Two firsts were combined into one event in 1987 as the first Most Valuable Player Award won by a member of a Canadian team also happened to be the first MVP won by a player of Dominican descent. The player in question, George Bell, played in 12 seasons from 1981 through 1993 for three major-league teams. That 1987 season was the peak offensive year for the right-handed left fielder and designated hitter, as he hit 47 home runs and edged out Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell for the honor.
Jorge Antonio Bell Mathey was born on October 21, 1959, in the Dominican Republic town of San Pedro de Macorís. This southeastern Dominican town has produced so many baseball players that it is sometimes called “the cradle of shortstops.” This list of greats from San Pedro de Macorís include Bell’s contemporaries Henry Rodríguez and Sammy Sosa, who would both figure in Bell’s own transaction history.
Bell was originally signed as a 19-year-old by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1978. Two years later, the Toronto Blue Jays, at the urging of legendary scout Epy Guerrero, selected Bell from the Phillies in the 1980 Rule 5 draft. Bell would spend most of the remainder of his career with the Blue Jays, earning induction into the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence, an honor shared with only 10 others as of 2018.
The Blue Jays opened the 1981 campaign in Detroit against the Tigers on April 9 and Bell was there. With the Blue Jays trailing 5-2 in the top of the eighth inning, Bell was brought in to run for Toronto’s cleanup hitter, John Mayberry. Three straight outs meant that Bell got no action as a runner, but he stayed in the game as a left fielder for the Tigers’ half of the eighth inning. Only one ball was hit his way – a triple over his head and off the wall by Al Cowens.1 After another fruitless pinch-running appearance, Bell was left on the bench for nearly two weeks. His first plate appearance came on April 21 at home against the Milwaukee Brewers. Bell entered the game in the seventh inning to play left field in a 6-0 losing cause. He batted in the bottom of the ninth inning with his team trailing 6-2 and facing Moose Haas and grounded out to shortstop. The next day Bell made his first start, in right field and batting third in a batting order that was struggling. The struggles would continue, as the Brewers took the game 8-1 and the Jays fell to 3-9. Bell began the game with two groundouts back to the pitcher but got his first major-league hit in the fifth inning with a double to right field off Mike Caldwell. He did not score.
Bell’s rookie campaign was cut short when he ran into an outfield wall chasing a foul ball on June 9. He did not return until August 10 and finished his rookie campaign batting .233/.256/.350 in limited duty. Those numbers are not eye-catching but there were flashes of power and speed in his game even at 19 years old, and he garnered some American League Rookie of the Year votes.
Bell spent 1982 in Syracuse with the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, but another injury-riddled year saw him get into only 37 games with 131 plate appearances. It was no surprise, therefore, when the Blue Jays had him start 1983 (still just his age 23 season) in Triple A. When he was called up, to start on July 12 in Kansas City, Bell made the most of his opportunity and hit a two-run home run and a double as the designated hitter. Other than a final abortive comeback attempt in 1993, Bell was done with the minor leagues for good.
The Blue Jays were hitting their stride in 1984, Bell’s first full season in the major leagues. Behind the pitching of Dave Stieb and the veteran Doyle Alexander and the developing outfield trio of Bell, Lloyd Moseby, and Jesse Barfield, this year was the beginning of a period of winning baseball in Toronto. Bell was a big part of that success. The 1984 team under manager Bobby Cox finished a distant 15 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL East, but the signs of good things to come were developing. All three of those outfielders were 24 years old and coming into their own. Bell ended the season with a batting line of .292/.326/.498 and perhaps most importantly stayed on the field the whole season, playing in 159 games primarily as a corner outfielder. He finished the year with 26 home runs, a number that was very consistent throughout the remainder of his career, other than the one MVP year with 47. His consistent appearances in the lineup were also a feature of Bell’s career right up until the very end as he avoided any long layoffs until the end of his career in 1993.
It was Bell’s successful 1984 season, and the lack of recognition he felt about it, that began a reputation for being hostile (or at least uncooperative) to the media that hounded Bell for the rest of his career. He was often referred to as laconic, especially in comparison to his longtime and loquacious teammate Barfield.2 In 1984 the Toronto sportswriters voted Dave Collins as the team MVP over Bell. During spring training in 1985, Bell declared that he was no longer speaking to newspaper reporters and accused them of racism in their selection.3
In 1985 the Blue Jays finally got over the hump and won the AL East with a record of 99-62, edging out the New York Yankees by two games. Bell was at the heart of the batting order, anywhere from third to fifth with the cleanup spot being his through the second half of the season. The Jays lost the ALCS to the Kansas City Royals in seven games. Bell did not have a home run during the series but did contribute three doubles to the cause.
The next year the Jays slid back a bit but Bell contributed in his incredibly consistent way, with a slash line of .309/.349/.532. He also began to get recognition as one of the game’s best, finishing 1986 in fourth place in the MVP voting. But much more was to come in 1987. That season the Jays had the same outfield of Bell, Moseby, and Barfield while adding the young designated hitter Fred McGriff. Jimmy Key and Jim Clancy had come to join Stieb on the pitching staff. Things looked good. It was a tight race and only a season-ending sweep at the hands of the Tigers saw the Jays miss the playoffs again, finishing just two games behind the Tigers. But George Bell had his career year.
