by Marty Appel
By the latter part of the 19th century, people knew that it was a nice thing to own the signature of a Washington, a Lincoln or a General Grant, but the practice of approaching someone and saying, “Can I please have your autograph?” did not exist until young baseball fans followed Mike “King” Kelly to the South End Grounds on Walpole Street in Boston in the late 1880s.
These were the days before mass media, and celebrity was very much a local thing. Nationally known figures were limited to the President, old Civil War generals, and an entertainer or two, like Buffalo Bill Cody.
Kelly however, was a beloved baseball hero, really the game’s first matinee idol. He was the subject of the first pop hit record in America, “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” author of the baseball’s first autobiography (“Play Ball”), the subject of a lithograph that hung in nearly every saloon in Boston, a vaudeville entertainer in the off season, and the beneficiary of an enormous sale of his contract from Chicago to Boston. It was then that he became “King Kelly.”
Youngsters would approach him on his way to the game, where they would sometimes encounter him with a pet monkey on his shoulder. He would carefully sign their scraps of paper with a fine “M.J. Kelly” in pencil, and thus was born the art of autographing.