King Kelly: Wikis


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For the unrelated fictitious baseball character King Kelly, see It Happens Every Spring.
Mike "King" Kelly

Born: December 31, 1857(1857-12-31)
Troy, New York
Died: November 8, 1894 (aged 36)
Boston, Massachusetts
Batted: Right Threw: Right 
MLB debut
May 1, 1878 for the Cincinnati Reds
Last MLB appearance
September 2, 1893 for the New York Giants
Career statistics
Batting average     .308
Runs scored     1357
Runs batted in     950

As player

As manager

Career highlights and awards
Member of the National
Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg Baseball Hall of Fame Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg Empty Star.svg
Induction     1945
Election Method     Veteran's Committee

Michael Joseph "King" Kelly (December 31, 1857 – November 8, 1894) was an American right fielder, catcher, and manager in various professional American baseball leagues including the National League, International Association, Players' League, and the American Association. He spent the majority of his 16-season playing career with the Chicago White Stockings and the Boston Beaneaters. Kelly was a player-manager three times in his career – in 1887 for the Beaneaters, in 1890 leading the Boston Reds to the pennant in the only season of the Players' League's existence, and in 1891 for the Cincinnati Kelly's Killers - before his retirement in 1893. He is also often credited with popularizing various strategies as a player such as the hit and run, the hook slide, and the catcher's practice of backing up first base.[1]

Kelly's autobiography Play Ball was published while he was with the Beaneaters in 1888, the first autobiography by a baseball player. Kelly also became a vaudeville performer during his playing career, first performing in Boston where he would recite the now-famous baseball poem "Casey at the Bat" altered to "Kelly at the Bat".[2] Kelly's baserunning innovations are also the subject of the hit 1893 song entitled "Slide, Kelly, Slide" and a 1927 comedy film of the same name. In only the second vote since its creation in 1939 the Old Timers Committee posthumously elected Kelly to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.


Early life

Mike was born in Troy, New York to Michael Kelly Sr. and his wife Catherine, a pair of Irish immigrants. When Mike was born, he almost died of a heart failure. When Mike was two years old, the city of Troy was shaken by the strike of a meteorite. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, his father joined the Union Army, and Mike learned to play baseball while living with his mother in Washington D.C. After the war his ill father moved the family to Paterson, New Jersey. Unfortunately for Mike, both his parents died within a year and he was orphaned by age 13, forced to support himself by taking a job in the textile mills of Paterson.

Early career

By 1873, the fifteen-year-old Kelly was good enough to be invited to play baseball on Blondie Purcell's amateur team in Paterson, which played teams throughout the New York metro area, including the Brooklyn Atlantics from the National Association. In 1877, Kelly's friend Jim McCormick was signed to play for the Columbus Buckeyes of the International Association, and he recommended that his Mike be signed to be his catcher. The year after that, Kelly signed to play for Cincinnati Reds. Although the concept would come later, Mike Kelly was now a major leaguer.

Career in Chicago

After playing in Cincinnati for two years as an outfielder and backup catcher, he caught the eye of the greatest talent scout of his time, Chicago White Stockings Captain Cap Anson. Cincinnati, baseball's first openly professional team and first powerhouse, had fallen on hard times by 1879 and released all their players at the end of that season to save having to pay them a last paycheck. Anson jumped at the opportunity and asked Kelly to join the White Stockings.

Since New York and Philadelphia had been kicked out of the league by William Hulbert a few years earlier for not playing their whole schedule, Chicago was the biggest city in the National League. Still, Kelly wouldn't sign until the White Stockings met his salary demand of $100 a year more than Anson was offering. All through an 1880 winter tour of California he remained unsigned, waiting for Anson to come up with the extra money. Finally, Anson relented and Kelly became a White Stocking.

Kelly was now a young, good-looking man in the big city with money in his pocket. Rather than buying a house, he immediately moved into the Palmer House, the loudest, brashest, most garish and, according to its literature, "fire-proof" hotel in the world.

As a member of the White Stockings, he was annually among the league leaders in most offensive categories, including leading the league in runs from 1884 through 1886 (120, 124 and 155 respectively), and batting in 1884 and 1886 (.354 and .388). One of the best defensive catchers in baseball, he was also one of the first to use a glove and wear a chest protector. Chicago won five pennants while Kelly played for the White Stockings.