Bell led the league in only one offensive category, with his 134 runs batted in pacing the American League. He paired that with his career-best and club-record 47 home runs, bested only by Mark McGwire’s 49. All these home runs came from Bell’s 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame. The Most Valuable Player voting was tight (only 21 points) between Bell and Detroit’s Trammell. Trammell won the division title on the field, but Bell won the respect of the writers for the way in which he helped his team throughout the year. Interviewed by telephone when the award was announced, Bell said, “I’m very happy. … Because when you win the MVP everything shows that you’ve worked hard. That you’re a winner. It’s one of the greatest things that’s (happened) to me in the last three years.”4
Controversy stalked Bell in the 1988 season. Blue Jays manager Jimy Williams wanted to make him a designated hitter. This plan offended Bell’s pride in his role as a major-league star. He felt it was an undue attack on his defensive abilities; it would have made him the youngest regular designated hitter in the American League. Things blew up in a spring-training game on March 17 when Bell refused to take the bat when he was due up. He was suspended for one day and fined $1,000 but the resentment lingered.5 Bell “won” the argument as he played in only seven games as a designated hitter in 1988, and 149 in his preferred left field.
Jimy Williams was fired after a 12-24 start to the 1989 campaign and new manager Cito Gaston more regularly made the move of Bell to DH, saying, “People refuse to believe that George is a team player, but he is. George just wants to be respected and dealt with straight-up.”6 Bell’s time at DH increased to only 19 games but the precedent had been set as the Blue Jays improved under Gaston to win the AL East before losing in the ALCS again, this time in five games to the Oakland Athletics.
The following season, 1990, was Bell’s last before free agency. He had a solid and consistent year, with a line of .265/.303/.422, earning his second All-Star selection while contributing to the Blue Jays’ 86-76 record as his designated-hitter role kept creeping up, with 36 appearances. Bell had seemingly adjusted and reconciled himself to his perceived lack of respect as one of baseball’s best with his own confidence in his performance. He told USA Today’s Chuck Johnson in June, “I don’t think people compare me in the category of superstar. I think they compare me as a so-so player. Nobody gives me credit. But I go out there and play my game. I don’t care.”7
After the 1990 season Bell had his first chance at the free-agency market. He signed with the Chicago Cubs for a guaranteed three-year $9.8 million, going to the National League, where the designated-hitter question would not be an issue. Bell joined Andre Dawson in the Cubs’ outfield, so the Cubs now had both 1987 MVP winners. Bell was a Cub for just 1991, earning a National League All-Star selection with his .285/.323/.468 line and 25 home runs.
During 1992 spring training, Bell was traded across town to the Chicago White Sox and back to the American League. Coming the other way in the trade to the Cubs were pitcher Ken Patterson and a young Sammy Sosa. The White Sox saw Bell and his power as the key to getting them over the hump in the AL West. Bell was also much more amenable at this point in his career to a role that emphasized time at designated hitter with a bit of time in left field. He responded with a very solid 1992. The power was still there but the batting average began to slip, and the strikeout total began to rise, just slightly. Still, his 25 home runs and .255/.294/.418 line in 1992 were a solid contribution.
The following year was more a disappointment for himself; he hit only 13 home runs, his fewest since 1983, and had a batting a line of .217/.243/.363. He missed 40 games in July and August after having surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. When he returned in September, it was clear that something was still wrong. The White Sox did win the division in 1993 but Bell did not appear in the ALCS, which Chicago lost to the Blue Jays. Bell responded by making very harsh comments about manager Gene Lamont.8 The White Sox responded by declining to pick up Bell’s $3.3 million option for 1994 and released him on October 13.
Bell chose to retire at this point, returning to his native Dominican Republic. He has spent most of his time in retirement on his 37-foot boat and golfing, enjoying the sun and waters of his native land. He has also done some short-term coaching with the Dominican World Baseball Classic teams.9 In 1996 he and former teammate Dave Stieb were the charter inductees to Toronto’s Level of Excellence.
Throughout the years, Bell spent time with the Blue Jays as a minor-league instructor and consultant. In 2013 he was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. As of 2018, Bell’s name was still high on leaderboards of Blue Jays hitters. He was fourth in runs batted in (740), fifth in hits (1,294), and sixth in home runs (202). His 47 home runs in 1987 rank second in single-season total for a Toronto slugger (Jose Bautista, 54 in 2010). He was one of only two Blue Jays to win the AL MVP award, being joined by Josh Donaldson in 2015.
Last revised: October 29, 2022
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.com.
1 Dave Matthews, “Sparky Uneasy with Tiger Victory,” Lansing (Michigan) State Journal, April 10, 1981: C-2.
2 For example, in a piece by Maury Allen, “Barfield, Bell Help Jays gel,” New York Post, June 9, 1987.
3 Marty York, “Who’s This Guy, George Bell?” The Sporting News, July 13, 1987: 16.
4 Jim Donaghy, “Bell Lures AL MVP Title Across Border,” Albany Times Union, November 18, 1987: D-1.
5 Neil McCarl, “Blue Jays’ DH Role: It’s No Bell Prize,” Toronto Sun, March 26, 1988: 22.
6 “Behind the Seams,” USA Today, August 11, 1989: 6C.
7 Chuck Johnson, “Bell Confident He’ll Eventually Earn Respect,” USA Today, June 26, 1990.
8 Mike Shalin, “Benched Bell Trashes Lamont,” New York Post, October 9, 1993.
9 Teresa Nickerson, “Interview of the Month,” torontobluejays.com, February 6, 1997, retrieved November 1, 2018..