George Antonio Bell | LF, DH | 1981, 1983-1990
George Bell was born October 21, 1959, in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. His brother Juan Bell also made the majors and was a utility infielder for seven seasons for several different teams. He has two other brothers that played professional baseball. George was signed as an amateur free agent by the Phillies in 1978. The Blue Jays picked him up in the 1980 rule 5 draft, one of the best Rule 5 pickups ever.
Rule 5 draft pickups have to spend the season on the major league roster or get offered back their original team, so George played with the Jays in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He didn’t do terribly, though he was a little overmatched at the major league level; he got into 60 games and hit .233/.256/.350. Somehow, he got a couple of Rookie of the Year votes. The Yankees’ Dave Righetti won it that season.
George felt he had earned a spot on the Jays the next season, but the Jays didn’t and sent him off to Syracuse. He had a pretty tough year. Bell contracted mononucleosis in April and then wrecked his left knee in June. When he got back from he had his jaw broken by a pitch. Getting hit by that pitch might explain why he was overly sensitive to being hit by pitches (though I think I would be sensitive to being hit by pitches too). He was ejected many times for charging the mound. He started 1983 in the minors again, but they brought him up in July for good.
In 1984 Bell became a full-timer with us. He was part of a pretty complicated platoon system Bobby Cox used; against left-handed pitchers, Bell would play left field, and Jesse Barfield would play right; against right-handers, Bell would play right field, and Davey Collins would play left. As a young player Bell had a decent arm and ok range. Barfield had a much arm and Collins a terrible arm, so the rotation made sense. George played 159 games, hit .292/.326/.498, with 39 doubles and 26 homers, 87 RBI, and 11 steals. He received some MVP votes. He was 8th in the AL in total bases and 3rd in doubles.
After the season, Dave Collins was traded to Oakland to allow Bell, Moesby, and Barfield to play full time, and the best outfield in Jays’ history was born. They played together until Barfield the Jays traded Barfield early in the 1989 season. They were a great unit; all three were terrific offensive players and had good to great arms. Moesby and Barfield were good defensive players, Bell, far less so; he didn’t have much range as he aged, and his knees suffered from playing on the hard artificial surface in Toronto. He also made too many errors.
Bell had another excellent season in 1985, hitting .275/.327/.479, 28 homers, 95 RBI, and 21 stolen bases, the most in his career. Bell won the Silver Slugger award for batting and came in 8th in MVP voting, one spot behind Barfield. Don Mattingly won it. Jays made the postseason for the first time that year. Likely many remember Bell catching the last out in the game that clinched the AL East title and fell to his knees. Bell did ok in the seven-game series hitting .321, 9 hits, 3 doubles, no homers, but the Jays lost to the Royals.
Bell’s bat improved a little again in 1986. He hit .309/.349/.532, had 31 homers, 108 RBI, 101 runs, won the Silver Slugger award for the second time, and finished 4th in the MVP voting, this time one spot above Barfield in the voting. Everyone’s favorite player, Roger Clemens, won that year.
1987 was the big season for Bell. He hit .308/.352/.605, had 47 home runs (which was a team record until Jose Bautista hit 54 in 2010, 47 is still 2nd most in a season), 134 RBI (also a team record, until 2000 when Carlos Delgado topped it), and 111 runs. He again won the Silver Slugger award and made the All-Star team for the first time. And he won the MVP award, just beating out the Tigers Alan Trammell, the first league MVP from a Canadian team. The vote was a little controversial because that was the awful season that the Jays fell into a bad slump at the end of the year, losing their last eight games and the Tigers past them by at the finish to win the AL East. Those last eight games were a train wreck; Bell hit just .111 in those games, but then the only Jay to hit much over that period was Lloyd Moesby.
The next season was an interesting year for Bell and the Jays. Jimy Williams became manager, and Jimy (his family was poor, they could only afford one ‘m’) decided that Bell would DH and top prospect Sil Campusano would play in the outfield. Only two things went wrong with the plan. One, Bell didn’t want to DH (Bell wasn’t one to be unhappy quietly), and two, Sil Campausano was terrible. Williams’ time as manager didn’t last long, and it wasn’t happy, at least partly because of George. Bell’s numbers fell off a lot that year despite becoming the first major leaguer to hit three home runs on opening day.
