George Kell came to Detroit in 1946 and left a legend

In seven seasons with Detroit, third baseman George Kell hit .325 and struck out just 107 times.

It was Saturday, May 18, 1946. With the Philadelphia Athletics in town for a series at Briggs Stadium, Philadelphia manager Connie Mack pulled off a trade that sent one popular Tiger packing and brought to Detroit a future Hall of Famer whose name and voice became synonymous with baseball at The Corner.

Gone was center fielder Barney McCosky, a local kid who had grown up in the Delray neighborhood emulating the batting stance of Charlie Gehringer. “I couldn’t believe it when they first told me,” McCosky recalled years later. “I was just putting on my shoes when one of the coaches came up to me and said, ‘Barney, you won’t have to put those shoes on. You won’t be playing today. You’ve just been traded. They want to see you at the Book Cadillac.’”

At the same time inside the downtown hotel, the patriarchal Mack was consoling his young third baseman from Arkansas, George Kell. “I hate to get rid of you, son,” Mack said, “but this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You’re a good ballplayer. You’ll go to Detroit where they’ll draw a lot of people and they’ll pay you a lot of money.”

In retrospect, Kell had to admit that the old man was right. In one year he went from making $6,500 with Philadelphia to $15,000 with Detroit. By the time he left the Tigers in a multiplayer swap with Boston in 1952, he was the Tigers’ top wage-earner at $45,000.

Also easing the sting was the fact that he was traded from a last-place team to one that had won the World Series the previous year. Detroit quickly became home to Kell.

“A lot of folks from Arkansas were up there, people who had come up during the war to work in the plants,” Kell recalled. “I had a lot of friends there. The day I was traded, probably 40 or 50 people came down to the dugout to say hello to me. I just liked it there. I really liked it. I had not hit .300 in Philadelphia, but after I got to Detroit, I hit .300 six straight years.

“I remember the first game I played there as a Tiger. It was a doubleheader against the Red Sox. They had more than 50,000 there, and I wasn’t used to seeing that kind of crowd. Needless to say, I was a little bit jittery. But in the first inning, Johnny Pesky hit a line shot two hops to my right. I speared it and threw him out, and after that I felt relaxed and comfortable.”

Comfortable enough to win a batting title in 1949 and to place second the following season, a year in which many observers thought Kell, not Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, should have won the Most Valuable Player Award. Kell’s hitting, coupled with the flashiest glove work of any third baseman of the immediate postwar era, made him a perennial All-Star and earned him a plaque at Cooperstown.

After his playing days, Kell became a fixture in the broadcast booth. He died in 2009, having spent his last few years in very poor health.

“I remember the last night I worked at Tiger Stadium, the last game I did in 1996, after 35 years of broadcasting on radio and television,” Kell once recalled before his death. “There had been a long rain delay before the game and another one during the game, so I didn’t walk out of the park until about quarter to 12 at night. When I walked out, I thought: ‘My Lord, this is the last time I’m ever going to do this.’

“I didn’t want to quit, but I knew I had to. I was hurting all over. My back was hurting. My legs were hurting. But it was kind of like leaving home.”