King Kelly: Baseball's First Celebrity
Largely because of the huge Irish population in Boston, where the overall number of residents grew 24 percent during the 1880s, the arrival of Mike Kelly in 1887 seemed something like a homecoming — a hero’s return. When Chicago had come to town, he’d always been a star attraction. Now, playing everyday at the South End Grounds on Walpole Street, he would be huge.
Because kids knew his arrival schedule, they began to assemble outside the park for a chance to see Kelly in person. (He was hard to miss, often toting a pet monkey on his shoulder.) And what better way for the kids to show that they’d actually met him than with an autograph? So pencils in hand, the autograph process began. And of course, Kel was a willing signer, greatly enjoying the attention. He signed “M.J. Kelly,” because “King” had not yet become his nickname. A new cultural phenomenon was in bloom.
Kelly soon touched American culture in almost every imaginable way. Art, music, literature — they were all to come. In short order, an artist named Frank O. Small did a painting of Kelly sliding into second that replaced Custer’s Last Stand behind most Boston bars as fast as they could be reproduced.
The Beaneaters (not yet Red Stockings) made him captain, with John Morrill shedding that title and remaining manager. It caused some stress; by year’s end, Morrill had both titles back. But Kelly hit .322 during that year in which walks counted as hits (.394 without the modern adjustment), Boston won the championship, and Kelly proved well worth the money, at least in Year One.
As a member of the Boston Beaneaters, “King” Kelly was enormously popular. This Silver Trophy Ball was presented to Kelly by Ned ‘Nuf Ced’ Mcreevey, a long time admirer and proprietor of a bar where fans would gather on game days. McGreevey acquired his moniker because, as the undisputed arbiter of any and all baseball arguments in his saloon, when Ned said “Nuf Ced”, the argument instantly ceased.
Kelly remained entertaining, bantering with the fans and coming up with new tricks almost daily. He developed a play in which, as catcher, he would intentionally throw wildly to first on an attempted pickoff. But having alerted the right fielder in advance, the ball was quickly retrieved and the runner put out at second.
He would stash an extra ball in his pocket while playing the outfield, the better to quickly throw one in after a drive in the gap. He’d drop his catcher’s mask on home plate to prevent a runner from touching home. And his hook slides were so crowd pleasing that when he got on first, a chant would emerge from the stands: “Slide, Kelly, Slide! Slide, Kelly, Slide!” It became part of baseball’s lexicon.
Soon after Kelly’s arrival, members of the local Elks Lodge invited him to become a member. This not only gave him a place to get a drink on Sundays but created many friendships for him outside of his sport. (He would eventually be buried in the Elks Lodge plot at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Mattapan, just outside Boston).
Following his first season in town, he worked with a co-author, probably John Drohan of the Boston Globe, on his autobiography. The 96-page soft-cover book, which sold for a hefty 25 cents, was called “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field by Mike Kelly, The King of the Diamond.” He would now be King Kelly, going forward. With the personal details of his childhood, his parents and his wife Agnes, it is clear that Kelly participated in the book’s preparation.
A friend also invited Kelly to appear on stage in the winter of 1887-88, rekindling his lifelong love of acting, with an appearance in “A Rag Baby” at the Park Theatre. The lure of the stage was never far for Kel, who sometimes just performed as himself, telling baseball stories or reciting “Casey at the Bat” while substituting himself for Casey.
In 1888, Kelly was joined by his former Chicago battery mate, pitcher John Clarkson, who was also purchased for $10,000. The South End Grounds was leveled and rebuilt. Despite Kelly finishing third in hitting and stealing 56 bases, Boston finished fourth. After the season, he skipped the Spalding-Anson world tour (he had been billed as one of the main attractions), offering no excuse other than “business interests in New York.” (He did own a tavern there, The Two Kels, with umpire Honest John Kelly.)
For a period of time John Clarkson, Kelly’s teammate in Chicago and Boston, was as dominant of a pitcher as there was anywhere. From 1885 until 1892 he averaged 36 wins per season and pitched nearly 500 innings annually.
In 1889, the song “Slide, Kelly, Slide” was written by yet another Kelly —John W. — and became America’s first pop hit. After Thomas Edison’s 1877 introduction of the phonograph, most cylinders featured patriotic, classical, operatic or church music. This silly tune (which actually had little do with Mike), would be a breakthrough “hit.” It was performed on stage with regularity by vaudeville star Miss Maggie Cline but recorded by George Gaskin because capturing the higher female voice in a recording studio was still a few years away.
There seemed to no end to Kel’s fame and his love affair with the people of Boston, even when he jumped to the Players League in 1890 while staying in Boston. National League officials tried everything including bribes to get him to jump back but although tempted, he told them he “couldn’t go back on the boys.” When the league folded, he began 1891 in Cincinnati, but was back with Boston’s American Association team in August and returned to the Beaneaters a week later.
By now, sadly, Kelly was well out of shape and an overweight embarrassment, noticeable even in team photos. His fans were always eager to buy him a drink and even presented him with a home in Hingham, about 16 miles from Boston. And as major league baseball matured, there seemed to be less tolerance for his on-field antics. The game was starting to pass him by.
Kelly hit just .189 for Boston in 1892 and in ‘93 drifted to the New York Giants, where he could better watch after his saloon. In 1894, he split the season between minor league Allentown and Yonkers. After Mike appeared in a road game, a local reporter wrote, “The spectacle this fellow has made of himself here in Syracuse was enough to bring the blush of shame to every lover of the national game. Is it not time that such loafers as this Kelly be drummed out of base ball? Is the game elevated by his presence? Providing the Eastern League is inflicted by him next season, his reception here will not be flattering.”
Unsigned for 1895 but not officially retired, Kelly took an offer to appear on the Boston stage on Election Day 1894. The site was the Palace Theatre, and he headlined with the London Gaiety Girls as “The Famous $10,000 Baseballist.”
This Spalding ring bat is attributed as being game used by Kelly’ in 1894. It was given by the slugger to his longtime friend Tim Murnane shortly before “King’s” untimely death at age 36.
On the boat ride up Long Island Sound from New York, Kelly took ill with what would develop into pneumonia. It was said that he gave his overcoat to a stowaway and when carried off the boat on a stretcher, he slid off and remarked, “This was me last slide!”
It was. He died in Emergency Hospital on Harrison Avenue at 36. ”Famous Baseball King Near Death,” warned a newspaper headline, and finally, the Post reported, “The most popular of ball players is no more. He has trod the diamond for the last time and will never more go to bat.”
Following his lying in state at the Elks Lodge, his funeral was an enormous public event in Boston, with some 7,000 turning out to line the route to his final resting place.
Ninety days after his death, Babe Ruth was born. Celebrity would be redefined in the 20th century, largely by Ruth, and Kelly is not as well remembered today as he might have liked.
But he was the game’s first matinee idol, a man who knew how to touch the fans, and how to live large.