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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

From country boy to Boy of Summer

Thursday, November 20, 2008

PREACHER ROE: After retiring from baseball in the mid-1950s, Roe made his home in West Plains and was a vital member of the community for the decades that followed. He is holding a bat commemorating the Brooklyn Dodgers' 1949 pennant-winning team. Photo/Russ Cochran
They were a couple of good-ole country boys from rural farms in the small state of Arkansas.

But despite not having the exposure that going to a high school in a big city can provide, Preacher Roe and George Kell still conquered the odds and made it to the big leagues.

And not only did they make it, they thrived against some of the best ball players in the history of the game.

Preacher, growing up in Sharp and Fulton counties, Kell reared in nearby Swifton.

Signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, Preacher made his major league debut on Aug. 22, 1938. Kell's first appearance in the big leagues came on Sept. 28, 1943, with Philadelphia.

Both would find their fame, however, with other ballclubs -- Preacher with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kell with the Detroit Tigers.

Preacher, a five-time All-Star, pitched in three World Series for the Dodgers and posted a career record of 127-84, with an ERA of 3.43 and 956 strikeouts. He also led the National League in strikeouts in 1945.

Kell, who would go on to enjoy a lengthy post-baseball career as a broadcaster for the Tigers (from 1959-1996), was a 10-time All-Star and batted over .300 nine times. Kell was also widely-regarded as the best third baseman in the American League in the late 40s and early 50s.

Not too shabby for a couple of country bumpkins from the sticks.

And although they may not have crossed paths very much during the seasons when they were both in the bigs, Preacher and Kell were fast friends.

"He was a good friend of mine for a long time. We were good friends and I really cherished his friendship very much," said Kell. "As we both got older, we really didn't stay in touch, but I did see him on the golf course a time or two in West Plains. My wife's family lived right there on the golf course. We were visiting there one time, four or five years ago, and I had mentioned that I wondered if Preacher still lived in West Plains and they said, 'There he is right now.' And sure enough, there he was, coming down the golf course. That was the last time I visited with him."

Even though they didn't engage in regular battle, Kell did get to experience first-hand the "change, change off my change and change off my change off my change," -- Preacher's own description of the three pitches he threw, pitches that confounded National League hitters.

"He was in the other league (National) and I was in the American League, so I really did not bat against him, except in spring training," he said. "But he was a great competitor, a fiery competitor. Preacher did not throw hard when I knew him -- I understand he did early in his career but hurt his arm or something -- but playing in exhibition games when I was with the Tigers and he was with the Dodgers, he was such a talented, smart pitcher, that he didn't need a blazing fastball. He was very successful, winning 12 or 14 ballgames a year, which was very good."

Preacher's career-best year, win/loss-wise, was in 1951 when he racked up an amazing 22-3 mark for Brooklyn. A winning percentage that is still one of the best the game has ever seen. And for that feat, Preacher once said he was rewarded with the princely sum of a $2,500 bonus.

That number certainly pales in comparison to what most pitchers earn on a per-pitch basis in the major leagues these days, what with the average salary of a MLB player coming in at over $3 million a year now.

Numbers that Preacher and Kell probably could not fathom back in the day when they were two of the brightest stars on the world's biggest diamond.

"We used to laugh a lot and compare our salaries when we played. He'd say, 'Kell, you must know something on these owners that I don't know,'" said Kell. "And I said, 'I don't know, I just play in Detroit and maybe there's more money there than there is in Brooklyn.' But today's salaries, no, we didn't come close to that (laughs), but we were glad to get what we got, I'll tell you that."

Two players the caliber of Preacher and Kell, coming from the same chunk of the state these days, would probably know each other from high school competition, not to mention American Legion and competition in summer traveling squads.

And though that was not the case back in the day, the bond of being from Arkansas was enough to pull Preacher and Kell together, friends for life.

"He was just my kind of guy. We were both country boys and we did it the hard way," Kell said. "What a guy."

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