Mike “King” Kelly: Baseball’s First Superstar

It was a sunny, hot September afternoon in 1887 at the South End Grounds baseball stadium in Boston. Mike “King” Kelly, the player-manager of the Boston Beaneaters, sitting on the bench, wiped the sweat off his brow with his sleeve as he watched his pitcher, Dick Conway, trying to get a big out late in the game. At the plate, the hitter, Indianapolis Hoosiers outfielder Jack McGeachey peered out at Conway intently.

Conway threw a pitch up and in to McGreachey. He took a mighty swing but only managed a weak popup in foul ground toward the Beaneaters bench. Kelly could tell immediately that neither catcher Tom O’Rourke nor 1st baseman John Morrill was going to be able to reach it.

(Left: The South End Grounds in Boston.)

Kelly had a sudden inspiration. Jumping up he yelled out to the umpire, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” He proceeded to catch the foul ball. The confused umpire scratched his head and put up his thumb. The batter was out. McGeachey and the rest of the Hoosiers screamed in disbelief at the call but the umpire insisted there was nothing in the rule book about when a manager could replace a player. The rule book would later be changed to eliminate Kelly’s trick.

(Below: Jack McGeachey)

That’s a great story, the gist of which would often be repeated in the years since Mike “King” Kelly roamed the baseball stadiums of 19th century America. How much of it is true? It can’t be found in any newspaper account of the day, but at least two players did tell a tale similar to this. However, in both of their retellings, the umpire did not call the batter out. As the years went by, however, the story was enhanced, and soon it became another Kelly legend, and as all good newspapermen know, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

My retelling of the incident included the poetic license of naming a time and place and the teams and the players who might have been involved, none of which is known. But if you look at the names of the players, all of whom were in the National League in 1887, you’ll see they all have Irish surnames. The generation of Irish-Americans who were sons of the fugitives from the Great Hunger of the late 1840s could be found in great numbers on the rosters of nearly all of the new professional baseball teams in the late 19th century. Some estimate that Irish and Irish-American players made up some 40% of all major league players in the 19th century.

Of all those Irish-Americans who played professional baseball in the 19th century, none was more famous than Mike “King” Kelly. Though not necessarily the best player of early baseball statistically, Kelly was the first superstar of the game. In his time, he was as well-known as “Babe” Ruth would be in the 20th century. He had the same sort of gregarious, boyish charm as “The Babe” and also his love of a good time, and of drinking to excess. Kelly was also one of the men most responsible for popularizing the game of baseball with the American public. The charismatic Kelly’s influence would extend to publishing, music, and the entertainment business. He was a media star before the term existed.

Michael Joseph Kelly was born on December 31, 1857. His father, also Michael, and his mother, Catherine Kylie, were both born around 1820 somewhere in Ireland. Like millions of others, they were driven from Ireland by the Great Hunger of the 1840s. After they arrived in New York City, they moved 125 miles up the Hudson River to the town of Troy, (left, in 1840) where Mike was born and spend part of his childhood. Spending so much time around his parents and other Irish immigrants in Troy in his early years, Mike was said to have developed something of an Irish brogue.

Like many other members of the Irish diaspora in America, the Kellys looked to give their children the advantages that had been denied to them in their homeland, including formal education. Mike later recalled, “They may not have had the advantages of an education themselves, British misrule prevents that, but they knew the value of education.” Still, Mike probably didn’t go to school much past the 5th grade.

Baseball was just in the process of becoming a well-known national game in Mike’s early years of life. In 1860 there was an organized, though not professional, team in Troy called the “Victorys.” They were part of the “National Association”, which included 60 teams around the country, mainly in the northeast of the country. There were as yet no nationally known heroes of this still regional developing game for Mike to look up to as he grew up, however.

(Right: A baseball game in 1966.)

The coming Civil War, and the soldiers returning from it, would help spread what was then known as the “New York” style of baseball around the country, replacing other variants like town ball played in Philadelphia and the Massachusetts Game played in New England. Following the war, interest in the game would rapidly increase, leading to the forming of the first professional team in Cincinnati in 1869. The war had a more immediate effect on Mike and his family.

