Saturday, January 26, 2013

George Kell, Laryngitis, and Major League Ball in Las Vegas

As the 1996 season was set to begin the Oakland Coliseum was still being renovated, forcing the Athletics to play their first six home games at their triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas at Cashman Field.  I came across this video clip of the Detroit Tigers broadcast from April 7 when the Tigers wrapped up a four game series against the A's in the strange setting.

The energetic Jim Price opens things up with a standard pre-amble.  At the 0:35 mark, long time play by play man George Kell starts the intro and sounds like something out of a science fiction movie with his familiar Arkansas drawl deeply effected by laryngitis.  Kell's color man Al Kaline gives Kell the business and seems concerned whether he's up to task.  Kaline, a splendid rightfielder, but just a decent color man reads the lineups and goofs on Jason Giambi's surname, calling him "Yambi". 

Growing up as a Tiger fan, I was fortunate to have Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell and the baritone Paul Carey calling games on the radio.  On TV it was Kell and Kaline who were dubbed as a HOF duo (more on that later).  Jim Price later joined them as a third wheel.  Why stubborn ol' George didn't hand the mic off to Price, I don't know.  Kell sure sounds like his voice needs a break and Price, while not a strong play-by-play man, was certainly capable.  I don't recall watching this game so I don't know if Kell stayed on air long enough to call Geronimo Berroa's two-run walk off home run or not.

The Tigers were a terrible team in '96 going 53-109 and at one point were 13-46.  Sparky Anderson had managed his last game the year prior and the team was run by new skipper Buddy Bell.  Alan Trammell was in his last year and Cecil Fielder would be dealt to the Yankees before the year was over.  Led by Bobby Higginson and Travis Fryman the Tigers could put runs on the board but were terrible on the mound.  Felipe Lira and Omar Olivares were the only two pitchers to start more than 17 games as nominal ace Justin Thompson missed most of the year.  The team ERA was 6.38.  Yes six-thirty-eight.

Oakland still had Mark McGwire and Terry Steinbach cranking out homers but they too had pitching woes with a 5.20 ERA and finished 78-84.  It appears Giambi is the last active player from this game.

Back to the Tigers broadcast tandem of Kell and Kaline.  Kell had a certain warmth that made it seem like you were talking baseball with your friendly neighbor.  He had a habit of getting over excited on fly balls that fell well short of the fence and into the mitts of awaiting outfielders.  One time I recall his voice escalating on a pop-up that was caught by the second baseman in short rightfield.  I doubt Kell was trying to be dramatic. I think he just had bad eyes. 

He was also prone to overstating a player's talent, making comments that some average opposing player was one of the best in all of baseball.  Well I suppose on a global scale all players in MLB are the best get my point.  No one was buying Pat Kelly or Vance Law as an All-Star.  Don't get me wrong Kell was a joy to listen to.

Kaline always came through with solid analysis and was big on fundamentals.  Kaline was often mangling guys names which was comical and sometimes frustrating.  Jim Price was on board late toward the Kell-Kaline run and brought a third voice to the booth.  Price still does color commentary on Tigers radio and while he doesn't carry the pedigree of Kell or Kaline on the field or in the booth he's become a friendly familiar voice.

Kell and Kaline were tabbed as the Hall of Fame team and Kaline is certainly deserving.  Kell batted .306 in a 15 year career amassing over 2,000 hits.  He was a ten time AL All-Star and famously edged Ted Williams for the batting crown in 1949.  Kell was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1983 after he never cracked 40% in the writers vote when he was eligible.  His 34.5 career WAR is often cited as one of the Hall's weakest selections.  Maybe it was a lack of third basemen in the Hall that helped his cause.

George Kell was a very good player, a fine broadcaster, and memories of him calling Tigers games will last forever.  After starting in radio in the 60's and then moving on to TV in the 70's the '96 season would be Kell's last behind the microphone.  Kell passed away in 2009 at the age of 86.

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