Wednesday, March 25, 2009

George Kell: Sadly, God Waaaved Him In!

I always found it so ironic that George Kell mastered the art of the strikeout call, when he hardly struck out himself.

Kell, who died Tuesday at age 86, won the 1949 batting title, nosing out Ted Williams, no less. That much, you probably know. But how about this? In doing so, Kell struck out 13 times. Total.

A big league season is about six months long. So Kell, in hitting .342, struck out about twice a month. Once every 15 days or so.

Yet of all the signature calls that Kell, as the Tigers' longtime broadcaster, had, I think I'd put his strikeout call in the top two or three.

There were a few versions.

In a non-crucial portion of the game: "He STRUCK him out," in that Arkansas-coated accent.

In a more important situation: "Hey, he struck him out!"

In the last out of the game, a big Tigers' win put to bed: "STRIKE THREE! OH, HE STRUCK HIM OUT!"

I remember on one occasion, channel 4 edited together all of Kell's strikeout calls during a Jack Morris win in Kansas City. Morris fanned ten or eleven guys, and the montage was all of the third strikes, as described by Kell.

They were pretty much all the same. "Heee....struck him out." Nothing too exciting. But the fact that they WERE all the same was, to me, fascinating. For that wasn't a sign of boring repetition, but rather of sameness and reliability and, because of it, the comfort that Kell provided the viewer/listener.

He was a speaker of half-sentences, and that was OK, too.

I found one of our daughter's baby videos last summer, and it was shot back in 1993. The TV sound was on in the background, and, clear as a bell, there's Kell and Al Kaline, describing a Tigers game in Milwaukee.

"Here comes Cecil," was all Kell said at one point. That's all that needed to be said. Then, after the first pitch: "Up high." Again, all that needed to be said. A few moments later, after some blissful silence that today's announcers fear like the plague, there was this in the background as our two-month-old daughter rolled around on the bed: "Ball two, strike one. (long pause) Ground ball to short....(pause, then Milwaukee crowd cheers)...two out, in the sixth.

"Now it's up to Gibby!"

Man, it doesn't look nearly as good in print as it sounded to my ears, but those who grew up listening to Kell are probably smiling.

The one that gave you chills -- at least me -- was when a runner would try to score on a base hit and the ball was being hustled in to the infield.

"They're WAAAVING him in!" Kell would yell, and there wasn't anything more exciting. "There's gonna be a play at the plate!"

A ball would be fouled off, rather hard, into the stands. "Look OUT!" Kell would warn, as if the fans could hear him.

Of course, I could go on and on. And I'm really not imparting anything to you that you don't already know. That's what happens when the famous, the beloved pass away. We all say the same thing, pretty much -- but we somehow feel remiss if we don't say it.

Oh, and there's this. I used to be a pretend Detroit Tiger in my Livonia driveway as a kid. Sometimes I'd be myself, magically inserted into the Tigers lineup, or I'd be one of the real players -- Willie Horton, Norm Cash, etc. I'd have my plastic bat and my Tigers cap on and I'd dig in against an imaginary pitcher.

The "pitch" would be delivered and I'd swing. Funny how I always connected, dead-on.

Then I'd be Kell, announcing my heroics.

"There's a lonnnng drive! Way back! That ball is...GONE!"

I think I even tried to do Kell's Arkansas accent, as an 8-year-old.

Kell hasn't announced games regularly since 1995. But despite his 13 years away, his loss is still like it happened while he was an active broadcaster. He retired, but never truly left us.

Until now.

But only physically. There's still that home movie that I have, for example. And the stuff rattling around in my head.

"Thanks, Larry, and good afternoon everyone. The weatherman says we're gonna get this one in."

Stuff like that.


Brian said...

As sad as it is that Kell passed away, it has given all of us that grew up with him doing Tigers games the opportunity to relive each and every one of those phrases that we all imitated as a kid.

You ended with "Thanks, Larry, and good afternoon everyone." During EVERY Piston broadcast I do a version of that that drives my kids crazy because they have no idea why I do it. When Eli Zaret does his pre-game schtick (like he used to do for the Tigers) and then throws it to George Blaha, I can't help but throw in a "Thanks, Eli (E-lah), and hello again everyone!"

You brought up another one that I completely forgot about - they're wavin' him in! And to this day, whenever there is something that might cause you to jump, duck, or just have to be aware of something, my wife or I will simply say, "look OUT!"

One quick story about what a great guy he was: I think it was after his heart attack or maybe after his house burned down, the Free Press published his address for people to send him get well cards, etc. So I sent him a note wishing him well and telling him how much he meant to my childhood because I was sick and the highlights of my summer were the one or two games a week that were on TV that he did.

I asked him for nothing. I just wished him well and wanted to let him know that he touched people positively. About two weeks later, I got a nice, handwritten note from him that he signed and two autographed (old) baseball cards. What a guy!

Greg Eno said...

WOW -- what a cool story! That's awesome.

I love the "look OUT!" thing you guys do, too!

BTW, you can now check out exclusive baseball stuff of mine at If you like baseball history, that's a great site!