Mike’s father enlisted in the Union army in the summer of 1862 and marched off to war with the 125th NY Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He would be captured at Harper’s Ferry along with the rest of the regiment less than three weeks after departing Troy. They were immediately paroled, and soon after that exchanged for Confederate prisoners and back to the war.

(Left: The Regimental flag of the 125th NY)

They were attached to the 3rd Corps of the Army of the Potomac (AOP) and were near “The Angle” at Gettysburg, helping to repulse Pickett’s famous charge in July 1863. They fought in all the AOP’s major battles through to Appomattox, with Kelly surviving and making it home.

The family moved briefly to Washington D.C., where Kelly first played baseball at the age of 10, and then to Patterson, New Jersey after the war. Unfortunately, both of his parents died in the decade after the war, possibly from cholera, leaving the teenage Kelly an orphan by age 18. He got a job in the local silk mill but spent his free time playing baseball, and he was very good at it.

By the age of 15, he was noticed by future National League player William “Blondie” Purcell, who ran an amateur traveling team that played teams in the New York City area. At 19 Kelly quit his job at the silk mills to try his hand at playing baseball professionally. “I was a crank [fan] on the game, and couldn’t leave it if I wanted to,” he said later. It was a decision he would not regret.

(Right: The dapper young Mike Kelly)

It was the Columbus [Ohio] Buckeyes that offered him and his Patterson friend, pitcher Jim McCormack, their first professional contracts in the International League. This would have been the equivalent of AAA minor leagues today, with the National League being the “major leagues” of the era. A year later both would be on National League teams. McCormack would go on to win 265 games.

In 1878, the 20-year-old Mike Kelly, began his major league career, joining the team that had been the very first professional team, the Cincinnati Reds. The handsome, mustachioed, redheaded Kelly stood 5’ 10” and weighed about 170 lbs for most of his career. He was also what they would have called a “snappy dresser” back then. He was a versatile defensive player, splitting time between catcher and right field; a great base runner, stealing a large number of bases, though the stat wasn’t kept until 1886; and an excellent hitter. Good players get noticed by fans, but when you add good looks and a flamboyant personality to that, you can create a superstar.

In ’78 and ’79, Kelly began to make a name for himself, but it was after he moved to the more successful Chicago White Sox team of player-manager Adrian “Cap” Anson in 1880 that his fame would skyrocket. This came about when the financially strapped Reds had to cut all their players after the ’79 season and Al Spaulding, the sporting goods mogul who owned the White Sox, scooped him up.

(Left: Adrian “Cap” Anson)

The 28-year-old Anson was in the 10th year of his stellar career when Kelly arrived. The strait-laced, disciplinarian Anson and the hard-drinking, fun-loving Kelly would clash constantly during Kelly’s years in Chicago. As time went on in his career, Anson also showed a distinct prejudice against players of Irish ancestry. Anson, as the best player of the early days of baseball, was also instrumental in establishing the color line that banned blacks., several times refusing to play against the few teams that fielded a black player.

Whatever their off-field problems, on the field Anson and Kelly would combine to win the National League title five times in Kelly’s seven years in Chicago. And Kelly would lead the league in batting average twice, in runs scored three times, and in doubles twice in those seven years. After his 2nd season in Chicago, Kelly returned to Paterson and married his girlfriend, Agnes Hedifen, on October 25, 1881. If Anson and Spaulding thought at the time that marriage would cause Kelly to change his ways, they were sorely disappointed. They may have also hoped an outfielder who joined the team a few years after Kelly, future evangelist Billy Sunday, could get him to, “take the pledge.” If so, they suffered another disappointment.

(Below-right: Daily Graphic newspaper supplement from the September 27, 1885, shows the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (later named the Cubs). Cap Anson (middle top), “King” Kelly (top right), Kelly’s friend since childhood, pitcher Jim McCormick (bottom left), and Billy Sunday (sitting on the right). Click on photo for a larger view.)

Many successful modern players talk about the pressures of the game not allowing them to fully enjoy their playing days. No one would ever say that about Mike Kelly. Kelly reveled in his success on the field, often talking to and joking with the fans and opposing players during the games, whether home or away and then later in bars around the city. Often, he’d be the one buying rounds, spending his money as fast as he made it. When he was asked if he drank alcohol during games, Kelly is said to have replied cheerfully, “It depends on the length of the game.” Such quips may have enraged Anson, but they only served to endear Kelly to the fans even more.

