Mike “King” Kelly: First of the American Baseball Legends
Mike “King” Kelly was the most popular player of the 19th century. In fact, he was the best known American of his time. He was handsome, projected charisma, and played the game with a natural flair for the dramatic. He was the single most important reason that women became attracted to baseball. Before Kelly, very few females could be found at baseball games. Mike “King” Kelly was truly first among American baseball legends.
King Kelly may not have been the fastest player in history, but he was one of the great base runners ever. Maybe he didn’t have the “flat out” speed of a Hugh Nicol or Vince Coleman, but he was fast enough, and understood game situations–and could read pitchers and catchers and infielders with alarming accuracy. He had the instinct to steal bases at critical junctures in games…and did it with crowd-pleasing style. He is credited with inventing the “hook” slide, a strategy that revolutionized base stealing. He would “juke” an infielder into defending a particular line to the bag (being stolen), then slide to a different line in order to avoid the tag. That is a common practice today–not so in Kelly’s time. The excitement generated by his base running catapulted Mike “King” Kelly into becoming the most popular of American baseball legends.
Michael Joseph Kelly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Troy, N. Y., on New Year’s Eve, 1857. After the Civil War (in which his father fought on the Northern side), Kelly’s father moved the family to Paterson, N. J., for work, but became ill and died when Kelly was just 13. Kelly was a bright but indifferent student. He spent most of his time on the sandlot baseball field. He was an excellent athlete, and a player who was destined to be a star of the 1880s, William “Blondie” Purcell, signed Kelly (at age 15) to his amateur traveling team. Al Spalding, a former star pitcher and then head of Spalding Sporting Goods and Chicago’s National League franchise, then signed Kelly to his team just prior to an off-season baseball tour of California, in 1880. Kelly played 7 years with Spalding’s team–and was its principle gate attraction. He played some right field (he had a strong throwing arm) but mostly catcher. He developed some skills in calling pitches and defensive sets. It is believed that Kelly averaged an estimated 45% success rate in throwing out base runners on attempted steals. Along the way, Kelly helped Chicago win 5 pennants. Mike “King” Kelly became the cornerstone of American baseball legends.
But not all was well in Chicago. Kelly was always unhappy with his pay–partly because Spalding was a shrewd businessman–and partly because Kelly always managed to spend more than he made. Spalding finally had enough, and sold his most popular player to the National League’s Boston franchise for the unheard of sum of $10,000! That is like Pujols-type money today.
In front of sold-out crowds, Kelly continued to perform at a high level. He averaged a .308 batting average for his 16 year career (1878-1893), hit 69 home runs, and scored 1,357 runs. He tallied 950 RBIs, and recorded 1,813 hits. Kelly is also credited with designing the parameters for the hit-and-run, a key component of “small ball” offense. This style of aggressive “small ball” was carried to a new level by Ned Hanlon’s Baltimore Orioles, featuring third baseman John McGraw and short stop Hughie Jennings (both to be later enshrined in Cooperstown).
Kelly also designed a state-of-the-art (for his time) catcher’s mitt and chest protector.
Significantly, Kelly was the biggest reason why professional baseball added more umpires per game. When Kelly first became a pro, there was only one umpire on the field per game. Many times, if Kelly came to the plate with runners in scoring position–and got a hit–there would usually be an attempt to throw out the base runner at home plate. Knowing that the umpire would be occupied making the call at home plate, Kelly would cut across the field, completely bypassing third base and slide into home plate just behind the already sliding base runner (that Kelly had just knocked in). Invariably, both runners would be safe. No matter that the opposing team would scream to the umpire that Kelly hadn’t touched third base–the umpire didn’t see it, therefore, Kelly was safe. The fans took to chorusing “Slide, Kelly, Slide!” whenever Kelly was on base, causing great disruption on the opposing team. All this did was to make King Kelly into an even bigger star. The fans loved him.
As a result, Major League administrators added more umpires to each game in an attempt to “level” the playing field.
Another rules change, attributed to Kelly’s actions, occurred in 1891, when Kelly was player-manager for the Boston franchise. During an exhibition game against Philadelphia’s National League franchise, Ed Delahanty, one of the most feared clutch-hitters in baseball (and a future Hall of Famer), came to the plate with 2 outs and the bases loaded. On the first pitch, Delahanty lofted a foul pop to the area in front of the Boston (first base) dugout. Kelly had been sitting on the dugout bench. He suddenly jumped out onto the field and yelled, “Kelly now catching for Boston!”–and promptly caught the ball for the third out. For years, it was reported that the umpire upheld Kelly’s catch for an out, but subsequent research has revealed that the umpire disallowed the out. In any event, this incident caused the Major League’s rules committee to require that all substitutions be acknowledged by the home plate umpire before the pitch is thrown.
“Slide, Kelly, Slide” – Recorded by George J. Gaskin (1893)Slide, Kelly, Slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, Slide! Stay there, hold your base! If some one doesn’t steal you, And your batting doesn’t fail you, They’ll take you to Australia! Slide, Kelly, Slide!
As King Kelly became an ever bigger star in Boston, fans bought him an expensive home… and a horse and carriage. Crowds followed him everywhere. In 1888, Kelly published his autobiography, entitled “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field”, ghostwritten by Boston Globe reporter John Drohan. The book sold well. In 1888, Ernest Thayer published his iconic American classic poem, “Casey At the Bat”. It has always been rumored that Thayer’s “Casey” was modeled after King Kelly. As one wag was reputed to have said, “Kelly’s strikeouts are more exciting than other players’ hits!”
A song writer named J. W. Kelly (no relation), in 1889, penned a song, “Slide, Kelly, Slide!”, highlighting the excitement generated by Kelly’s base running. It became the biggest hit tune of the 19th century. Vaudeville productions resulted (some starring Kelly himself), increasing Kelly’s fame. Believe it or not, as late as 1927, a movie called “Slide, Kelly, Slide!” became popular, too. Perhaps only Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley have ever approached Kelly’s popularity in American history.
Kelly was twice a batting champion (1884 & 1886) and led the league in doubles and runs 3 times each. He led the league in on-base percentage twice, and was the first catcher to back up first base on infield throws to that bag. Kelly averaged approximately 50 steals per season, and once stole 6 bases in a game.
Experts often wondered what Kelly’s stats would have looked like if he had taken better care of himself. He loved having a good time as much as he loved the game–and partied (drank) way too much. He was given to unpredictable moods, accompanied by (or, attributed to) frequent hangovers. He was uncompromisingly self-destructive in his personal habits…and it wore his health down.
In the Fall of 1894, Kelly, in a weakened state of health, caught pneumonia and passed away after a brief illness. He was only 36 years of age. At his funeral service, tens of thousands of fans filed past his casket. His beautiful wife, Agnes, sadly shared, “Mike was an overgrown kid in many ways, but he was the most charitable person I ever knew.”
He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1945.
The most popular player of baseball’s 19th century, Michael “King” Kelly. “Slide, Kelly, Slide!”