Tiger fans said farewell to George Kell earlier this year. Though mourned by all of baseball, in Detroit, Kell’s loss was felt even more acutely.
Middle-aged fans remember him as an announcer’s announcer — the senior, experienced voice partnered first on radio with Ernie Harwell, and then with Al Kaline on television. Those old enough to have watched him play remember his incredible joy at being part of the game, his energy and assertiveness at his position, and above all the batting title he brought to Detroit in 1949.
Baseball doesn’t get much more dramatic than the way George Kell won that batting title. But how many people who remember George Kell also remember the man who made Kell’s title possible?
It wasn’t an inspirational friend or relative. It wasn’t a hitting coach. It was a scrappy little shortstop with a penchant for getting thrown out of ball games and a delusion that he could hit the long ball.
As Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story!
The Cleveland Indians wound up the last game of the 1949 regular baseball season at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. It would have been a totally meaningless event (the Indians were in third place and the Tigers in fourth, the teams trailing the Yankees by eight and ten games, respectively) except that Tiger third baseman George Kell was locked in an unbelievably close battle with Ted Williams for the American League batting championship.
The tale is the stuff of which legends are made. Williams already had completed his final at bat and was resting at .34275. In Detroit, the game was in the eighth inning, and Kell, ahead by just four hundred-thousandths of a percent, faced at least one more turn at the plate. A highly ethical man, Kell was ready to take his chances. Manager Red Rolfe, on the other hand, argued that Kell should sit out the ninth and protect his average and his title. The situation was agonizing, but ultimately Kell picked up a bat. He was waiting in the on-deck circle when the pinch hitter who preceded him took his cuts.
Obligingly enough, said pinch hitter hit sharply into a game-ending double play, and George Kell won his batting title free and clear with a mark of .34279.
Kell may have been the hero of the day, but the man who ensured the victory was none other than veteran Tiger shortstop, Eddie Lake.
So, who the heck was Eddie Lake?
Eddie was a little guy with an inconsistent batting average but occasionally surprising power. He fielded his position competently, and, because of his penchant for drawing walks, he managed to score a respectable number of runs and maintain a decent on-base percentage. Each major-league year that he played regularly, he worked opposing pitchers to over a hundred walks.
At 5’ 7” and 160 pounds, Eddie Lake was hardly the smallest man ever to play in the major leagues but he was small enough that other players called him “Jockey.” His personal refusal to recognize that size could affect power at the plate was perhaps his greatest single batting weakness.
Eddie was of Spanish, Irish, and English descent, but on the field his scrappiness was pure Irish. He was tossed out of a good many ball games for his temper – to the delight of Detroiters, because he usually just donned his civvies and sat in the stands and watched the rest of the game from there, gabbing with other fans.
He was born in 1916 and played in organized ball from 1937 until 1956. He wore the old English D from 1946 until 1950. In his entire 11-year major league career, Eddie Lake hit just 39 home runs and knocked in only 193 RBIs. His lifetime batting average was an anemic .231, but he did manage to win a batting championship in 1949 . . . just not for himself!