Kelly’s flamboyant, gambling baserunning style also endeared him to the fans. He would finish his career with 365 stolen bases, despite the league not counting them in the first half of his 16-year career. He invented the “hook slide” to avoid being tagged during his baserunning adventures. It so infatuated the fans that they would chant “Slide, Kelly, Slide” when he was on base. For a time, the saying entered the vernacular in the U.S. to signify avoiding imminent danger.

Kelly soon became the favorite player of the White Sox fans and many fans around the league. If TV had existed at the time, Kelly would have been all over it, advertising products. As it was, he only had newspapers, which were quite hyperbolic at the time, to spread his fame. He was baseball’s first media star. Baseball historian Maclean Kennedy later said, “As a drawing card, he was the greatest of his time. Fandom around the circuit always welcomed the Chicago team, with the great Anson and his lieutenant, King Kelly.” Anson was still their best player and their leader, however, so Kelly’s fame, along with his off-field antics, did not endear him to Cap. Owner Spaulding also complained to Kelly about his behavior, to which he replied, “what are you running here, a Sunday school or a ball club?”

(Left: "Old Judge" tobacco card of Kelly in his Chicago uniform, but showing "$10,000 Kelly" at the bottom, dating it to after his sale to Boston.)

While Kelly may have had a great time playing baseball, he was also a serious student of the game and is given at least partial credit for several early baseball innovations. Some give him credit for inventing the hit-and-run, though others have claimed it as well. He may have also been the first catcher to call for certain pitches using signs with his fingers. And he was the first catcher to trail a runner down the line to back up first base on infield throws. He’s also said to have been the first catcher to wear a facemask and a chest protector.

Kelly also found many ways to take advantage of how the game was umpired. With just one umpire, he would often “cut the base,” taking a route across the infield without touching a base when he knew the umpire would be watching the ball or another runner. He was also known to take an extra ball to the outfield with him when lighting conditions were poor. Late in one game, as the sun was going down and the one umpire being far from Kelly in right field, Kelly dove for a long drive and then popped up showing the umpire the ball. Up went the umpire’s thumb. Three outs, inning over. On the bench, Anson praised him for a great catch. “What catch? The ball went a mile over me head,” Kelly said in his slight brogue.

Kelly’s first three years in Chicago, they won the National League pennant. At that time the National League was the only “major” league, so winning the pennant was the equivalent of winning the World Series today. They didn’t win the next two years but then won back to back pennants ’85 and ’86. In that ’86 season, at 28 years old, Kelly reached the pinnacle of his career, hitting .388, stealing 54 bases, and scoring 155 runs. As time went by, however, with now veteran Kelly being more of a leader on the team, his after-hours activities began to corrupt some of the younger players.

At the end of that ’86 season, the White Sox were invited to meet President Grover Cleveland at the White House. As the president went down the line of players, shaking hands, Kelly, ever the jokester, apparently on his own, or a dare, decided to see if he could squeeze the president’s hand hard enough to make him wince. He succeeded.

(Right: President Grover Cleveland, with his hand apparently healed up.)

That, along with the fact that he had participated in the organizing of the players union the year before, may have contributed to Kelly’s departure. Anson had had enough of his antics, and Spaulding did not want to pay him the money he was demanding.

On Valentine’s Day 1887, Spaulding sold Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters, the franchise that would one day be the Boston Braves, for the then-unheard-of sum of $10,000. It was a sensational story and added to his growing legend. For a time, he was called “The 10,000 Beauty.” Kelly’s contract in Boston would include $3,000 on top of his $2,000 salary for use of his image in advertising.

It was in Boston, with its huge Irish-American population, that the nickname “King” was permanently bestowed on him. Boston fans presented him with a horse and carriage in 1887 to convey him to the field. In 1889 they topped that, giving him a fully furnished house. Kelly’s parting shot to Anson was a comment about how he [Anson] would have to now prove he could win a pennant without him. The White Sox would not win another pennant during Anson’s career.