Career in Boston

Albert Spalding had become a supporter of the Temperance movement and decided to part with the least "ethical" of his players. After the 1886 season Spalding sold Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters for a then-record $10,000. However, Kelly refused to report without receiving half the money up front. He'd had enough of Spalding and Chicago by then and was glad to go to Boston, but he was fighting for a principle. Eventually, Spalding told him that if he agreed to the sale, his salary for the next season would be a record-high $5000. Kelly agreed to the sale, if only to be rid of Spalding.

When Kelly arrived in Boston, he was told his salary was only $2000. At that time, baseball had a salary cap that cap dictated that no player earn more than $2000. Feeling betrayed, he held out again. Boston Red Stockings owner J.B. Billings came up with a solution. For an extra $3000, the Boston club would have the rights to use Kelly's name and picture. In the past, teams had always done this without paying the player at all, but with this stroke, Mike Kelly had the world's first licensing agreement.

King Kelly tobacco card (Goodwin & Company, 1888)

It was in Boston that Mike Kelly became "King" Kelly. As a member of the Beaneaters, he continued to be a key run-producer, scoring 120 runs in 1887 and 1889. He continued to play well and was a great box office draw, but Boston didn't win any pennants. Freed from the watchful eye of Spalding and Anson, Kelly's off-the-field antics became even more extreme. He was rarely seen without his pet monkey on his shoulder and his Japanese valet at his side and he opened a saloon with some drinking buddies. When Cap Anson was quoted in the papers that he preferred his new young team to the old veterans Chicago had sold, Kelly got his theater friends to make up the entire Boston team as old men for a game against the White Stockings. Everyone except the pitcher and the catcher actually played the game in costume and Boston won the game. Kelly's fame grew as his skills deteriorated. He would give dramatic staged readings of "Casey at the Bat", only he would change it to "Kelly at the Bar". The man of legendary feats was now inserting himself into a legendary story.

Kelly managed and played for the Boston Reds in the year-lived Players' League in 1890, and the Reds won the only Players League title. While managing for Boston, Kelly saw a foul ball heading for the bench and realized his fielders would miss it. Since then-current rules allowed for player substitution at any time, he leapt off the bench, yelled "Kelly now catching for Boston", and caught the ball for out number three. This prompted a rule change to the effect that substitutions could only be made during timeouts.[1]

Later career

In 1891, Kelly returned to Cincinnati as the captain of a newly established American Association club there. The team was generally known as the Reds, but were also often called "Kelly's Killers" in the media due to Kelly's strong presence. The team was in seventh place when it folded in mid-August, and Kelly signed with the Boston Reds, who had moved to the Association after the Players' League folded. He spent just four games with the Reds before jumping back across town to the Beaneaters to finish out the season.

After spending the 1892 season with the Beaneaters, batting a career-worst .189, his contract was assigned to the New York Giants for 1893. He played just 20 games for the Giants, batting .269 and driving in 15 runs.

Kelly retired after the 1893 season, having compiled 1357 runs, 69 home runs, 950 RBI, and a .308 batting average. Unreliable record-keeping practices of the era prevent an accurate estimate of how many stolen bases Kelly compiled over his career, but statistics kept during his later years indicate he regularly stole 50 or more bases in a season, including a high of 84 in 1887. He also managed to steal six bases in one game.[3]

Slide Kelly, Slide!

"$10,000 Kelly" baseball card (N172), ca. 1887–90

The song, "Slide, Kelly, Slide" was America's first "pop hit" record, after its release by Edison Studios, and in 1927 inspired a film version of Slide, Kelly, Slide. Prior to that song, most recordings (cylinders), were opera, religious or patriotic in nature. Kelly is also considered to have been the first man to popularize autographing, as fans pursued him on his way to the ballpark for his signature in the 1890s. Prints of a painting of him sliding into second hung in most Irish saloons in Boston, and he was among the first athletes to perform on the vaudeville stage. His own autobiography, Play Ball, was the first written by a baseball player. The book was put together by Boston Globe reporter John Drohan.[4]

Controversy and cheating

Kelly was an adept baserunner, leading the National League in runs scored three times and ranking among the league leaders in stolen bases. Kelly also grew infamous for cheating, however, particularly on the basepaths. Baseball games had only a single umpire at the time, and Kelly would watch the umpire to see if he was watching the play at first base or looking to see if a ball landed fair or foul. When convinced the umpire's back was turned, Kelly would immediately run across the diamond to the next base, skipping either second or third, in full view of thousands of fans. Occasionally he would get caught and receive a reproach from the sporting press. But for the most part, his cheating only endeared him more to the paying spectators.

