By Marty Appel
The birth of the recording industry came a few decades after the birth of the professional base ball industry, but they came to meet nicely one morning at a recording studio in New Jersey with the production of a little song called “Slide, Kelly, Slide.”
The song would go on to become the first “pop hit record” in America and launch a romance between baseball and recorded music that has survived cylinders, 78’s, LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs and MP3’s.
“Slide, Kelly, Slide” is about Mike “King” Kelly, baseball’s first “matinee idol.” Handsome, dashing, and a fan favorite, he was full of innovation in his short life. The very practice of signing random autographs for strangers on the street began with Kelly – not just for ballplayers, but for all celebrities.
He was the first player to develop an act for the vaudeville stage, capitalizing on his fame in the off-season. A painting of him sliding into second hung in almost every Irish saloon in Boston after Chicago sold him to Boston for a record $10,000. He was paid a breakthrough salary of $5,000, which exceeded accepted standards by included a bonus payment for the use of his image in advertisements. He authored the first autobiography in baseball history, “Play Ball.” He is variously credited with inventing the hook slide, and he was a great innovator on the playing field, devising all sorts of methods, some actually legal, to win games. (Running from second to home and avoiding third while the one umpire had his back turned, was looked upon as a rule-breaker).
And then there was the song.
The music and lyrics were written by John W. Kelly, no relation, for a top music hall performer of the time, Miss Maggie Cline, a Massachusetts native. The sheet music was published in 1889 by Frank Harding. King Kelly was at the height of his celebrity at this point.
The song itself seems to have little to do with our hero, but as he was famous for his sliding prowess, it certainly came to be seen as “his song.”
The chorus went, “Slide, Kelly, Slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, Slide! – Stay there – hold your base! If someone doesn’t steal yer, And your batting doesn’t fail yer, They’ll take you to Australia! Slide, Kelly, slide!”
The reference to Australia would have been well known at the time, as the continent served as a penal institution for British subjects. So it must have been a big laugh to think that if his batting failed he’d be off to prison.
In any case, it became a much requested song for Miss Maggie when she played the finest music halls in town. And it certainly added to the legend of Kelly, who was so popular in Boston that fans would carry him to home games in a wheel-less chariot, using human power to hoist him. (Kel would have a pet monkey on his shoulder during the journey).
Thomas Edison patented his phonograph in 1877, but the first wax cylinder wasn’t developed until 1887. Two years later, the year “Slide, Kelly, Slide” was published, was the year the first commercial cylinders were sold. They were largely classical, Italian opera, religious or patriotic.
The recordings were mostly done at the United States Phonograph Company on Orange Street in Newark, NJ. The technology was such that five wax cylinders could be produced at once. There were no “masters” from which to mass-produce the recordings. If you wanted 100 copies, you had to perform it 20 times.
As the technology of the time was unable to record the higher notes of female singers, all recordings were done by men, and the leading recording artist of the time was George J. Gaskin, a native of Belfast. (Women first appeared on record in 1893). Gaskin was known as the “Silver Voiced Irish Tenor”.
On August 3, 1891, Gaskin went into the recording studio accompanied by pianist Edward Issler and made American music history. There is no record of how many times he rehearsed and sang the song, or how many records were produced that day. But by January 9, 1892, the song had become America’s first “pop hit record” – a song that was neither classical nor opera, patriotic nor religious. It was just a silly song that captivated the nation and helped make base ball more mainstream than it had been.
Kelly, thrilled by the added celebrity, added the song to his vaudeville repertoire, and was happy to perform it and act it out on the stage. Sadly, he was not one who took very good care of himself, and in 1894, he died from pneumonia at 36. (He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945).
Gaskin lived until 1920 and continued to enjoy a fine recording career. Miss Maggie Cline, “The Irish Queen,” continued to perform the song on stage during her long career. John W. Kelly wrote an even bigger hit for her in 1890, “Throw Him Down McCloskey,” a boxing song, which Maggie estimated she performed “several thousand times.” She died in 1934.
“Slide, Kelly, Slide” made its way to public domain and continued to be issued on into the 1920s on 78’s. A 1927 film of the same name was surely inspired by the song, and featured big leaguers Tony Lazzeri, Bob and Irish Meusel and Mike Donlin, playing themselves. But the song was not included in the film.
Eventually “Slide, Kelly, Slide” took its place on records, tapes and CDs that offered compilations of old time baseball songs, and there it is today at the iTunes store, where you can purchase a version of the song that put base ball onto music charts for the first time.