Monday, July 6, 2015

Baseball King George Kissell’s Big Season

GK2A GeorgeKissellLast week’s recounting of North Country native George Kissell’s remarkable 69-year career in professional baseball touched only on some highlights.

Including all the details would surely require a hefty tome, but a look at one particular season provides insight on who he was and where his baseball wisdom was rooted. For that, there’s no better year than 1950.

Prior to that time, George, who hailed from the family farm in Evans Mills, northeast of Watertown, was an excellent athlete. At the age of sixteen, he was playing shortstop for a men’s team in the local Adirondack League, rapping out a double and triple in the team’s first playoff game. At seventeen, he led the Evans Mills High School basketball team as a guard.

In 1938, he began attending Ithaca College. In summer 1939, at age nineteen, he starred for the Evans Mills town team, where a single, double, and triple versus Croghan provided a glimpse of his potential. That fall he was awarded a letter in soccer at Ithaca, but where George really excelled was in baseball. In his senior year the team record was 7–1, having defeated four other college teams and three Class C professional teams.

Scouts were well aware of his abilities, and in 1940 Kissell was signed by Branch Rickey into the St. Louis Cardinals organization, starting with Hamilton, Ontario, in the Class D Pony League. In 1942 he played for Mobile, Alabama, where he led the Southeastern League with 32 stolen bases. George continued moving up, even spending time with the AAA Rochester Red Wings, one level below the majors.

A key moment arrived in 1946 when he was signed away from Rochester to become player-manager of the Lawrence Millionaires in the New England League. He began the next year in the same position, with a roster that included Crash Davis, inspiration for the main character in the movie Bull Durham. As player-manager for the Hamilton Cardinals in 1948 (at shortstop), George batted .345 in 120 games, led the league in fielding, and was named to the all-star team. In 1949 (at third base), he again led the league in fielding and was an all-star. His team finished third in the regular-season standings both years, losing early in the playoffs in 1948 and in the finals in 1949.

All that success led to a promotion as player-manager of the Winston-Salem Cardinals in 1950. George Kissell was 32 at the time and a helluva ballplayer, with the makings of a good manager—but observers had no inkling that something special was about to happen.

Preseason assessments lamented the terrible weather that had shortened spring training, and with an inexperienced lineup, it appeared the Cardinals were destined to struggle. Only five players on the entire roster had ever gone beyond Class C. Kissell planned to start at shortstop, surrounded by an infield where his third baseman, at age 20, was next in line for elder statesman. The remaining infielders were 19 or younger, including 19-year-old second baseman Earl Weaver (yes, the future manager). A few pitchers displayed potential, but youth, inexperience, and uncertainty led to barely average expectations.

The X factor was Kissell. In previous managing situations, he had certainly shown potential. But what could he do with a bunch of green kids, most of whom were new to the club, having broken into the lowest level of baseball just a year or two earlier?

From opening day forward, George exhibited a fierce desire to win every game, setting an example that forged a team mentality. While the boys played hard, Kissell argued with umpires over … well, pretty much anything. There were repeated references to his field play as hustling, aggressive, and spirited, and his managing as fiery, argumentative, and fierce.

Many baseball managers have led as knowledgeable, guiding hands above the fray, and many players have led by example, ability, and clutch play. Few have ever combined the two, providing leadership simultaneously from two difficult positions. George Kissell is one of the great exceptions.

GK2B KissellPlaqueVersus the Greensboro Patriots in early May, his behavior was reported by the Greensboro Daily News: “The skipper himself started the arguing in the first inning…” (over the call of foul ball). Referring to the Cardinals’ style of play, the News added: “Manager Kissell has had his boys charging all season, and this includes no vacation on the umpires.” After hitting into two double plays that day, George came up with two men on in the fifth and belted a 370-foot homer to salt the game away. Leadership on both ends.

And that’s how the season went. Much like Billy Martin once did, and Leo Durocher before him, Kissell argued for every run and out. As a player on the field, he battled just as hard for the same things. In both cases, he did it very well, and the young Cardinals followed their fearless leader.

The crowds grew larger and more vocal as fans came out in numbers to watch Kissell’s kids play. Rallies, and there were many, had a euphoric effect on the crowds, who seemed to love the theatrics. In the simplest of terms, watching the Cardinals was just plain fun.

The highlight of the season was an amazing, seemingly miraculous run of two weeks beginning in early June. They won 2–1 in ten innings, then took a doubleheader before more than 6000 fans, and followed with a 6–1 laugher. Against Reidsville, the fun was about to end, but the Cards tied it in the eighth, and then won in the tenth on Kissell’s bases-loaded drive off the outfield fence. They took three more, including one in extra innings, for seven in a row. Finally, down 2–1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Cards won on a bases-loaded pop fly that fell between fielders. Eight in a row!

After twelve straight wins, the Cardinals trailed Raleigh, 6–1, but scored three in the eight inning. Kissell inserted himself into the lineup as a pinch-hitter in the ninth, stroking a single that ignited the game-winning rally, making it thirteen in a row.

In the next game, trailing 7–4 in the eighth, Kissell again came in as a pinch hitter, tripling in two runs to tie the game, and then scoring the game-winner himself moments later. The streak continued for two more games for a total of sixteen consecutive wins, a league record that still stands today, 65 years later.

It was a wonderful time, but George’s penchant for arguing with umpires nearly did him in. In early August, he was ejected from a game for the second time in a week. On August 13, the league announced his punishment: for grabbing an umpire’s arm, a fine of $50 and a suspension of seven days. At that point, minus their leader, the team would still capture the regular-season crown with such a big lead. But there was one big problem—a league rule that all post-season participants must be active on the team list as of August 15. For the playoffs, Kissell was out!

It was something no one wanted, least of all the devoted fans who passionately followed the league’s games week after week. Punishment was necessary, but the directors of the Carolina League deemed the playoff portion too severe a penalty for the infraction. They voted unanimously to reinstate Kissell on August 15 for one day, satisfying the technicality. After finishing the suspension, he was back on the job.

Fans loved him, and players did as well. Sports writers called his handling of pitchers uncanny. Kissell’s vocal defense of his team at the drop of a hat was widely admired (except by umpires), and his field play, including a batting average of .312, spoke for itself. (Weaver batted .276 and added 55 walks.)

The Cardinals that year set a league record for wins, ending the regular season at 106–47, topping the runner-up by 19 games. They won the first round of the playoffs, three games to two, and then took the championship, four games to one.

In his fifth season as a manager, George had won his first overall championship. His life still had more than a half-century to go, but 1950 would forever stand out as one magical season. After all, he did get to visit baseball heaven 58 years before he died.

For North Country residents, George Kissell is a native son and beloved sports figure we can all point to with pride.

Photos: George Kissell; Plaque honoring Kissell in Jupiter, Florida (Cardinals press photos)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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