El Dorado News-Times

George Kell’s standout baseball career

- Dr. Ken BriDges Columnist

Arkansas has produced many gifted athletes in many different sports. Several Arkansans have become Hall of Fame players for Major League Baseball.

Among these baseball greats was George Kell.

George Clyde Kell was born in 1922 in Swifton, a small community in Jackson County. He was the oldest of three sons of Clyde and Alma Kell.

Kell’s father was a barber and played semi-pro baseball on various area teams. He grew up surrounded by baseball and showed amazing skill as a youngster.

After he graduated from college, Kell briefly attended what is now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. In 1940, he joined the Newport Dodgers, a minor league farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After his first season, he married Charlene Felts, with whom he would go on to have two children.

In the 1941 season, Kell led the Dodgers to the title in the Northeast Arkansas League. He spent the next two seasons with the minor league teams for the Philadelph­ia Athletics.

While many other players served in World War II, a previous knee injury kept him out of the service. Neverthele­ss, the injury did not affect his career much. In 1943, he led the minor leagues in hitting with a .396 average. Impressed, the Athletics called him up to play the last few games of the 1943 season in the major leagues.

He became the third baseman for the Athletics for the 1944 season, but was traded to the Detroit Tigers in 1946. His batting skills blossomed once he came to Detroit. He would bat over .300 nine times in the remainder of his career.

In 1947, he made his first All-Star Game appearance. In 1949, he batted .343, becoming the American League batting champion. He was named an All-Star ten times in his career.

In 1952, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox. Though his numbers were impressive, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1954. Throughout his career, he had one of the highest fielding percentage­s in the league and had one of the lowest strikeout ratios of any batter in the major leagues. In 1956, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

He retired from the field in 1957, with a career batting average of .306, with 2,054 hits, 870 runs batted in and 78 home runs.

Throughout his playing days, he still managed to return to Arkansas often. An avid hunter, he never missed a season for quail or ducks. One of his hunting buddies was Sam Walton, the future founder of Wal-Mart.

His younger brother, Skeeter, was also a gifted player. Between 1948 and 1951, he played for the University of Arkansas, where he came to the attention of Major League scouts. He played second base for the Philadelph­ia Athletics for the 1952 season. He ultimately returned to Arkansas.

George Kell became a broadcaste­r after his retirement from the Orioles. He worked for CBS as a play-byplay announcer.

In 1959, he began announcing games for the Detroit Tigers on radio and television. He would periodical­ly work for NBC in the early 1960s. By 1965, he was calling Tigers games on television exclusivel­y, becoming a beloved and familiar voice for Detroit-area viewers. He continued to work in the broadcaste­rs’ booth until his retirement in 1996.

Though Kell remained an extremely popular figure in Detroit, Arkansas was still home. In 1970, he served as campaign chairman for the gubernator­ial campaign of Dale Bumpers. In 1973, Bumpers appointed Kell to serve on the Arkansas Highway commission. He served on the commission until 1983. He also owned a popular car dealership in Newport, George Kell Motors. It is still in operation today.

In 1983, Kell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstow­n, New York. He died at his home in Swifton in 2009 at age 86.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservati­on Society. Bridges can be reached by email at kbridges@southark.edu.

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