In a prior article posted in Razzball, “An Audacious Account of the Evolution of the Rules of Baseball,” I touched upon the various exploits of Michael “King” Kelly. However, some of Kelly’s antics were so outrageous, so entertaining, and his impact on the evolution of the game so profound, that I thought that he was deserving of his own article.
The greatest player, as well as greatest drawing card during the aboriginal years of baseball, was “King” Kelly. He was incredibly talented, ingenious, and charismatic; an impeccable dresser and flamboyant to the point of outrageousness – a vaudeville performer, in fact – and generous as well. He was certainly a ladies man; and, indeed, the “King of Baseball.”
Kelly wore a handlebar mustache almost a century before Charlie O. Finley persuaded Rollie Fingers to sport the look. Perhaps the greatest showman and slugger of the 19th Century, Kelly was the prototype of Babe Ruth, sharing many of the same laudatory as well as self-destructive traits as the Colossus of Clout would display forty years later.
Kelly was recruited by Cap Anson, the legendary player-manager of the Chicago White Sox. Kelly first caught Cap’s eye during a game in 1879. Kelly whacked a ball out to left field and attempted to turn a routine single into a double, but although he was apparently out on the play, the umpire ruled him safe. The entire Chicago club rushed the field to argue the call with the arbiter, and while the heated debate took place, Kelly raced for third – and then to home base – scoring a run. This base-running gambit was a harbinger of things to come.
Kelly became the master at subverting the rules, and at times disregarding them entirely, to his team’s benefit. Kelly devised and implemented a number of strategies and innovations to the game, many of which we now take for granted. He and Anson were the first to play off the bag at first and third base. The infield shift, rediscovered when Ted Williams displayed his prowess at pulling guided missiles to right field , was first utilized by the White Stockings in the 1880’s. Contrary to some reports, Kelly didn’t invent the slide; that innovation belongs to William Craver of the Troy Haymakers. However, by all accounts, Kelly developed the hook slide. When Kelly played as a catcher, he was likely the first to use signals with the pitcher, as well as signaling the fielders what the pitch would be. He was also credited with being the first outfielder to back up his infielders, as well as teaching infielders and pitchers to back up bases to guard against an overthrow. He was also the first ballplayer to foul off pitches on purpose. However, some of Kelly’s other “innovative techniques” skirted with the boundaries of gamesmanship. For instance, The King was the first catcher recorded to throw his catcher’s mask in the base path in order to trip up the runner.
In addition to these innovations with in-game strategy, Kelly was also a terrific hitter; he won two batting championships during his career, and led the league in runs scored and doubles on 3 occasions. He also finished in the top ten in slugging percentage and OBP+ eight times, and finished in the top ten in RBI’s ten times. However, he was perhaps best known for his base running skills. He was timed running the bases in 15 seconds. Kelly once swiped six bases in one game and reportedly stole five on several other occasions. He was one of the first players to regularly steal third base and home, which he did in succession numerous times. He developed into one of the game’s masters of the high slide, sliding into the opposing fielders guarding the bag and taking them out with his spikes. Kelly later commented on this approach to base-running, known in those days as “kicking.”
“People go to see games because they love excitement and love to be worked up. That is one reason why I believe in “kicking” now and then on the diamond. Look at the Chicago Base Ball Club. It has been the most successful in this country. Why? One good reason because they are “chronic kickers,” and people flock to see them to witness the sport. The people who go to ball games want good playing, with just enough kicking to make things interesting thrown in.”
Another standard ploy was attempting to cut bases. At the time Kelly played the game, there was only one umpire on the field. Kelly would observe when the lone umpire’s attention was diverted, and then attempt to score from second base, veering towards home while still 20 feet short of third. Occasionally, he would get caught and receive a reproach from the umpire, but for the most part he was successful, and his cheating only endeared him more to the fanatic cranks. In fact, the first hit song played on Thomas Edison’s new invention, the phonograph, was called “Slide, Kelly, Slide”, in honor of the King’s exploits; and he was also the first ballplayer to be chased by cranks for his autograph.