(Left: Otto Becker's famous lithograph of "Custer's Last Fight”)

In Boston “King” Kelly hit his peak of fame. The only other sports figure with similar fame in the late 19th century was Heavyweight Champion boxer John L. Sullivan, another first-generation Irish-American who came from the Boston suburb of Roxbury. The boom in interest in sports that created this new phenomenon of sports heroes coincided with the Industrial Revolution creating a middle class in the country that had leisure time and spare cash.

Soon most of the saloons in Boston had replaced Otto Becker's famous lithograph of "Custer's Last Fight” above their bars with Frank O. Small’s painting of Kelly sliding into second. Gangs of kids would follow him to the stadium, clamoring for him to sign scraps of papers, making him arguably the first American celebrity to sign autographs.

(Right: Frank O. Small's painting of "King" Kelly stealing 2nd.)

The “King” had a pet monkey that he would sometimes bring to the stadium with him, perched on his shoulder. This delighted the kids and was another story people told to add to the legend he was building. And though the life he lived might have fallen short of what parents in the country wanted for their children, he felt a responsibility toward those children. He often told them to mind their parents and reinforced the importance of staying in school.

During the three years he played with the Beaneaters, Kelly’s fame led to many “firsts.” He was possibly the first player to have a poem written about him. That poem, still well known today, “Casey at the Bat” was written by Ernest Thayer in 1888. Though Thayer never confirmed that “King” Kelly was his model for Casey, many believed he was. One theory for it being Kelly was that “his strikeouts are more exciting than other players’ hits!”

(Below: Poster for the 1927 movie version of "Casey at the Bat.)

Also, in 1888, he became the first player to “write” an autobiography, though “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field by Mike Kelly, The King of the Diamond” was likely ghost-written by John Drohan of the Boston Globe. It cemented the sobriquet “King” to him permanently. Selling for 25 cents, the copies probably sold out quickly in the Boston area.

In 1889, John W. Kelly, no relation to Mike, wrote a song about the “King’s” baseball exploits titled “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” This song is also considered by many to be the first “pop record.” It was recorded on the cylinders played on Thomas Edison’s brand-new phonograph which had previously been mostly classical music.

In the winter of 1888, Kelly became the first baseball star to branch off into the entertainment industry. After a conversation with booking agent Charles W. Thomas, he was offered the role of “Dusty Bob” in a play called “A Rag Baby” at the Park Theater. Vaudeville was the entertainment of the masses in those days before movies, TV, and even radio. Kelly was also now the “King” of all media in the US. He had money coming in from many sources, but like many sports superstars who came after him, he spent it as fast as he made it.

Kelly played well in three years with the Beaneaters, but they won no pennants. During part of his first year in Boston, he was a player-manager. But even as the manager, Kelly knew how to have fun playing the game. In one game in Chicago against the White Sox, he decided to tweak his old boss, Anson, a bit. “Let us dress up as old men and beat ‘Cap’ Anson’s colts,” he told the team. Kelly donned a false long grey beard, and others wore long shirts or clown noses. His old fans loved it, and Boston won the game.

In 1890 the Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players, the first sports union, formed their own league in an attempt to pressure the National League owners to make concessions on issues like the players pay and the infamous Reserve Clause. It was called the Players League and most of the best players, including Kelly, joined it. He was installed as the player-manager of the team in Boston, named the Reds, to take advantage of the adulation of the Boston fans.

Kelly had a good year, hitting .325 and his team won the pennant. In June, however, with the Players League clearly in terrible financial shape, Spaulding offered Kelly $10,000 to abandon the new league. Kelly refused, which shocked Spaulding, who knew Kelly needed the money badly. “I can’t go back on the boys,” Kelly said, demonstrating that the fun-loving player was also an honorable man.

Major League Baseball would later recognize the league as a “major league,” so Kelly added managing a championship team to his resume. The players' financial management was not very good, and the league lasted only one year. That pennant would be the “King’s” last real bit of sports glory.

The “King” turned 33 the following year and his life in the fast lane began to rapidly take its toll. With Players League dead, he joined the Cincinnati team in the American Association as player-manager. So big was his name now that the team was named “Kelly’s Killers” in his honor. The team folded in August and Kelly they rejoined the Boston Reds, which had also moved to the American Association. But after just 4 games with them, he was back with the Beaneaters. He was thus only a small part of their pennant-winning season.

