by Marty Appel
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the first baseball biography (or in this case, autobiography). It was in 1888, at the peak of his fame, that Mike “King” Kelly’s “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field” was published.
It must be emphasized how difficult it was to achieve “fame” at that time, let alone be worthy of a book. Before radio became a force in American culture in the 1920s, and before national magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post made their marks at the turn of the century, the idea of being a national celebrity really didn’t exist. Yes, people knew the U.S. presidents and the names of Civil War generals, outlaw cowboys and an inventor or two, but outside of that, you had P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill as “entertainers,” John L. Sullivan as a boxer — and not many others.
Baseball essentially produced three whose names were known outside of those homes where The Sporting News, Sporting Life or the Police Gazette was read. One was Adrian “Cap” Anson, player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings, and another was his versatile and colorful star player, Mike Kelly. Like Miller Huggins and Babe Ruth 40 years later, they would clash as disciplinarian vs. mischief maker, with the incorrigible player driving his manager mad. (The third was the team’s owner, Albert Spalding, largely through his sporting goods company).
But in common, Anson and Kelly were the first pro baseball figures whose names were known on the streets of America. Parents wanted their sons to grow up with the values of manhood espoused by Anson, while young boys found the derring-do of Kelly to be especially exciting. (Anson’s racial attitudes were not really discussed).
One day, boys would pursue Kelly in the streets of Boston, brandishing scraps of paper and shouting, “Kel! Kelly! Mr. Kelly! Can you sign your name for me!?” And that would begin the pursuit of autographs as an American passion. To that point, people knew it was nice to own a Washington or a Lincoln or a Robert E. Lee. But the idea of chasing someone for a signature began with Mike Kelly. That marked the very beginning of the ballplayer as celebrity.
The autograph chase would come in the second act of Kelly’s baseball life — his time in Boston, to be covered in the next installment. The first act, his time in Chicago, was when his skills as a player outweighed his fame, and seemed to better define his credentials for ultimate selection to the Hall of Fame half a century after his death.
Kelly’s childhood foretold the adventurous life he would come to live. The son of immigrant parents from Ireland, Michael Joseph Kelly was born on New Year’s Eve 1857 in Troy, N.Y. He would come to include Washington, D.C., and Paterson, N.J., among his childhood homes, and Paterson remained his home base into adulthood. He also wintered in Hyde Park, N.Y., as an adult, where he was a neighbor to a family named Roosevelt that had a baby named Franklin.
As a boy, Kelly developed a love of the stage, even performing skits behind a curtain at a friend’s home for a small audience. And of course, he developed a love for baseball, first in Washington, and then in Paterson with his friend Jim McCormick, later a 265-game winner in the majors.
Orphaned young (perhaps losing his parents to the cholera epidemic after the Civil War), he and his older brother left school and got by on their wits. Besides working at the local silk mills, Mike’s enterprising self found him waking in Paterson long before daylight, taking a train and a boat to Manhattan to retrieve the morning newspapers, which he would resell back home.
In 1877, at 19, he left the Paterson silk mills to try his hand at professional baseball. He joined McCormick with the Buckeyes of Columbus, Ohio (International Association), and a year later, he was in the National League with the celebrated Cincinnati Red Stockings. He was signed as a catcher and an outfielder and began to develop his reputation as a crowd pleaser, forever chatting with fans and exhibiting a lovably reckless quality on the diamond. Sometimes he invented “rules” as the game went on. “Kelly now catching,” he might announce as a foul ball drifted his way near his seat in the dugout. Take advantage of only one umpire on the field? This provided Kel’s best moments, even if it meant skipping third base on his way from second to home.
Cincinnati released all its players after the 1879 season, and Kelly made a barnstorming trip to the West Coast, where his patchwork squad played a series of exhibitions against the White Stockings. It was on that trip that Anson offered him a contract, and thus began Mike’s seven-year run in the Windy City.
Kelly’s skills were first rate; hard drinking had not yet taken a toll on his abilities. Anson disciplined him regularly over missed curfews and drinking but couldn’t resist his contributions to the team and his fan appeal. Teammate Billy Sunday, who had found temperance and religion, was unable to straighten his bad habits. That Chicago won the pennant by 15 games in 1880, his first season there, only made Kelly’s presence on the club more irresistible. Aside from his entertaining behavior on the field, Kelly was an innovator. He may have been the first to use finger signals to the pitcher, and he was among the first to dazzle the crowds with his theatrical slides.
Chicago won five National League pennants during Kelly’s seven years. He won two batting titles, with averages of .388 in 1886 and .354 in 1884. Three times he led the league in runs scored.
But Anson was growing tired of his antics. On Sept. 30, 1886, Anson took his team to meet President Grover Cleveland at the White House. Kelly decided to squeeze the President’s hand to see if he could get him to wince. He did, and it pretty much set back White House visits by baseball players until the Nixon administration.
On Valentine’s Day 1887, Kelly was sold to Boston for the unimaginable sum of $10,000. In addition, he would receive $3,000 on top of his $2,000 salary for use of his image in advertising. The sale was enormous news in both Chicago and Boston, and Kelly was quickly dubbed the “$10,000 (or sometimes $15,000) Beauty,” drawing from a nickname applied to actress Louise Montague.
Kelly was about to reach the heights of fame in an Irish city that could barely wait to embrace him.
by Marty Appel
Largely because of the huge Irish population in Boston, where the overall number of residents grew 24 percent during the 1880s, the arrival of Mike Kelly in 1887 seemed something like a homecoming — a hero’s return. When Chicago had come to town, he’d always been a star attraction. Now, playing everyday at the South End Grounds on Walpole Street, he would be huge.