His baserunning was legendary in other ways as well. He may have been the first player to perfect the take-out hard slide at second base to break up a double play. Many people at the time thought it was a dirty play, but now it has become an accepted part of baseball. While he certainly didn't invent sliding itself, he almost certainly did invent the "hook slide", which was called the Kelly slide for a long time.

In Detroit, he faked an injury after sliding into third base on a double by Ned Williamson. When Williamson came over to look at Kelly's health, Kelly whispered his plan into Williamson's ear. On the next pitch, Kelly and Williamson started on a double steal of third and home. While the Detroit catcher stood at the plate waiting to tag Kelly out, Kelly stopped dead in his tracks just out of the reach of the catcher. As the catcher moved to tag Kelly out, Williamson slid under Kelly's legs for the winning run. By today's rules, and due to this event, Williamson would have been called out for passing the runner in front of him.

Kelly was legendary for trying to subvert the rules in many other ways. As an infielder, he would occasionally intentionally trip baserunners and drop easy fly balls to convert double plays. Playing right field one day in an extra-inning game with darkness approaching, he made an apparent spectacular grab of a line shot over his head. When the umpire called the game on account of darkness, Kelly was asked by his teammates how far that ball had traveled. "How would I know?" Kelly answered. That ball was three feet over my head." Kelly had pulled a spare ball out of his uniform and only pretended to make the catch.

For the most part, Kelly's off-the-field antics were tolerated or even loved by his teammates. Even evangelist Billy Sunday would speak fondly years later about his friendship with Kelly, adding that while Kelly would not join him in devoting his life to Jesus Christ, he was the first to support Sunday's decision to do so. He was also an advocate of telling children to stay in school.

Death and family mystery

In November 1894, Kelly traveled from New York to Boston, where he thought a theater job might be waiting for him. During the boat ride, he contracted pneumonia. Rushed to the hospital, the staff loaded him onto a stretcher. They accidentally dropped him to the floor, where Kelly exclaimed, "That was my last slide." His old teammates in Boston sent for his wife, Agnes, and his two-year-old daughter to be by his side. He died before they could make it. He spent his final hours reminiscing with his old teammates. He was only thirty-six years old.

Over seven thousand turned out for his funeral, arguably the biggest funeral Boston has ever seen, even to this day. His friends quickly realized that Kelly had left his wife and child with nothing, having spent all the money he had earned in his career on his extravagant lifestyle. A series of benefits raised over $3000 for Agnes Kelly and her daughter.

Within a decade, the most popular player in baseball history was forgotten. Agnes Kelly was never heard from again and his daughter's name was never recorded. When King Kelly was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1945, a frantic search for his daughter, who would have been in her fifties if she were still alive, was launched. No trace of her was ever found, nor has any record of her turned up since.

See also

External links


  • Appel, Marty (1996); Slide, Kelly, Slide. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 157886003-2
  • Cullen, James (1889); The Story of the Irish in Boston. Boston, MA: J.B. Cullen & Co. ISBN 1436618061
  1. ^ a b The Editors of Total Baseball (2000). Baseball:The Biographical Encyclopedia. Sports Illustrated. pp. 595–597. ISBN 1-892129-34-5.  
  2. ^ Appel, pg. 128
  3. ^ Ken Burns. (1994). Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns. [DVD]. PBS Home Video.  
  4. ^ Cullen, pg. 316
Preceded by
Dan Brouthers
National League Batting Champion
Succeeded by
Roger Connor
Preceded by
Roger Connor
National League Batting Champion
Succeeded by
Sam Thompson
Preceded by
John Morrill
Boston Beaneaters Managers
Succeeded by
John Morrill

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