Double-checking the math on George Kell’s narrow batting title win over Ted Williams in 1949

The most dramatic finish to a Tigers season that didn’t involve a pennant race may have come in 1949. The Tigers’ George Kell was in a dead heat with Ted Williams for the AL batting title, with Williams chasing an unprecedented third Triple Crown. With one game to play, it looked like Williams would get it: he was hitting .344, to Kell’s .341.

“I really thought he’d get it,” Kell told Richard Bak in 1980 in Cobb Would Have Caught It. “Bob Lemon was pitching for Cleveland, and he was the toughest pitcher I ever faced.”

But to Kell’s surprise, he hit a double and a single off Lemon his first two times up in the Tigers’ season finale at Briggs Stadium. Then he walked, so he was still 2-for-2. Bob Feller came on in relief for Cleveland, and if Lemon was Kell’s nemesis, the flame-throwing Feller was no picnic, either. He got Kell to fly out to center in the 7th inning. It looked like Kell’s day might be done after a 2-for-3 afternoon, good enough to raise his average to within a hair of .343. (You can scoff at the merits of batting average as a stat in today’s sabermetric ecosystem, but in 1949 this was a big deal.) Still, Williams just had to hold serve to keep the title, and the Triple Crown.   

Then things got interesting.

“In the press box, they were keeping up with the averages, and they sent word down to the dugout in the ninth inning that Williams had gone hitless in New York and that I was ahead of him by two-thousandths of a point,” Kell recalled. (Williams had gone 0-for-2 with two walks. To make matters worse, the Yankees had overtaken the Red Sox to win the pennant.)

With the Tigers trailing an otherwise meaningless game in the ninth inning, Kell would be up fourth, coming to bat if any Tiger reached base. Manager Red Rolfe asked Kell what he wanted to do.

“I really didn’t [want to bat], but I couldn’t see putting in a pinch hitter for me in that situation,” Kell said. “So I told him, ‘I’ve got to hit.’”

So there Kell was, on deck with one out and one on, with Eddie Lake at the plate.

Lake, thank goodness, hit a grounder to the shortstop, who stepped on second and fired to first. The season was over. Never in Detroit baseball history has a Tiger cheered so loudly in approval for a teammate’s GDP.

“Man, I threw my bat about fifty feet in the air, I was so happy,” said Kell. “I don’t think I’d ever been happier in my life.

Kell finished the season with a batting average of .3429, with Williams at .3427. It was Kell’s only career batting title.

Even today, that razor-thin margin of victory is close enough to catch the interest of baseball researchers. Earlier this year, SABR researchers Bill Nowlin and Herm Krabbenhoft co-authored an article for the National Pastime Museum website called “Carved in Stone? Revisiting the 1949 AL Batting Race.”

They pored over the official daily logs for the 1949 season from Elias Sports and compared them with play-by-play accounts from Retrosheet as well as newspaper reports.  

It was worth a try. Elias has already changed the official batting average of nine batting champions after the fact as new information came to light—most recently in 2009, changing Johnny Mize’s winning average for 1939 from .349 to .350.

Tiger fans know all about adjustments to decades-old numbers. In 1981 the Sporting News found that Ty Cobb was mistakenly credited twice for a 2-hit game, and that his career hit total was actually 4,189 instead of 4,191. Major League Baseball declined to revise the stat and celebrated Pete Rose as the new hit king only when he reached 4,192 hits. Krabbenhoft himself discovered in 2011 that Hank Greenberg was shorted one RBI in 1937 and actually had 184. Elias then found that Lou Gehrig also had a missing RBI that season, and so he still topped Greenberg by one that year, with 185.

Nowlin and Krabbenhoft did find a few oddities from 1949, including nearly 100 at-bats where Elias’ daily records simply say “Kell out on an unknown play” and other game accounts where Kell’s hits and outs, when cross-referenced with other sources, were listed in the wrong sequence. Williams also had some “unknown” outs and, more importantly, a few times during the season where the official daily records had him with the wrong total number of at-bats—including 3 at-bats that were missing for two weeks before being corrected in mid-September that year.

But after all their digging, Nowlin and Krabbenhoft concluded there were no errors in the number of hits and at-bats recorded for Kell and Williams for the 1949 season. They confirmed that Kell batted .3429, and Williams .3427, with Kell the rightful winner.

In their introduction, Krabbenhoft notes that part of his interest in this case comes from a 1958 special issue of Sport magazine that recounts Kell’s last game in 1949. But Sport stated that Rolfe and Kell agreed in the dugout that Kell would be removed for pinch hitter Joe Ginsberg, and that it was Ginsberg who was waiting to bat when Eddie Lake hit into the double play. Krabbenhoft doesn’t explicitly say so, but he hints that this tarnishes Kell’s accomplishment somewhat, even though neither Kell nor Ginsberg had to come to the plate.

That’s a very different story than what Kell told Bak in 1980. And it’s a slightly different from what Kell wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Hello Everybody, I’m George Kell. There he wrote that he was in the on-deck circle but that Ginsberg had left the dugout, shouting for Kell’s attention, intending to give the news about what Williams did and relay the order for Kell to take a seat. But as he was en route, Kell wrote, Lake ended the game.

That version includes both Ginsberg as an intended replacement, as Sport said, and Kell not yet having consented to sit down, as he insisted he never would have. Whatever the truth, Kell no doubt wholeheartedly cheered at the double play. Williams, meanwhile, remains the last player with multiple Triple Crowns, and the only one to come within a whisker of winning three.

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.