Blue Jays Flashback: George Bell

There’s no denying that George Bell was a controversial character during his time with the Toronto Blue Jays, but that makes his story all the more compelling. It’s a story that Kevin Glew is only too happy to tell.

Blue Jays Flashback: George Bell

He was a potent package of power and pride.

And as longtime Blue Jays followers will tell you, George Bell was never one to just let his bat do his talking.

With his bat came his brashness, but his value far outweighed his volatility.

But if his bats could talk, oh, the stories they could tell.

Like how they helped him belt 47 home runs in 1987 and wallop three homers on Opening Day the following year. Or they could reminisce about the walk-off home run he clubbed in the final game at Exhibition Stadium.


Of course, his bats could also talk about the time one of them was tossed aside when Bell charged the mound and karate-kicked Boston Red Sox pitcher Bruce Kison in 1985. Or they might have overhead him telling reporters that Blue Jays fans could kiss his “purple butt” when they booed him during a rough day in the field in 1988.

There was a rarely a dull moment with George Bell in his nine seasons with the Blue Jays. His ex- Jays teammates will attest to that, but they’re also likely to tell you that they enjoyed playing with him.

Ernie Whitt

“George was one of my all-time favourite teammates,” former Blue Jays Flashback subject Ernie Whitt, who played with Bell from 1981 to 1989, told me back in 2013. “The one thing that I respected most about George was that all he wanted to do was win and he played the game hard. He was my type of player. I just absolutely loved playing with him. He wanted to win just as much as I wanted to win.”

And there’s no question that Bell helped the Blue Jays win, and looking back now, it’s amazing to think he was plucked from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Rule 5 draft in 1980 for a mere $25,000.

Born in 1959 in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, Bell was signed by the Phillies in 1978. Blue Jays scout Al LaMacchia was watching Double-A Eastern League games in 1980 when he was dazzled by Bell and recommended to general manager Pat Gillick that the club select the young slugger in the Rule 5 draft.

And the Blue Jays did just that. But that meant they would have to keep the raw outfielder on their big-league roster for the 1981 season or offer him back to the Phillies. Blue Jays manager Bobby Mattick often employed Bell only as a pinch-runner or pinch-hitter, which frustrated the fiery youngster.

“We had a couple of go-rounds,” Mattick told Stephen Brunt for his 1996 book, Diamond Dreams. “I don’t think he’s [Bell] too fond of me. But he’s a gamer. He’s a great competitor.”

In 60 games for the Blue Jays in 1981, Bell batted .233 with five home runs and 12 RBIs before returning to the minors for the bulk of the next two seasons.

His breakout campaign would come in 1984 when he batted .292 and topped the Blue Jays in hits (177) and home runs (26). For an encore, Bell led the team in home runs (28) again and stole a career-high 21 bases in 1985 to help the Blue Jays to their first division title.

The right-handed hitting slugger was even better the ensuing year when he belted 31 home runs and drove in 108.

This set the stage for his monster 1987 season in which he set then team records with 47 home runs and 134 RBIs. Though the Blue Jays lost their final seven games and the division title in the season’s final week, Bell was voted the American League MVP, becoming the first Blue Jay to receive the honour.

His reward the following spring was to be told that he was being moved to the DH position. To be clear, Bell wasn’t exactly a Gold Glove contender in left field, but you can understand why he felt disrespected. He clashed with manager Jimy Williams about the decision, which fueled his infamous protest in a spring training game on March 17, 1988.  When his name was announced for his first at bat in that contest, Bell refused to come to the plate.

Though the slugger remained angry, he begrudgingly served as DH on Opening Day and clubbed three home runs against the Kansas City Royals. The DH experiment, however, was abandoned in mid-April and Bell was back in left field. But the controversy hurt his production; Bell slipped to 24 home runs and 97 RBIs that season.

Blue Jays Flashback: Cito Gaston

After a 12-24 start to 1989, the Blue Jays fired Williams and replaced him with Cito Gaston (another Blue Jays Flashback inductee). Bell would rediscover his form at the plate, batting .297 with 104 RBIs to help the Blue Jays to their second division title.

In 1990, his final season with the Blue Jays, Bell batted .265 with 21 home runs. Following that campaign, he signed a three-year contract with the Chicago Cubs.

“Pat Gillick ruined the chemistry when he brought Jimy Williams to manage. We were building a good team with Bobby Cox as manager,” said Bell at his introductory press conference with the Cubs. “They really treated me bad the last two months after the season. They really should have treated me better than they did.”

A rejuvenated Bell batted .285 and socked 25 home runs for the Cubs in 1991 prior to being dealt to the White Sox. Bell registered 112 RBIs for the Sox in 1992 before his numbers fell off in 1993 and he retired after the season.

Few Canadians, however, remember Bell as a Cub or with the White Sox. They recall him as one of the best and brashest Blue Jays in franchise history. For his efforts, he became the first position player honoured on the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence in 1996 and he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013.

“I’d like to say thank you to the Toronto Blue Jays for giving me one of the greatest opportunities of my life to be on a professional and big-league team,” said Bell during his Canadian ball hall induction speech. “They believed in me, and they went out and they got me very cheap though, they paid $25,000.”

The speech was classic Bell. Yes, he was grateful, but he still seemed powerful and proud at the podium. And not surprisingly, he still had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.



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