Because kids knew his arrival schedule, they began to assemble outside the park for a chance to see Kelly in person. (He was hard to miss, often toting a pet monkey on his shoulder.) And what better way for the kids to show that they’d actually met him than with an autograph? So pencils in hand, the autograph process began. And of course, Kel was a willing signer, greatly enjoying the attention. He signed “M.J. Kelly,” because “King” had not yet become his nickname. A new cultural phenomenon was in bloom.
Kelly soon touched American culture in almost every imaginable way. Art, music, literature — they were all to come. In short order, an artist named Frank O. Small did a painting of Kelly sliding into second that replaced Custer’s Last Stand behind most Boston bars as fast as they could be reproduced.
The Beaneaters (not yet Red Stockings) made him captain, with John Morrill shedding that title and remaining manager. It caused some stress; by year’s end, Morrill had both titles back. But Kelly hit .322 during that year in which walks counted as hits (.394 without the modern adjustment), Boston won the championship, and Kelly proved well worth the money, at least in Year One.
Kelly remained entertaining, bantering with the fans and coming up with new tricks almost daily. He developed a play in which, as catcher, he would intentionally throw wildly to first on an attempted pickoff. But having alerted the right fielder in advance, the ball was quickly retrieved and the runner put out at second.
He would stash an extra ball in his pocket while playing the outfield, the better to quickly throw one in after a drive in the gap. He’d drop his catcher’s mask on home plate to prevent a runner from touching home. And his hook slides were so crowd pleasing that when he got on first, a chant would emerge from the stands: “Slide, Kelly, Slide! Slide, Kelly, Slide!” It became part of baseball’s lexicon.
Soon after Kelly’s arrival, members of the local Elks Lodge invited him to become a member. This not only gave him a place to get a drink on Sundays but created many friendships for him outside of his sport. (He would eventually be buried in the Elks Lodge plot at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Mattapan, just outside Boston).
Following his first season in town, he worked with a co-author, probably John Drohan of the Boston Globe, on his autobiography. The 96-page soft-cover book, which sold for a hefty 25 cents, was called “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field by Mike Kelly, The King of the Diamond.” He would now be King Kelly, going forward. With the personal details of his childhood, his parents and his wife Agnes, it is clear that Kelly participated in the book’s preparation.
A friend also invited Kelly to appear on stage in the winter of 1887-88, rekindling his lifelong love of acting, with an appearance in “A Rag Baby” at the Park Theatre. The lure of the stage was never far for Kel, who sometimes just performed as himself, telling baseball stories or reciting “Casey at the Bat” while substituting himself for Casey.
In 1888, Kelly was joined by his former Chicago battery mate, pitcher John Clarkson, who was also purchased for $10,000. The South End Grounds was leveled and rebuilt. Despite Kelly finishing third in hitting and stealing 56 bases, Boston finished fourth. After the season, he skipped the Spalding-Anson world tour (he had been billed as one of the main attractions), offering no excuse other than “business interests in New York.” (He did own a tavern there, The Two Kels, with umpire Honest John Kelly.)
In 1889, the song “Slide, Kelly, Slide” was written by yet another Kelly —John W. — and became America’s first pop hit. After Thomas Edison’s 1877 introduction of the phonograph, most cylinders featured patriotic, classical, operatic or church music. This silly tune (which actually had little do with Mike), would be a breakthrough “hit.” It was performed on stage with regularity by vaudeville star Miss Maggie Cline but recorded by George Gaskin because capturing the higher female voice in a recording studio was still a few years away.
There seemed to no end to Kel’s fame and his love affair with the people of Boston, even when he jumped to the Players League in 1890 while staying in Boston. National League officials tried everything including bribes to get him to jump back but although tempted, he told them he “couldn’t go back on the boys.” When the league folded, he began 1891 in Cincinnati, but was back with Boston’s American Association team in August and returned to the Beaneaters a week later.
By now, sadly, Kelly was well out of shape and an overweight embarrassment, noticeable even in team photos. His fans were always eager to buy him a drink and even presented him with a home in Hingham, about 16 miles from Boston. And as major league baseball matured, there seemed to be less tolerance for his on-field antics. The game was starting to pass him by.
Kelly hit just .189 for Boston in 1892 and in ‘93 drifted to the New York Giants, where he could better watch after his saloon. In 1894, he split the season between minor league Allentown and Yonkers. After Mike appeared in a road game, a local reporter wrote, “The spectacle this fellow has made of himself here in Syracuse was enough to bring the blush of shame to every lover of the national game. Is it not time that such loafers as this Kelly be drummed out of base ball? Is the game elevated by his presence? Providing the Eastern League is inflicted by him next season, his reception here will not be flattering.”
Unsigned for 1895 but not officially retired, Kelly took an offer to appear on the Boston stage on Election Day 1894. The site was the Palace Theatre, and he headlined with the London Gaiety Girls as “The Famous $10,000 Baseballist.”
On the boat ride up Long Island Sound from New York, Kelly took ill with what would develop into pneumonia. It was said that he gave his overcoat to a stowaway and when carried off the boat on a stretcher, he slid off and remarked, “This was me last slide!”
It was. He died in Emergency Hospital on Harrison Avenue at 36. ”Famous Baseball King Near Death,” warned a newspaper headline, and finally, the Post reported, “The most popular of ball players is no more. He has trod the diamond for the last time and will never more go to bat.”
Following his lying in state at the Elks Lodge, his funeral was an enormous public event in Boston, with some 7,000 turning out to line the route to his final resting place.
Ninety days after his death, Babe Ruth was born. Celebrity would be redefined in the 20th century, largely by Ruth, and Kelly is not as well remembered today as he might have liked.
But he was the game’s first matinee idol, a man who knew how to touch the fans, and how to live large.