(Below: 1892 Boston team photo showing an out of shape Kelly, sitting 3rd from the left.)

The following year, now clearly looking overweight, his performance dropped dramatically. The team won the pennant, his 8th championship team, but it had little to do with him, as he hit just .189 that year. He signed with the New York Giants the following year, but after just 20 games his major league career was over. The “King” was dead as far as major league baseball went, but it was quite a career. He had played every defensive position at some time in his career, even pitching 45 innings and getting two career wins. He finished with a .307 career batting average, 950 RBIs, and 1357 runs scored. He’s credited with 368 stolen bases, but given that the stat was not kept his first 8 years, the true figure was likely over 700.

With his baseball days behind him, and having been far too profligate with his money through the years, he looked to vaudeville to make a living. In addition to acting in plays, he would sometimes sing or recite poetry. The two that people most wanted to hear was him singing “Slide, Kelly, Slide” or reciting “Casey at the Bat,” especially a version where he substituted “Kelly” for “Casey”.

On Sunday, November 4, 1894, Kelly was on a boat traveling from New York to Boston. He was to perform with the London Gaiety Girls at the Palace theater the next day, listed in the program as, “The Famous $10,000 Baseballist.”. An early snowstorm hit them on the way, and whether it was that or something else, by the next day he had a bad cold. His cold quickly turned into pneumonia and he was soon in the Emergency Hospital on Harrison Avenue.

The “King’s” condition rapidly deteriorated. At 9:55 P.M. on Thursday, November 8, 1894, weeks short of his 37th birthday, the first superstar of baseball was dead. The Boston Post reported, “The most popular of ballplayers is no more. He has trod the diamond for the last time and will never more go to bat.” Thousands of Bostonians turned out for Kelly’s funeral. He was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston.

Baseball historian Maclean Kennedy, who saw Kelly play, said, “There was never a better or more brilliant player. Colorful beyond description, he was the light and the life of the game. He was one of the quickest thinkers that ever took a signal.” Cap Anson, though he had many off-field troubles with Kelly, said, "Mike Kelly was the prince of base runners. I've never seen a man equal to him in that line, and he could get away with more sharp tricks than any man who ever wore a baseball uniform."

There are no Irish born players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but more than two dozen sons of Irish immigrants who played in the 1880-1920 period are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Michael “King” Kelly is one of them, elected to the Hall in 1945. The “King” was arguably the player who did the most to make the game popular around the country. He was baseball’s first superstar; a man who transcended his sport. Just three months after Kelly died, Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore.

(Left: "King" Kelly's plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.) 

Kelly was born as the nation was celebrating New Year’s Eve, and he did his best to continue that celebration for every minute of most of his nearly 37 years. As short as his life was, he enjoyed it as few men ever have. The game of baseball gave him that joy. In return, he helped it become the game we all know, though few baseball fans today know that. When Kelly was born, baseball was little known; when Kelly died the entire country knew his name, and baseball had become as American as apple pie.


“Slide, Kelly, Slide: The Wild Life and Times of Mike King Kelly” (book) by Marty Appel

“The Irish in Baseball: An Early History” by David L. Fleitz

The Irish in Early Baseball 

Irish in Baseball

Baseball in Ireland

The Irishman Every Baseball Fan Should Know

Slide, Kelly, Slide by Arthur Collins (audio file)

Slide, Kelly, Slide (A modern version by Randle Chowning, audio file)

Kelly's Killers-Cincinnati's Forgotten Baseball Team-Part 1 (Video)

Part 2

Career stats of "King" Kelly from Baseball Reference

A Reading of "Casey at the Bat" by James Earl Jones

Views: 1180

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 8, 2020 at 11:58am

Lyrics to "Slide' Kelly' Slide"

“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!

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 8, 2020 at 12:00pm

“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer1(888)

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, "If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat."

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile lit Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one!" the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, "Strike two!"

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 8, 2020 at 12:01pm

"Casey At the Bat," read by James Earl Jones

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 8, 2020 at 4:52pm

Comment by The Wild Geese on September 20, 2020 at 10:41am
"Side, Kelly, Slide" by Wilbur Sweatman's Original Jazz Band, recorded March 24, 1919


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