Saturday, 22 March 2014

A Star Is Born In The Motor City



1952 Bowman baseball card  of George Kell,
Detroit Tigers (United States Public Domain)
Baseball trades today aren’t such a big hoopla anymore, not with multi-year deals, free agency, and arbitration getting in the way. But there was time a few decades ago…

In the past, most of the trades were yawners. A few were blockbusters, some innocent one-for-one and others involving several non-important players. Some gave neither side a short-term nor a long-term advantage. Other trades, however, were classified as lopsided. For instance, Roger Maris to the Yankees, Lou Brock to the Cardinals, and Joe Morgan to the Reds. But the importance of one particular player transaction after World War II seems to have slipped by baseball fans almost unnoticed. As a result of this trade, a young 5-foot-9, 175-pound infielder born and raised in Swifton, Arkansas was well on his way to earning a shiny, personalized plaque in Cooperstown…

By 1946, the war had been over for several months and the servicemen had returned from the battle fronts. Stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, and Ted Williams, who were ready to pick up where they had left off. In Detroit, the Tigers were keeping their eyes on 23-year-old George Kell, a slick-fielding, “hot corner” infielder hitting near .300.

For any trade to materialize, of course, a team must have a need. Legendary Philadelphia A’s owner Connie Mack desperately wanted an outfielder who could hit. On the other hand, the Tigers were faced with having to replace their aging third-baseman, 40-year-old Pinky Higgins. The Tigers offered the A’s any outfielder except Dick Wakefield for Kell. The A’s fancied Barney McCosky, still young at 28, a proven veteran, and a solid linedrive hitter, who had returned home after 3 years in the US Navy. Born in Coal Run, Pennsylvania, McCosky grew up in Detroit in the midst of the Great Depression and was signed by the Tigers in 1936 right out of high school at 18. Defensively, he had excellent outfield range and an accurate arm. In three out of his 4 full seasons with Detroit, he had hit over .300, seldom striking out. He also had hit an impressive .304 in the 7-game 1940 World Series lost to the Cincinnati Reds. But McCosky was off to a bad start in the first 2 months of 1946, hitting under .200.

On 18 May 1946, Kell was heading to his hotel room while the A’s were on a road trip in Detroit. “I had just finished breakfast,” Kell recalled for me. “I was on the elevator. Anyway, Connie Mack got on with me. He asked me to go up to his room and there he told me that I had been traded to Detroit. I was shocked. I told Mr Mack that I liked Philadelphia and wanted to stay with the A’s. He told me the deal was made and that’s the way things were done. He said he had an overabundance of infielders, and that he needed an outfielder real bad and that McCosky was one of the best in the league. He also said Detroit wanted me and no one else.

“So, we didn’t play that day,” Kell went on. “The A’s were leaving town that night. I went to the ballpark [Detroit’s Briggs Stadium} and cleaned out my locker. Barney did the same thing by cleaning out his. We just swapped lockers, uniforms and everything. Right there. The next day Boston came into Detroit and I played my first time as a Tiger, a double header against the Red Sox. I didn’t even have to compete for the third-base job because that same day the Tigers sold Pinky Higgins to Boston. The job was mine.”

McCosky had been a favorite in Detroit and at first the Tiger fans were disturbed over losing him. He was one of the nicest guys in the game, popular with his teammates and the fans. For the most part, Kell was an unproven player with potential only. This was the environment the young infielder was thrust into. But he didn’t let the negative talk about him affect his play or attitude. “I was a young kid at the time. I had a lot of confidence in myself,” Kell said. “I didn’t let the trade get to me. I just wanted to play ball.”


1951 Bowman baseball card of Barney McCosky,
Philadelphia Athletics (United States Public Domain)
Kell finished 1946 with a .322 average, and for the next five full seasons as a Tiger (1947-1951) he quickly proved himself by hitting over .300, including a league-leading .343 in 1949, beating out superstar Ted Williams by the slim margin of less than one percentage point. He also set a record for the fewest strikeouts (13) for a batting champ, an achievement that still stands. In 1950, he followed up with a .340 average (second best in the AL), with 3 league-leading stat--218 hits, 56 doubles and 641 at-bats. On 2 June, he hit for the cycle and he helped the team to a 95-win second place finish, 3 games behind the Yankees. Pleased with Kell’s play, Detroit manager Red Rolfe said, “He’s a seven-day-a-week ballplayer.”

In 1951, his last full year in Detroit, Kell led the AL with 36 doubles and 191 hits, while hitting .319, third best in the league. In addition, because of his excellent defensive abilities at the hot corner, Kell was named an American League All-Star third-baseman every one of his 5 full seasons in Detroit. Two months into 1952, Kell was traded to the Boston Red Sox in a 9-man deal. Good thing for Kell because the Tigers finished dead last that fall with a measly 50 wins. Kell remained with the Red Sox until the White Sox acquired him in mid-season 1954, before they dealt him to Baltimore part-way through 1956. All the time, Kell continued to play hard until his retirement in 1957 with the Orioles. He then turned his hot corner position over to a young Brooks Robinson, who became what some consider as the best third baseman in major league history.

McCosky went on to belt .318 in 1946, then .328 and .326 in his first 2 full seasons in Philly. He was never the same after that, sustaining a back injury in mid-1948 that caused him to miss the entire 1949 season due to spinal fusion surgery. The modest and likeable McCosky bowed out of the majors in 1953 after unsuccessful attempts at comebacks with Cincinnati and Cleveland. McCosky retired to the Detroit area where one of his jobs was a car salesman.

Sometimes that one break or that one switch to another team can mean all the difference to a ball player. In his case, Kell put in best by saying, “After the initial shock of being traded wore off, I was glad to be in Detroit. They were a better team, a contender. I was on my way. It was the best thing that happened to my career. And after a couple years the Tiger fans thought that it was one of the best trades the team ever made.”

According to Kell in his autobiography, Hello Everybody, I’m George Kell, published in 1998, he said that Barney McCosky told him on the day of the trade when the 2 met at Briggs Stadium, “You’ll be better off in Detroit. You’re going to love it here. I hate to leave because this is home. I’ve had good years here.”

 All told, Kell was a 10-time All-Star. He hit over .300 on 9 occasions, 8 of those consecutively. He led all third-basemen in fielding average 7 times and assists 4 times. The Hall of Fame voters shouldn’t have ignored him, but for some reason they did, and for a number of years. Why? Was he that under-rated? True, he wasn’t a power hitter. He hit only 78 lifetime homers and reached 100 RBIs in only one season. And he wasn’t on a pennant winner, only close in 1950. Nevertheless, he owned a lifetime .306 batting average and was one of the best fielding third-basemen in the game. At long last, in 1983 he was inducted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee. In his induction speech, the humble Kell said, “I have always said that George Kell has taken more from this great game of baseball than he can ever give back. And now I know, I am deeper in debt than ever before.”

After playing the game, Kell turned to baseball broadcasting, working there for 40 years, using a soft-spoken, southern-gentleman style. Most of the years were spent on radio and TV with the Tigers, but he also did work for the Baltimore Orioles and CBS in 1958, and helped call both the 1959 and 1962 National League playoffs for ABC and NBC, respectively.

After his retirement from broadcasting in 1996, Kell was severely injured in a car accident in 2004. But he was able to walk 6 months later with a cane. On 24 March 2009, he died in his sleep at the age of 86 in his hometown of Swifton, Arkansas.

Barney McCosky died in Venice, Florida on 6 September 1996 and was buried in Southfield, Michigan. He was 79.

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