clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Top 100 Cubs Of All Time - #41 Mike "King" Kelly

It's hard to believe that he actually existed. One wonders if somehow a character from a Ring Lardner or James Thurber short story escaped the pages and found his way onto a ball field. He was part Babe Ruth, part Chone Figgins, part Gaylord Perry, part Robert Downey Jr. and a whole lot of Paul Bunyan. He was charming and handsome as well as irresponsible and drunk. He has been credited with inventing the hit and run play, sliding, catcher's signs, chest protectors, the suicide squeeze, the delayed steal and the hook slide. With the exception of the hook slide, none of that is likely true. They wrote songs about him and he was America's first sports superstar, and arguably its first media superstar in any field. He wasn't the best player in baseball, but he was unquestionably the most popular. But within a few short years after his death, he was almost completely forgotten. His name was Mike Kelly, and he was the King of Baseball.

For Mike "King" Kelly, all the world was a stage and he was the unlikely star. He was born on New Years Eve, 1857 in Troy, New York to Michael and Catherine Kelly, a pair of Irish immigrants who had fled the famine almost a decade earlier. From newspaper accounts of his speaking style, we can infer that he inherited his parents' brogue. When he was two years old, the city of Troy was shaken by the strike of a meteorite. Fitting, since the metaphor of a shooting star would be used again and again by the writers of his time to describe Kelly.

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, his father joined the Union Army. He must have found a soldier's life a better one than the one he had in Troy, because when the war ended he re-enlisted and moved his family to Washington, DC. It was on the ball fields of the nation's capital that Mike Kelly first learned to play baseball. But by 1868, Michael Kelly grew ill and was forced to retire from the Army. He moved the family to Paterson, NJ to work in the mills. He died early in 1870, and Kelly's mother would join him less than a year later.

Thirteen years old and orphaned, Mike Kelly went to support himself by taking a job in the textile mills of Paterson. But soon, he discovered that if he took the 4 am train into Manhattan, he could return with a pile of newspapers by six that he could then sell in Paterson. This left his afternoons free for baseball and putting on shows with his friend, fellow future major leaguer Jim McCormick. One wonders if Kelly saw any difference between the melodramas and the baseball games.

By 1873, the fifteen year-old Kelly was good enough to be invited to play on Blondie Purcell's amateur team in Paterson. The Paterson team played teams throughout the New York area, including the powerful Brooklyn team from the "major league" National Association. And in 1877, when Jim McCormick was signed to play for the Columbus Buckeyes of the International Association, he recommended that his good friend Mike Kelly be signed to be his catcher. The year after that, Kelly signed to play for Cincinnati in the National League. Although the concept would come later, Mike Kelly was now a major leaguer.

After playing in Cincinnati for two years as an outfielder and backup catcher, he caught the eye of the greatest talent scout of his time, Chicago Captain Adrian Anson. Cincinnati, baseball's first openly professional team and first powerhouse, had fallen on hard times by 1879 and released all their players at the end of that season to save having to pay them a last paycheck. Anson jumped and asked Kelly to join the White Stockings.

Kelly later would say it was his dream to play in Chicago. Since New York and Philadelphia had been kicked out of the league of few years earlier for not playing their whole schedule, Chicago was the biggest city in the National League. Still, he wouldn't sign with Chicago until the White Stockings met his salary demands, which was $100 a year more than Anson was offering. All through an 1880 winter tour of California he remained unsigned, waiting for Anson to come up with the extra money. Finally, Anson relented and Kelly became a White Stocking.

Kelly was now a young, good-looking man in the big city with money in his pocket. Rather than buying a house, he immediately moved into the Palmer House, the loudest, brashest, most garish and, according to its literature, "fire-proof" hotel in the world. For the next seven years, Mike Kelly would live the life that Harry Caray would live 100 years later, only as a young handsome man. He was never far from the saloons in Chicago, he always drank whiskey (although sometimes he would drink beer in addition to his whiskey) and he never failed to buy the house a round of drinks. He would rarely turn down someone asking for a loan, even borrowing from others to give the money away. Men loved his "man of the people" touch and women swooned over his good looks and flash. (I gave my wife a picture of the 1886 White Stockings and asked her to pick out the best-looking man on the team. She pointed to Kelly instantly.) No one would call him "King" Kelly until he got to Boston years later, but if there had been a Rush Street to be mayor of, he would have been the first. When asked if he ever drank during a game, he replied, "Depends on how long the game is."

He picked a fine time to come to Chicago as well, as Anson and Spalding were building a dynasty that would win five pennants in the next seven years. While Anson was the best player on those teams, Kelly certainly played a huge role in winning those pennants. He was a slap hitter who held the bat with his hands apart, much as Ty Cobb would do twenty-five years later. He was a master of fouling off pitch after pitch (which in some years didn't even count as a strike) until the pitcher tired and walked him or gave in and threw him a fat one. He would win two batting titles in his seven seasons in Chicago, although he mixed some down years in with his good ones.

