around the country, but I get a lot from Michigan. I’m proud that I worked in Michigan and played there.

MMc: Excellent. Well, we hope to hear from you again soon, Mr. Kell.

GK: Anytime.

 

(End of interview)

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