As we’re nearing the halfway point of the season of havoc, it’s time we discuss the real “King” of baseball havoc, former Reds player, Hall of Famer, Mike “King” Kelly.
Kelly played his first two big league seasons with the Red Stockings from 1878-79, playing C-OF-3B-2B. Kelly played all nine positions in the big leagues, even pitching in 12 games. Kelly was the first real Major League star that everyone followed (even before Twitter). He was easily the most famous player of his time, and fans would scream “Slide, Kelly, Slide” whenever he would reach base as he’s credited with inventing the hook slide and was an extremely aggressive baserunner. A popular song, appropriately titled, “Slide, Kelly, Slide” was written about him and is found on some baseball music collections.
Bill James picks him as the 32nd best right fielder of all time, and he caught almost as many games as he played in the outfield. He is regarded as the greatest defensive outfielder and best baserunner of his time. He starred on five championship teams in the 1880’s with the Chicago White Stockings, and managed the only Player’s League championship team with the Boston Reds in 1890. There are so many legendary stories written about Kelly that James says it would take three books to just summarize them all. No one came close to causing the havoc in baseball, both on and off the field, than King Kelly. Briefly, in no particular order….
1) He twice led the league in batting average, hitting .354 in 1884 and .388 in 1886. How much can batting average vary? He hit just .255 in 1883 and .288 in 1885 before dropping back to .320 in 1887.
2) He scored an amazing 155 runs in only 118 games in 1886. For his career, he nearly averaged one run scored per game, scoring 1357 runs in 1455 games.
3) Kelly smoked all the time…in the dugout, on the bench, in the field, and even in the shower. He had a Japanese valet that followed him around whose duties included lighting a new cigarette and handing it to him as soon as the last one went out.
4) He was rarely seen without his pet monkey on his shoulder.
5) The fans loved him so much they once gave him a white horse and carriage so that he could ride to the games in style.
6) While managing Boston, substitution rules allowed players to enter the game at will, even during plays. One game he saw an opposition foul ball about to drop untouched, when he jumped off the bench, yelling, “Kelly now catching for Boston,’ and caught the ball for out three.
7) From “The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball:” Playing for Chicago in 1886, he won a key game against Boston when he led off the ninth with a walk and stole second after Cap Anson popped out. A slow roller was then hit and the game’s sole umpire raced to first to cover the close play. Kelly cut across the diamond about halfway to third, and crossed home before the umpire had a chance to see what the fans were screaming about. He cut corners on the bases regularly as the crowd would roar in either approval or disdain.
8 ) Another baserunning story: Kelly faked an injury after sliding into third base on a double by Ned Williamson. To quote Wikipedia: “When Williamson came over to look at Kelly’s health, Kelly whispered his plan into Williamson’s ear. On the next pitch, Kelly and Williamson started on a double steal of third and home. While the Detroit catcher stood at the plate waiting to tag Kelly out, Kelly stopped dead in his tracks just out of the reach of the catcher. As the catcher moved to tag Kelly out, Williamson slid under Kelly’s legs for the winning run. By today’s rules, and due to this event, Williamson would have been called out for passing the runner in front of him.”
9) From “Total Baseball:” One game was tied in extra innings as darkness was setting in. With two outs in the bottom of the 12th and Kelly in right field, the batter scorched a line drive that Kelly raced over, jumped, and seemingly made a two-handed grab of the ball for the third out. The umpire called the game because of darkness. Later, when asked how far the ball was hit by a teammate, Kelly replied “How would I know? It was a mile over my head.”
10) From “Total Baseball”…he was catching with two outs and a runner on third. The batter grounded to shortstop who threw to first, but the runner reached safely on a bang-bang play. Kelly dropped his mitt to fool the third base runner into thinking the third out had been made at first. The first baseman whipped the ball to a barehanded Kelly who tagged the runner for the third out.
11) As catcher, his practice was to drop the catcher’s mask in front of oncoming baserunners.
12) He was known to regularly kick the ball out of fielder’s glove and is known to have started the hard slide into second base to break up double plays.
13) Kelly would intentionally drop fly balls in the outfield to get double plays when the baserunners would stop or slow down.
14) From James’s book “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”: Kelly has more than 50% more baserunner kills (outfield assists) per game than any outfielder playing more than 500 games in the outfield, and 55% more than third place. He also made an error about once every 5.5 chances in the field. His rate on passed balls at catcher is astronomical. He would sometimes come from the outfield in bunting situations to play only a few feet from the batter.
15) He was the first player to publish an autobiography, “Play Ball,” published in 1888.
16) Manager Cap Anson is quoted as saying “There’s no man alive who can drink Mike Kelly under the table.” Kelly was once asked if he drank during the games. He replied that it depended on the length of the game.
17) Kelly, seemingly like most other stars, had contract squabbles with management. Anson had had enough of Kelly’s drinking, as did Chicago owner Albert Spalding (of Spalding Sporting Goods fame) and Kelly was sold to Boston for $10,000. Kelly wouldn’t report to Boston unless he got half of the $10,000 up front. When told he would get $5000 as a salary he went to Boston, only to find they would only give him $2000. He held out until Boston willingly offered him $3000 to use his likeness for advertisement…thus, baseball’s first licensing agreement.
18) Sick of the National League, he became manager and played for the Player’s League Boston Reds team in 1890, leading Boston to that league’s only championship.
19) After the Player’s League folded, Kelly decided to cause one more slice of havoc, when he was signed as manager and catcher for a new Cincinnati American Association team, Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers. The powerhouse Red Stockings had transferred to the National League from the American Association for the 1890 season, and the AA decided to start a new franchise in Cincinnati in 1891. Unfortunately, both teams were losers as the NL Red Stockings were 56-81, and Kelly’s Killers finished 43-57.
20) Kelly also appeared in theatrical presentations, and loved to recite “Casey at the Bat” while on stage.
21) Kelly was the highest paid player of his time, but spent all of his money on wine, women, song, and fancy clothes. He died from pneumonia at age 36, apparently destitute. As the attendants carried his stretcher into a hospital, they tripped and dumped Kelly to the floor. Kelly is quoted as saying, “That’s my last slide.” He died a few days later (or a few hours later, depends on the source). The players had sent for his wife and daughter, but they did not arrive at the hospital in time. He spent his last few hours reminiscing with ballplayers.
22) He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945, but no one could find a trace of his family to invite to the celebration. Over 7000 people attended his funeral in Boston. He was married with a two year old daughter when he died in 1894, and fundraisers were held to support them when found he had blown his fortune. His wife’s name was Agnes, but his daughter’s name was never recorded and no record of her has turned up since, according to Wikipedia.
So, there you have it…Mike “King” Kelly, the greatest star of the 1880’s who got his major league start with the Red Stockings as a 20 year old in 1878 and managed in Cincinnati near the end of his career at age 33 in 1891 (he played through age 35). Bill James picks him as part of the best infield of the 1870’s (played 3B with the 1879 Red Stockings), as the Best Major League Player in 1886, as being on the 1870’s Major League All-Star team.
Sources: Bill James: “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” Total Baseball: “Baseball, The Biographical Encyclopedia,” David Nemec: “The Great Encyclopedia of 19th-Century Major League Baseball,” Wikipedia.