As a fielder, his versatility gave him great value. Although his primary positions were in the outfield and as a back-up catcher, he played every position on the diamond in his career, even pitching in twelve games. As a catcher, he was one of the first to start moving up directly behind the plate to catch the pitch, although that's another thing people have claimed he invented that he didn't. As a shortstop, there is a lot of evidence that he played all over the field--moving to the spot he thought the ball would be hit--including half way between third and home against notorious bunters. He played with a glove and was one of the first catchers to don a chest protector. (Again, he didn't invent it, although some have claimed he did.)

As a baserunner, Kelly was fast. He wasn't the fastest player on the team (that would be Billy Sunday) but without question, Kelly was the greatest player ever at going from first to third or second to home. Ever. Better than Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, Maury Wills or Rickey Henderson. How can we know that? Simple. He cheated.

Kelly was the master of skipping bases. Baseball games had only a single umpire in those days, and Kelly would watch the umpire to see if he was watching the play at first base or looking to see if a ball landed fair or foul. When convinced the umpire's back was turned, Kelly would immediately run across the diamond to the next base, skipping either second or third, in full view of thousands of cranks in the stands who would either be cheering or howling. Other players also tried this maneuver, but no one did it as often or as well as Kelly did. Occasionally he would get caught and receive a reproach from the sporting press. But for the most part, his cheating only endeared him more to the paying spectators.

His baserunning was legendary in other ways as well. He may have been the first player to perfect the take-out hard slide at second base to break up a double play. Many people at the time thought it was a dirty play, but of course now it has become an accepted part of baseball. And while he certainly didn't invent sliding itself, he almost certainly did invent the "hook slide," which was called the Kelly slide for a long time. And one day in Detroit, he faked an injury after sliding into third base on a double by Ned Williamson. 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. Of course, today Williamson would have been called out for passing the runner in front of him, but in the 1880s, Kelly got away with it.

Kelly was legendary for trying to subvert the rules like that. As an infielder, he would occasionally intentionally trip baserunners. Playing right field one day in an extra-inning game with darkness approaching, he made a spectacular grab of a line shot over his head. When the umpire called the game on account of darkness, Kelly was asked by his teammates how far that ball had traveled. "How would I know?" Kelly answered. That ball was three feet over my head." Kelly had pulled a spare ball out of his uniform and only pretended to make the catch. Later, as the captain in Boston, Kelly took advantage of a loophole in the rules that permitted a captain to make a substitution at any time by informing the umpire. When a foul ball was hit towards the Boston bench, Kelly shouted "Kelly now catching for Boston" and grabbed the foul pop for the final out.

For the most part, Kelly's off-the-field antics were tolerated or even loved by his teammates. He was a charming man who was hard to stay mad at, especially since he always admitted (but hardly ever apologized for) his transgressions. Anson treated him like a naughty little brother and Team President Al Spalding was careful with his biggest box office draw. Even evangelist Billy Sunday would speak fondly years later about his friendship with Kelly, adding that while Kelly would not join him in devoting his life to Christ, he was the first White Stocking to support Sunday's decision to do so. Throughout his drinking and carousing, Kelly never failed to tell kids to stay in school and never touch alcohol, and always admitted he never lived by these rules. A prominent Philadelphia surgeon would remember years later that as a young man, he had an offer to play baseball for Boston. After Penn played an exhibition game against Kelly and Boston, he told Kelly of his intention to leave school and play baseball. Kelly begged him to stay in medical school and Kelly eventually changed the young man's mind.

But Spalding and Anson had fallen in with the Temperance movement, and while they were careful not to force their beliefs upon the other players, they had noticed the White Stockings' off-the-field behavior. Spalding was appalled by it. Anson was merely concerned. Kelly argued that he was a great player despite drinking all night and playing hung over. Anson argued that Kelly would be even better sober. Before the 1886 season, Spalding insisted upon an abstinence pledge from his misbehaving employees. None of them kept it. During the season, Spalding hired a private detective to check the players. When confronted with the evidence, all of them admitted that they had broken their pledge. All but Kelly apologized. Kelly told Spalding what he did in his spare time was none of Spalding's business. The cost of the detective was taken out of the salaries of the players.

After the disastrous loss in the 1886 "World" Series, Spalding decided the immoral players had to go. Jim McCormick, Abner Dalrymple, and George Gore were all sold. Then Spalding began to consider selling Kelly.

It's hard today to understand what a big deal all of this was at the time. Selling players was extremely controversial, and to sell the biggest star of all was a scandal. Behind all of this was the specter of slavery. These were, for the most part, working-class men who had been alive at a time when African slavery was still legal in America. When these men were young, many people still argued that the very idea of working for a wage (as opposed to being self-employed) was little different than slavery. It was important for these proud athletes to raise the stature of their profession, and the first step was to assert that they were not slaves.