Many of the 19th century baseball stories have been passed on from generation to generation. What was truth often morphed into legend, and legend into myth. Oftentimes it is difficult to tell what stories were indeed true, or are but tall-tales. That being the case, there were numerous anecdotes of Kelly’s exploits. Here are some of them:
The White Stockings were playing a donnybrook game in Boston in 1880. The score was tied at 17-17. It was getting late in the day, and dusk was setting in. The Boston squad loaded the bases with two outs in the last of the 9th inning and one run would win the game for the home team. However, if the White Stockings could record an out, the game would be suspended and the two teams would resume play the following day. The Boston batter bashes a long drive to deep right field and Kelly frantically attempts to track the ball. The next moment he is seen leaping high in the air, lets out a victorious war cry, and is observed holding what appears to be the ball while he trots off the field. The umpire shouts the batter out, and suspends the game because of darkness.
As he returns to the dugout, Anson and the rest of his teammates congratulate him on his fielding prowess. Then one member of the team asks Kelly for the ball.
“How the hell do I know where the ball is,” Kelly said. “It went a mile over my head.”
Kelly was the quintessential Irishmen playing in the Emerald Era. Unfortunately, he lived up to all of the stereotypes; he was a quick-thinking, hard playing ballplayer, with an unhealthy fondness for John Barleycorn. He missed quite a few games due to hangovers. He often took shots of whiskey from a flask during the course of a game, sneaking behind the bench in the midst of the proceedings. Once he was asked point-blank whether he consumed alcohol during the game. Kelly replied: “It all depends on how long the game is.”
Or perhaps how hot.
On a sizzling hot summer day, Kelly bought a mug of beer, taking it with him to right field. He was taking a deep, satisfying draft of the brew, when the batter launched a drive in the King’s vicinity. Mug in hand, Kelly ran like the wind, making a sensational one-handed catch. What perhaps was most satisfying was that he spilled nary a drop of the precious draft.
Although Kelly fought a lifetime battle with his demons, including alcohol, gambling, womanizing, and prolific spending, he also had a heart of gold. The following anecdote perhaps best sums up both the Ruthian character flaws, as well as the gentle soul of a man who was larger then life.
Kelly was known to be fond of playing the ponies. On one occasion, he spent a rare off-day at the Guttenberg Track. He placed his entire wad of dough, totaling $100, on a horse named “Play or Pay”. The nag, slated for the glue factory, was not well thought of, and went off at 30-1. As things would go, on that day “Play or Pay” ran liked a winged Pegasus, winning the race by a nose, and Kelly pocketed $3,100 in profits. Unfortunately, he couldn’t leave it at that, and wound up losing $2,000 betting on other steeds that were not up to snuff. Friends, relatives and sycophants managed to hit him for another $500. Kelly then stopped off at his favorite watering hole, buying drinks and expensive cigars for all the patrons.
After imbibing a generous quantity of spirits, Kelly meandered back to his hotel. He came upon a small girl, who was sitting in the gutter of the street and crying. Kelly picked the ragamuffin up, and inquired what was bothering her. The girl told Kelly that her father had died the prior week, her mother was ill, and the family could not afford medical treatment. Kelly handed over what was left in his pocket, amounting to a bit more than $100. When he finally arrived at the hotel, he asked a teammate for a small loan, so that he could buy dinner before retiring for the evening.
After years of attempting to reform the King of Baseball, White Sox skipper Cap Anson grew weary of the effort and convinced ownership to trade Kelly. He was eventually sold to the Boston Beaneaters for the exorbitant sum of $15,000. Hence, his second nickname; “The $15,000 Beauty.” After the deal was completed, Anson groused to the local journalists that he preferred his more youthful squad instead of the old veterans like Kelly whom he had sold. Mike persuaded his Boston teammates to allow his theater friends to make them up and dress them as old men the next time Boston played Chicago. The entire team except the battery played the game in costume and Boston won the match.
In 1894, “King” Kelly was traveling to Boston via steamship. Kelly, who was fighting a head cold before the trip, developed pneumonia and was admitted to a hospital upon arriving in Boston. While being transported by orderlies, they tripped, and dropped his gurney. Kelly fell, and skidded across the floor. In a ragged voice, Kelly told the Medical Staff:
“I think, me mates, this is me last slide.”
He spent the last hours of his life with teammates, reminiscing over past escapades on the diamond and good times from the past. Kelly died the following day, Nov. 8, 1894. He was 36 years old.
In 1945, Kelly achieved baseball immortality, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.