George Kell: Often imitated, never duplicated
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March 27, 2009
Long time Tigers broadcaster George Kell died this week, at the age of 86. For sports commentator John U. Bacon, it brought back a flood of memories – all of them good.
“Good afternoon, and welcome everybody. It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, here at Tiger Stadium.”
I can’t tell you exactly how many times I heard George Kell say that, but it was easily in the hundreds, and probably the thousands.
Even when the Tigers were terrible – and when I was growing up in the seventies, they were – I’d hunker down with my dad in front of the TV, and listen to George Kell and Al Kaline give us the game.
Kaline, from Baltimore, had a fairly standard delivery. But Kell, from tiny Swifton, Arkansas, had an accent like nothing I’d ever heard.
-Starting at shortstop, Tommy Veryyyyzer
-The Braves are playin’ the Reds in Cincinnatuh.
-Let me tell ya somethin’: This man Trammel, he comes to play, every day.
Kell had a way with grammar, too. When a hitter once snapped his bat, Kell said, “Oh, and he broke it half in two.”
I recall another time, when the opposing batter looked like he was going to bunt, and the Tigers’ third baseman charged the plate, like you’re supposed to. But the batter changed his mind, and ripped a line drive right at the third baseman, hitting him exactly where he least wanted to be hit. He quickly dropped to all fours, prompting Kell to say,
“Oooh, and he caught it raaaght on the inner thaaaagh.” My dad and I lost it.
Like Vernor’s ginger ale, Ball Park Franks and Stroh’s Bohemian Style Fire Brewed Beer, George Kell was an acquired taste – hard to explain to outsiders. But it didn’t take long to warm up to him. He had an amazing knack for making listeners feel like friends. And once you heard him, you wanted to imitate him.
A year out of college, I went to Europe with three buddies, two from Ann Arbor and one from Philadelphia. Somehow we three Ann Arborites got on this jag where we felt compelled to say everything like George Kell. This resulted in some pretty unlikely phrases – “We’re pullin’ out of Paree, the City of Laaaght, in a chuchette, headed for Versailles!” After a week of this, even our Philadelphia friend could do a pretty good Kell – and he’d never heard him.
The Chicago Cubs’ Harry Carey was more famous, but less professional. It was not uncommon for him to crack open an Old Style beer during a game, then start saying things like, “Al spelled backwards, is ‘La’!”
Kell took broadcasting the game as seriously as he did playing the game. Going into the last at-bat of the 1949 season, he led Ted Williams for the batting title by .0002. Kell’s coach decided to pull him to make sure he’d win – but Kell refused. “I didn’t want to bat again,” he said. “I felt I had to.” As luck would have it, Kell was kneeling in the on-deck circle when a teammate made the third out. The title was his – with honor.
A ballplayer’s ballplayer, Kell almost never struck out or dropped the ball. In his 15th season, Kell hit a stellar .297, but quit anyway. “I just made up my mind that I’d been gone from home too long.” Kell meant it. On Tuesday, Kell died in his sleep in his hometown of Swifton, Arkansas.
In an era when all broadcasters sound the same, I’m certain we will never hear another voice like George Kell’s.
(His voice) “And they’re gonna wave him in!”
Copyright © 2009, Michigan Radio