One way these men asserted that they were free men was to kick those who could be most easily mistaken for slaves, black players, out of the game. The second way was to insist that when their contracts were sold, that they received a share of the proceeds.

When Spalding had a deal to sell Kelly to Boston for $10,000, Kelly refused to report without receiving half the money. He'd had enough of Spalding and Chicago by then and was glad to go to Boston, but he was fighting for a principle. Eventually, Spalding told him that if he agreed to the sale, his salary for the next season would be a record-high $5000. While that technically would be his salary for the next season and not a portion of the sale proceeds, it was close enough for Kelly so he agreed to the sale, if only to be rid of Spalding.

But when he got to Boston, he was told his salary would only be $2000. At that time, baseball had a salary cap, and that cap dictated that no player earn more than $2000.Feeling betrayed; Kelly held out again. Boston owner J.B. Billings came up with a solution. For an extra $3000, the Boston club would have the rights to use Kelly's name and picture. In the past, teams had always done this without paying the player at all, but with this stroke, Mike Kelly had the world's first licensing agreement.

It was in Boston that Mike Kelly became "King" Kelly. He continued to play well and was a great box office draw, but Boston didn't win any pennants. And freed from the watchful eye of Spalding and Anson, Kelly's off-the-field antics became even more extreme. He was rarely seen without his pet monkey on his shoulder and his Japanese valet at his side. He opened a saloon with a drinking buddy. When Anson was quoted in the papers as preferring his new young team to the old veterans they had sold, Kelly got his theater friends to make up the entire Boston team as old men for a game against the White Stockings. Everyone except the pitcher and the catcher actually played the game in costume. Boston did win the game, however.

Kelly's fame grew as his skills deteriorated. He would give dramatic staged readings of "Casey at the Bar," only he would change it to "Kelly at the Bat." The man of legendary feats was now inserting himself into a legendary story. A songwriter named J. W. Kelly (no relation) wrote Slide, Kelly, Slide, the first popular song ever released for the newly invented phonograph.It was America's first hit single:

Slide Kelly Slide! Your running's a disgrace
Slide Kelly Slide! Stay there hold your base
If someone doesn't steal yer
And your batting doesn't fail yer
They'll take you to Australia!
Slide Kelly Slide!

Well into the twentieth century, "Slide Kelly Slide" remained a common expression meaning trouble was coming.

But his lifestyle and age would eventually erode his skills further. Spalding and Anson, showing that bygones were bygones, invited Kelly to play on Spalding's World Tour. Kelly agreed to play, and then never showed up. Like most players, he jumped to the Players League in 1890, and as manager he led Boston to the pennant. When that league folded, found himself back in Cincinnati the next season. Over the next three seasons, teams kept signing him for his box office appeal. He returned to Boston and played part time there. In 1893, he finally got a chance to play in New York, but his skills had eroded so badly by then he was only a part-time reserve. After one miserable season in the minors in 1894, Kelly finally decided to retire.

On a boat that November from New York to Boston, where Kelly thought a theater job might be waiting for him, he contracted pneumonia. Rushed to the hospital, the staff loaded him onto a stretcher. They accidentally dropped him to the floor, where Kelly exclaimed, "That was my last slide." His old teammates in Boston sent for his wife, Agnes, and his two year-old daughter to be by his side. He died before they could make it. He spent his final hours reminiscing with his old teammates. He was only thirty-six years old.

Over seven thousand turned out for his funeral, arguably the biggest funeral Boston has ever seen, even to this day. His friends quickly realized that Kelly had left his wife and child with nothing, having spent all the money he had earned in his career on his extravagant lifestyle. A series of benefits raised over $3000 for Agnes Kelly and her daughter. After that, they went out into the world and were completely forgotten, lost somewhere in history.

Within a decade, the most popular player in baseball history was forgotten. Baseball had moved on to new stars like Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb. All that anyone remembered was that silly song. Agnes Kelly was never heard from again and his daughter's name was never recorded. When Mike Kelly was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945, a frantic search for his daughter, who would have been in her fifties if she were still alive, was launched. No trace of her was ever found, nor has any record of her turned up since.

Like his wife and child, Mike Kelly has disappeared from the American consciousness. Maybe he crawled back into the Ring Lardner story from which he might have come in the beginning. But in his time, his popularity equaled that of anyone to ever play the game, including Babe Ruth. We are all worse off for having forgotten a ballplayer who brought such life and joy to the game.

This article would not have been possible without my primary (but not only) source: Marty Appel's "Slide, Kelly, Slide: The Wild Life and Times of Mike 'King' Kelly" (Lanham, MD, 1999)

Mike "King" Kelly's career stats at