The Day George Kell Won the Batting Title

George Kell won the batting title in 1949 by the slimmest of margins.

George Kell won the batting title in 1949 by the slimmest of margins.

When it comes to winning batting titles, Detroit fans have been spoiled of late, with Magglio Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera capturing four of the last seven American League crowns between them.

Overall, 11 different Detroit Tigers have collectively captured 27 batting titles. (This includes Dale Alexander, who divided the 1932 season between Detroit and Boston.) There have been some dramatic last-day heroics, particularly involving Harry Heilmann. But nothing beats the down-to-the-wire race between George Kell and Ted Williams that was settled with a ninth-inning at-bat that didn’t take place.

The setting was Briggs Stadium on the final day of the 1949 season. The Tigers were wrapping up the season against Cleveland while Williams and the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in a winner-take-all pennant showdown in New York. Williams, who had led the batting race most of the summer, was not only gunning for his third straight batting championship, he was trying to complete the third leg of the Triple Crown.

“Williams was one point ahead of me going into the last day,” Kell recalled years later, and [Tigers outfielder] Hoot Evers told me, ‘If you get two hits, you’ll catch him.’

“I doubled the first time up off Bob Lemon. Now normally, at that time of year you’re pitching rookies, but Cleveland was trying to finish third. They had to win. I had a single in my second at-bat against Lemon. I looked up around the fifth inning, and here out of the bullpen comes Bob Feller! I’m thinking: ‘My God, is this the World Series?’

“Well, Feller walked me the first time I faced him, so I’m still 2-for-2. But in the seventh inning Feller struck me out. Hoot said, ‘You’ve got it won—2-for-3 will do.’ But in the ninth inning I’m the fourth batter due up and Hoot said, ‘God, you don’t want to bat again.’ I said, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’

“I found out later that our manager, Red Rolfe, had planned to have Joe Ginsberg pinch-hit for me because our PR man, Lyall Smith, had called from the press box to say that Williams had gone hitless in his game. But I learned all that after the game. At the time, I was doggoned if I was going to sit on the bench and win the championship. I always remembered Williams playing a doubleheader on the last day of the ’41 season when he topped .400.”

Cleveland was leading, meaning the Tigers had to bat in the ninth. Kell was the fourth batter due up in the inning.

“Well, Dick Wakefield singles,” Kell continued, “and that means I’m going to bat. The next man went out and I’m in the on-deck circle when Eddie Lake hit a two-hopper to Ray Boone, who was playing shortstop for Cleveland that day. Boone stepped on second and threw to first for the game-ending double play, and, I tell you, I threw my bat 15 feet into the air. I wound up beating Williams by two ten-thousandths of a point: .3429 to .3427.”

With that, Kell became the first third baseman to win an A.L. batting championship. Years later, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, a fitting destination for someone who hated the thought of being viewed as a “cheese champion” as much as he hated the idea of losing the batting crown.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.