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King Kelly: Baseball's First Celebrity

By Marty Appel, May 20, 2013
This Walter Chickering cabinet photograph shows Mike “King” Kelly in all his splendor. In this column, the first of a two part series, writer Mary Appel writes of Kelly’s celebrity status as 19th century baseball’s most famous long ball hitter.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the first baseball biography (or in this case, autobiography). It was in 1888, at the peak of his fame, that Mike  “King” Kelly’s “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field” was published.

It must be emphasized how difficult it was to achieve “fame” at that time, let alone be worthy of a book. Before radio became a force in American culture in the 1920s, and before national magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post made their marks at the turn of the century, the idea of being a national celebrity really didn’t exist. Yes, people knew the U.S. presidents and the names of Civil War generals, outlaw cowboys and an inventor or two, but outside of that, you had P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill as “entertainers,” John L. Sullivan as a boxer — and not many others.

Baseball essentially produced three whose names were known outside of those homes where The Sporting News, Sporting Life or the Police Gazette was read. One was Adrian “Cap” Anson, player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings, and another was his versatile and colorful star player, Mike Kelly. Like Miller Huggins and Babe Ruth 40 years later, they would clash as disciplinarian vs. mischief maker, with the incorrigible player driving his manager mad. (The third was the team’s owner, Albert Spalding, largely through his sporting goods company).

But in common, Anson and Kelly were the first pro baseball figures whose names were known on the streets of America. Parents wanted their sons to grow up with the values of manhood espoused by Anson, while young boys found the derring-do of Kelly to be especially exciting. (Anson’s racial attitudes were not really discussed).

When Allen and Ginter selected a handful of baseball players to feature on cards to market their tobacco brand, they included the two most popular professionally players in the country, Adrian “Cap” Anson and Mike “King” Kelly.

One day, boys would pursue Kelly in the streets of Boston, brandishing scraps of paper and shouting, “Kel!  Kelly!  Mr. Kelly! Can you sign your name for me!?” And that would begin the pursuit of autographs as an American passion. To that point, people knew it was nice to own a Washington or a Lincoln or a Robert E. Lee. But the idea of chasing someone for a signature began with Mike Kelly. That marked the very beginning of the ballplayer as celebrity.

The colorful 1887 Testimonial Program celebrating a gala event in which the member's of the Boston Elk Lodge welcomed “King” to their city, features an extremely scarce ink autograph of the star player.

The autograph chase would come in the second act of Kelly’s baseball life — his time in Boston, to be covered in the next installment. The first act, his time in Chicago, was when his skills as a player outweighed his fame, and seemed to better define his credentials for ultimate selection to the Hall of Fame half a century after his death. 

Kelly’s childhood foretold the adventurous life he would come to live. The son of immigrant parents from Ireland, Michael Joseph Kelly was born on New Year’s Eve 1857 in Troy, N.Y. He would come to include Washington, D.C., and Paterson, N.J., among his childhood homes, and Paterson remained his home base into adulthood. He also wintered in Hyde Park, N.Y., as an adult, where he was a neighbor to a family named Roosevelt that had a baby named Franklin.

As a boy, Kelly developed a love of the stage, even performing skits behind a curtain at a friend’s home for a small audience. And of course, he developed a love for baseball, first in Washington, and then in Paterson with his friend Jim McCormick, later a 265-game winner in the majors.

Orphaned young (perhaps losing his parents to the cholera epidemic after the Civil War), he and his older brother left school and got by on their wits. Besides working at the local silk mills, Mike’s enterprising self found him waking in Paterson long before daylight, taking a train and a boat to Manhattan to retrieve the morning newspapers, which he would resell back home.

In 1877, at 19, he left the Paterson silk mills to try his hand at professional baseball. He joined McCormick with the Buckeyes of Columbus, Ohio (International Association), and a year later, he was in the National League with the celebrated Cincinnati Red Stockings. He was signed as a catcher and an outfielder and began to develop his reputation as a crowd pleaser, forever chatting with fans and exhibiting a lovably reckless quality on the diamond. Sometimes he invented “rules” as the game went on. “Kelly now catching,” he might announce as a foul ball drifted his way near his seat in the dugout. Take advantage of only one umpire on the field?  This provided Kel’s best moments, even if it meant skipping third base on his way from second to home.

Cincinnati released all its players after the 1879 season, and Kelly made a barnstorming trip to the West Coast, where his patchwork squad played a series of exhibitions against the White Stockings. It was on that trip that Anson offered him a contract, and thus began Mike’s seven-year run in the Windy City.

 Kelly’s skills were first rate; hard drinking had not yet taken a toll on his abilities. Anson disciplined him regularly over missed curfews and drinking  but couldn’t resist his contributions to the team and his fan appeal. Teammate Billy Sunday, who had found temperance and religion, was unable to straighten his bad habits. That Chicago won the pennant by 15 games in 1880, his first season there, only made Kelly’s presence on the club more irresistible. Aside from his entertaining behavior on the field, Kelly was an innovator. He may have been the first to use finger signals to the pitcher, and he was among the first to dazzle the crowds with his theatrical slides.

Chicago won five National League pennants during Kelly’s seven years. He won two batting titles, with averages of .388 in 1886 and .354 in 1884. Three times he led the league in runs scored.

This Daily Graphic newspaper supplement from the September 27, 1885 shows the National League’s Chicago White Stockings (later named the Cubs) featuring Cap Anson (middle top), his star player “King” Kelly (top right), Kelly’s friend since childhood, pitcher Jim McCormick (bottom left) , and the straight laced Billy Sunday (sitting on the right). The White Stockings dominated play during the mid 1880s.

But Anson was growing tired of his antics. On Sept. 30, 1886, Anson took his team to meet President Grover Cleveland at the White House. Kelly decided to squeeze the President’s hand to see if he could get him to wince. He did, and it pretty much set back White House visits by baseball players until the Nixon administration.

On Valentine’s Day 1887, Kelly was sold to Boston for the unimaginable sum of $10,000. In addition, he would receive $3,000 on top of his $2,000 salary for use of his image in advertising. The sale was enormous news in both Chicago and Boston, and Kelly was quickly dubbed the “$10,000 (or sometimes $15,000) Beauty,” drawing from a nickname applied to actress Louise Montague.

 Kelly was about to reach the heights of fame in an Irish city that could barely wait to embrace him.


*This is Part I of a two part article on Mike “King” Kelly by Marty Appel.

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