Friday, May 30, 2014

Card #50: Buddy Bell

Who Can It Be Now?
David Gus Bell was born August 27, 1951, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, because that's where his father, major leaguer Gus Bell, was playing right field in 1951.  Buddy spent much of his childhood in Cincinnati because his father played from 1953 to 1961 with the Reds.  The Bell family stayed in Cincinnati for Buddy's school years, so Buddy graduated from Archbishop Moeller High School in 1969.  For about 15 years, Bell was the most well-known graduate of Moeller in baseball.  He was later surpassed by both Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Larkin.

Despite being a high school star, Bell was not drafted until the 16th Round of the 1969 June Amateur Draft by the Cleveland Indians.  He signed nearly immediately and, as a 17-year-old, was sent to the Gulf Coast League.  He didn't hit very well there, but he was nearly 2-1/2 years younger than the average player in the GCL. Still, he did walk more than he struck out, which tends to be a good indicator of future success.

The Indians pushed Bell first the Single-A Western Carolina league in 1970 and then to Triple-A Wichita in 1971.  At the age of 19, Bell found himself playing against guys who averaged being more than 6 years older than him.  Even in the face of that, Bell still hit the ball well and did not embarrass himself at third base.  His numbers -- .289/.344/.413 -- were solid though not spectacular.  

Perhaps Bell got pushed through the system because of being Gus Bell's son.  Whether true or not, Bell stuck in the majors out of spring training after the 1972 players' strike.  It probably did not hurt that the Indians were terrible in 1972, either -- they finished 7 games ahead of the terrible Milwaukee Brewers that season at 72-84...and that was an improvement of 12 wins and 92 winning percentage points over their 1971 disaster.  

Bell played right field for the first half of the year and then in centerfield for the Indians because Cleveland had Graig Nettles at third base.  Because the Indians were one of the most poorly run franchises in major league baseball from about 1960 until the early 1990s, the Indians made sure to trade Nettles for 25 cents on the dollar, getting John Ellis, Jerry Kenney, Charlie Spikes, and Rusty Torres in exchange for a 27-year-old third-baseman who had received MVP votes the year prior when the Indians won 60 games.

The Nettles trade, though, meant that Bell could move to third base, where he would become known as one of the best fielders of his day.  Once at third base, Bell settled in immediately, as he went to the first of his five All-Star Games in 1973, where he tripled off Claude Osteen. Bell enjoyed five more seasons in Cleveland after that one, though he was never an All-Star again for the Tribe.

Perhaps because Bell was becoming too good of a baseball player, he was traded after the 1978 season to the Texas Rangers in exchange for the palindromic Toby Harrah.  Cleveland fans were outraged.  One AP story appeared in the Toledo Blade on December 17, 1978 -- a little over a week after the trade -- under the headline, "Bell Trade Has Indian Fans On The Warpath."  At that point, the Bell-for-Harrah deal was being likened to the Rocky Colavito trade to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Harvey Kuenn in 1960.  Bell was quoted as saying, "I hate to leave Cleveland.  I love this town and the guys on this team."  Perhaps the best quote about the trade came from a "pretty girl dressed up for disco dancing" in a pub: "He was so beautiful. I'll never like the Indians again."

Beautiful Buddy went to the heat of Arlington, Texas, and, in 1979, began a run of six straight Gold Glove Awards at third base.  Every year in Texas, he hit 10 or more homeruns and drove in 100 runs one time in 1979.  He was selected to the All-Star Game in 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1984, and received MVP votes in every full year he played there except 1983.  And, while Bell is mostly remembered for his glove work, he won a Sliver Slugger Award in 1984.  

Bell was traded to his hometown Cincinnati Reds during the 1985 season in exchange for outfielder Duane Walker and, eventually, pitcher Jeff Russell.  His three years in Cincinnati saw him reach a career high in homeruns with 20 in 1986, but the team never got over the hump -- they finished second all three years that Bell finished in Cincinnati behind the Dodgers (1985), the Astros (1986), and the Giants (1987).

In 1988, Bell made his way back to Texas when he was traded to the Houston Astros.  By this point in his career at age 36, he was a shell of his former self at the plate.  The Astros let Bell go after the season, and he signed for 34 games in his final season with the Texas Rangers.

By all indications, though, Bell was a good character.  Indeed, he was honored in 1988 by being named the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award Winner, an award which is given annually to the baseball player who best exhibits the Iron Horse's character and integrity on and off the field.

Family Ties
Of course, when you talk about Buddy Bell, you cannot help but mention his family ties.  As I mentioned above, his father Gus Bell was a four-time All-Star who was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 1964.  Buddy's son David Bell followed in Buddy's footsteps by starring at Moeller High School in Cincinnati before making it to the major leagues. Another of Buddy's sons, Mike Bell, also played in the major leagues for Cincinnati for a year in 2000.

In 2000, a nostalgia-filled look at baseball in the 1970s was made by filmmaker Eric Porvaznik, director of the forgettable Steven Seagal/Keenen Ivory Wayans vehicle The Glimmer Man.  Porvaznik's movie used interviews with various people associated with the famous 1970s afro that was attached to Oscar Gamble's head.  The movie was called Looking for Oscar, and Buddy Bell was one of a host of baseball players who were interviewed in the movie.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Bell was always a guy who seemed like George Brett-lite to me.  He wasn't as good of a hitter as Brett, certainly, though Brett did not have the same range that Bell had.  But that said, Bell was a very good baseball player for a long time.  He was only a good hitter -- 201 homeruns, 1106 runs batted in, and a career slash line of .279/.341/.406 that put him about 10% better than the league average.  

In discussing Darrell Evans, though, Bell's name came up in the Hall of Fame discussion.  The SB Nation Cincinnati Reds site, Red Reporter, used a Bill James construct called the Keltner list, so discuss whether Bell should be in the Hall of Fame.  The problem with trying to include Bell in the discussion is that his value as a player comes more as a defender than as a hitter at a position that, since the 1950s, has been a hitters' position. Most telling is the question of whether Bell was ever the best player at his position during his career -- and that answer is an emphatic "no" thanks to everyone from Brooks Robinson to Mike Schmidt to George Brett to Wade Boggs to even Darrell Evans.  As I said above, Bell was a very good -- even verging on great -- ballplayer for a long time.  But he is not a Hall-of-Fame calibre player.

Since Bell's retirement as an active player, his name recognition and his understanding of the game have combined to keep him employed regularly in baseball.  He worked with the White Sox from 1991 through 1993.  Then, in 1996, he was named manager of an absolutely horrendous Detroit Tigers team that finished 53-109.  He pulled them up to 79-83 in 1997, but then was fired midway through 1998 with the team languishing at 52-85.  A couple of years later, he managed for two seasons and an additional 22 games with the Colorado Rockies.  Then, in 2005, he managed the Kansas City Royals for nearly 3 seasons.  He quit the position with the Royals after 2007 due to the desire to spend more time with his family.  

That led him to accept a position back in the Chicago White Sox front office.  He currently is a vice president and assistant general manager and also serves as the team's minor league director.

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