George Kell, the Hall of Fame third baseman 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.
Jackson's Funeral Home in Newport confirmed the death but did not give a cause. The Hall of Fame said he died in his sleep at his home in Swifton. 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, hitting more than .300 nine times and compiling a career average of .306. He was a 10-time All-Star.
"I grew up idolizing Stan Musial and George Kell," said Brooks Robinson, another Hall of Fame third baseman from Arkansas. "I played a lot of baseball in Swifton and Newport, where George is from. ... He was a hero to me on and off the field."
Kell played from 1943-57 with the Philadelphia Athletics, Detroit Tigers, Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles. He topped .300 each year from 1946-53.
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 in 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."
Al Kaline, a Hall of Famer for the Tigers, was also a broadcasting colleague of Kell's.
"George was a great friend and like a big brother to me," Kaline said Tuesday. "When we broadcast together, I was a rookie, and he was a veteran and he was a great mentor to me."
Kell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983 by the Veterans Committee.
"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."
Kell played for the Tigers when he 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."
Kell was always proud of the way it happened. Cleveland pitched Bob Lemon in the finale against Detroit and then brought in Hall of Famer Bob Feller 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.
Kell reached the majors in 1943 and hit .268 in 1944, his first full season. He went from Philadelphia to Detroit in 1946. A's manager Connie Mack called Kell to his hotel suite and told him he had been traded to the Tigers.
"Mr. Mack said, 'It's going to be the greatest break you've ever had,'" Kell recalled.
Kell grew up in Swifton and had a unique arrangement that enabled him to live there while broadcasting for the Tigers. He kept an apartment in Little Rock so he could catch flights to games.
"I don't know anybody else who lives 1,000 miles away from their job and gets to commute back and forth," Kell said with a laugh. "The owner said, 'You can live in your beloved Swifton, but don't you dare miss a game.' I had a few close calls, but I didn't miss any."
Fittingly, Kell was joined in the Hall of Fame's 1983 class by Robinson. The two were teammates with Baltimore as Kell's career was winding down and Robinson's was beginning.
"He was a class act through and through," Robinson said. "The crowning moment was when I was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. I went in with my hero, George Kell."
Funeral services will be held Friday at Swifton United Methodist Church.
Survivors include Kell's wife Carolyn, brother Everett "Skeeter" Kell, daughter Terrie Jane Lawrence, five grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and six step-great-grandchildren.
Kell's first wife, Charlene, died in 1991 of cancer after 50 years of marriage. They met as sixth graders in Swifton and were sweethearts at Swifton High School.