George Kell, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the Detroit Tigers, looked at his APBA baseball game card for the 1950 season and noticed one number that appeared frequently.
As I mentioned before, APBA is the company that creates a game that allows its players to replay actual baseball and other sports seasons. The cards are not photographs of the players, but rather a series of numbers that correspond with dice rolls. The player rolls two dice, matches the result with the same number on the card and then checks the number next to the dice roll to get a play result.
All that description to set up Kell’s question when I met him in a high school gym in his hometown of Swifton, Ark., several years ago.
“What are all those sixes?” he asked, pointing to the number that dominated dice roll results on the APBA card.
“Those are all the doubles you hit in 1950,” I replied. “The ‘six’ means the player hits a double.”
Kell led the league that year with 56 doubles. It was the eighth most doubles ever hit by a player in a season. (Earl Webb hit 67 doubles in 1931 for the Boston Red Sox — I looked it up.)
He smiled and, although I don’t think he understood the complexity of the game from the brief description I provided, I believe he was pleased someone remembered his season of that year.
It capped an amazing night for me; for three hours Kell sat in the gymnasium and we watched high school basketball and talked about baseball during the era he played.
I went to the games (a yearly tournament held in his honor) with a friend who served as Kell’s pastor. The friend introduced me to Kell and we began talking. He appreciated someone who had a love of the game and who knew players during his career in the 1940s and 1950s. He shared stories about Ted Williams and Brooks Robinson and Mickey Mantle. He said the most difficult pitcher he ever faced was Bob Feller. He talked of taking trains to the furthest western American League team in those days — the St. Louis Browns — and he recalled the animosity between the teams he played for and the New York Yankees, who at that time were collecting World Series rings like the rest of us collected baseball cards.
As we wrapped up our conversation, he said he had to go back to his home. He was taking his wife to Little Rock for tests; she had the beginnings of a serious medical situation and he was concerned. I was stunned that he took so much time to talk to me before checking on his ailing wife. His kindness was not forgotten.
When I left the gymnasium, I showed him the 1950 APBA card and asked him to autograph it. He chuckled at the numbers and made a quip about not being “pretty enough” to have his picture on the game card.
Kell passed away some years later, but the memory of the time he spent with me that night and his interest in one card of a game I’ve obsessed with for two-thirds of my life will live on.