By Marty Appel
Before there was YouTube, before there was MySpace, before there was television, before there was radio, and before there were movies, entertainers had the vaudeville stage and local saloons to present their acts, and vaudeville was where you wanted to be if you really thought you had some talent.
Talent, or at least celebrity. Mike “King” Kelly of Boston was the biggest sports celebrity in the land in the 1880s (well, perhaps with John L. Sullivan and Cap Anson), and being an extrovert who thought he had a lot of talent, he was happy to accept an offer to develop an act and make some extra money on the stage.
Kelly was not only a fine player – a two-time batting champ and a “creative” catcher/outfielder (let’s just say he could take advantage of only one umpire on the field, and perhaps skip third base while heading for home), but he was a showman on the diamond as well.
He loved to banter with the fans, talk to them between pitches, keep them engaged in the game, while winning their devotion with his appealing personality. So well did he wear the mantle of celebrity, that he became the first American – not just in sports – to be pursued for autographs. Yes, the custom of seeking a celebrity autograph began with Kel.
Prior to his arrival in Boston, he had been a great player in Chicago, and his sale to Boston for the unheard of $10,000 price made him more of a celebrity than he had ever been. And while people knew that it was nice to own a George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln signature, the practice of pursuing someone in the street to obtain an autograph didn’t begin until Kelly, when fans knew his route to “work” each day at Boston’s South End Grounds.
With this fan adulation in place, producers of vaudeville shows approached the King and asked him to consider stage appearances. One such encounter took place when Kel was stranded in Boston during the famed Blizzard of ’88, where drifts reached as high as 15 feet. There he met a booking agent named Charles W. Thomas. Kelly regaled him with stories of his early dreams to be on the stage, and even of a childhood melodrama he’d participated in, during which he and Jimmy McCormick (a future big leaguer as well), performed in Jimmy’s basement.
So Kelly took the role of “Dusty Bob” in a play called “A Rag Baby” at the Park Theater.
He slept through the first rehearsal, but on opening night, when he spoke his first line, “Where is this ‘Old Sport,’”, the audience, packed with his fans, applauded and cheered for nearly a minute. This was going to be great.
Unfortunately, not all the critics were baseball fans. “There was a lot less applause when he finished than when he started,” wrote one.
But vaudeville was in his blood. He continued to appear on stage whenever he could, changing “Casey at the Bat” to “Kelly at the Bat” and treating his audience to a dramatic recital.
Kel was now a man for all seasons. He’d been the first ballplayer to write an autobiography, the first to be immortalized in song (“Slide, Kelly, Slide” was the nation’s first pop hit recording), and a painting of him sliding into second hung in almost every Irish saloon in town. He was the king of all media!
His baseball skills waning as his waistline grew, he decided during the winter of 1892-93 to leave the game and devote his life to the stage. And so he signed on to appear in “O’Dowd’s Neighbors,” but soon had a change of heart of joined the New York Giants on May 25 for one last big league season. The fans loved having him in New York, particularly since he “wintered” in Paterson and in Hyde Park.
And the fans knew his act!
As he stood in the outfield, according to reports of the day, fans yelled, “Say Kel, just one moment…give us a verse of ‘Casey at the Bat!’”
And requests came in for others hits of the day – “Let’s have ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy me a Bow Wow’……’The Day I Played Baseball’……’Slide, Kelly, Slide!’” (His signature tune!).
When he finally retired for good after the 1894 season, he accepted an engagement to rejoin the company of “O’Dowd’s Neighbors” at the Palace in Boston. He would be performing with the London Gaiety Girls, reciting poetry, singing and dancing a little bit, and mostly just giving the fans the treat of greeting their old hero.
The schedule called for him to appear on Monday afternoon, November 5, and he took a boat from New York to Boston the night before.
The boat, however, ran into an autumn snowstorm, and Kel wound up contracting a bad cold. Very bad. His resistance was down (he was not famous for taking good care of himself), and when the boat arrived on Sunday night, he was taken to a friend’s house and then to Emergency Hospital.
The seats were filled at the Palace on Monday, but Kel wasn’t there; he was in a hospital bed, being administered oxygen. An announcement was made, and the Wednesday newspaper said, “Mike Kelly, the well-known ball player, who is at the Emergency Hospital, suffering from pneumonia, was reported as being a little better at an early hour this morning.”
The report was overly optimistic. On Thursday night, November 8, he died. He was only 37.
His funeral was an enormous public event in Boston, with even the London Gaiety Girls attending, all wearing mourning badges for 30 days. Kel would have liked that. His heart was equally divided between baseball and the stage, and just as he was about to embark on the second act of his adult career, he was gone.
Kelly was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.