To be fair to Bell, Jimy didn’t talk to him about it. A veteran player, and a star on the team, it might have been best to sit down with him and explain the thinking. I get that Williams wanted to show who was boss, but he had to know that Bell wouldn’t be happy.
1989 saw some bounce back in Bell’s offensive numbers, hitting .297/.330/.458 with 18 homers, 41 doubles, and 104 RBI. He came in 4th in MVP voting in a very tight 4-way race. Robin Yount won the award with 256 vote points, Bell in 4th had 205 points (MVP voters overvalued the RBI in those years). The Jays made the playoffs again, but Bell didn’t do well in our five-game series loss to the A’s, hitting just .200 with one home run.
1990 was his last season with the Jays. He hit .265/.303/.422 with 21 homers and 86 RBI. After the season, he signed with the Cubs as a free agent, had one good season there, and they passed him on to the White Sox for Sammy Sosa. The Cubs won that trade. George played for two seasons with the White Sox before getting his release after the 1993 season after making some nasty remarks about Sox manager Gene Lamont when Lamont replaced him in the playoff lineup with Bo Jackson.
Bell had a very good 12-year career, finishing with 265 homers, 1002 RBI, .278 BA. He was a free swinger, didn’t walk much, and his defense is best described as terrible, especially late in his career. His arm was underrated. He had more outfield assists from 1984-1987 than any players other than Barfield and Glenn Wilson. He wasn’t a terrible outfielder when he came up to the big leagues but playing on artificial turf wrecked his knees, and he lost his speed, costing him range. I used to joke that his range in the outfield was basically the length of his arm. Of course, it didn’t help that he considered it an insult to his manhood when they wanted him to move to DH.
But he could rake. Gene Mauch, who was the Angels manager, called him “the most intimidating hitter in baseball”. He was your first-pitch fastball hitter, if he could reach the first pitch, he’d hit it, and he was good at it.
Bill James had him as the 62nd best left fielder of all time in his New Historical Abstract. Likely he has dropped a few spots since then. Rob Neyer, in his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, has him as our best left fielder ever. He is up on the Roger Centre’s Level of Excellence.
He also had, how to put it, a bit of a temper. Likely most of you remember him taking a flying kick at pitcher Bruce Kison after Kison hit him with a pitch. Umpires ejected him from 13 games in his career. He didn’t get along with the media or with managers. And there was the time he ‘invited’ Canadian fans to “kiss his Dominican ass”. Some of his troubles were because of the difference between Dominican culture and ours. But he was a hothead. His career would have been longer if he hadn’t had such a bad reputation. Many of his teammates said that he was a fighter on the field, he hated to lose, but a gentleman off the field.
From everything I’ve read, he was a great teammate, a great friend. Ernie Whitt said he was one of his favorite teammates. Bill James said he worked on Bell’s arbitration hearing, three years in a row, and said he was an ‘amiable man’.
James also said, each of those three years, Bell was at the top of the league in errors by an outfielder, so he looked at them and found that of the 30 errors, none led to an earned run that cost the Jays a game.
Bell helped with the Dominican’s World Baseball Classic team and has become a good golfer. He is married with four sons.
George Bell’s place among Jay batting leaders:
bWAR: 11th, 21.3
Batting Average (>1500 PA): 8th, .286
On Base % (>1500 PA): 34th, .325
Slugging Average (>1500 PA): 7th, .486
Game Played: 7th, 1181
Plate Appearances: 6th, 4528
Runs Scored: 6th 641
Total Bases: 4th, 2201
Doubles: 5th, 237
Homers: 6th, 202
RBI: 4th, 740
Walks: 26th, 255
Strikeouts 16th, 563
Hit by Pitch: 10th, 35
Sac Flies: 3rd, 59