In this regular feature, we will help you acquaint yourself with some of the finest practitioners of the most thankless task in baseball to ever don the “tools of ignorance” for our beloved Chicago Baseball teams. This week we feature Mike “King” Kelly.
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! – “Slide Kelly Slide”, a popular song of the late 19th century.
Decades before Babe Ruth, Michael Joseph “King” Kelly was baseball’s first superstar. His flamboyant style of play, and his penchant for being a bon vivant made him the most popular player in the game.
Also, he managed to break a few rules on the field – he was notorious for “cutting bases”, which was basically missing the bag by 20 feet while the umpire wasn’t looking, as there was only one on the field in those days.
After the game each day, he’d dress up (he was also famous for being a clotheshorse) in his finest clothes and either go to the local establishment and buy the house drinks, or go to the local theater and get more attention than the performers.
He was born New Years Eve 1857 – always one to make an entrance – and grew up and played his first baseball in Paterson NJ. In 1877 at age 19, he managed to sign on with the minor league Columbus Buckeyes in the International Association. He impressed enough there to gain the attention of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, and at age 20 was playing in the National League and hitting .283.
The next year was when Kelly emerged as one of the top hitters in baseball, putting up a 348/363/493 slash line (over a century before slash lines were a thing), and playing the outfield as well as catching. During a game against Chicago, he hit a double, and when he was called safe at second a rhubarb broke out. While everyone was arguing, Kelly noticed that time hadn’t been callled, and managed to score. This certainly got the attention of Chicago manager Cap Anson.
After the season, Cincinnati had lost so much money that the team’s owner cut the entire roster loose, making Kelly the first free agent superstar. After a winter barnstorming tour with Anson and others, Kelly signed with Anson’s Chicago White Stockings for the 1880 season.
It was here that Kelly became a legend. The White Stockings were baseball’s first dynasty, with star players all over the diamond. Chicago ran up a 67-17 record in 1880, winning the NL pennant by 15 games. The team was also pretty well known for not keeping early hours, with Kelly as the main offender.
None of it mattered, as Kelly’s 7 years in Chicago saw him hit .316, including two batting titles. But his greatest contribution to the game was his invention of the hook slide. So when you see Javier Baez pulling some Matrix shit to avoid a tag, remember that it all started with King Kelly.
Another bit of trickery Kelly was famous for was dropping his catcher’s mask in front of home plate to prevent runners from scoring when they slid.
One of his most famous plays was on the basepaths, when he pulled up to third base in a close game against Detroit, he faked an injury to give his teammate, who was on second, a reason to come over and check on him. Kelly alerted him that he would dash for home on the next pitch and to be ready to follow right behind him. Detroit didn’t throw the ball until he was almost at the plate with the teammate gaining on him. The Detroit catcher got the ball and was about to tag Kelly when Kelly opened his legs wide and the teammate slid through them to score. At this point it was a legal play, but shortly thereafter rules were changed so that if one runner passed another on the bases he was automatically out.
But this type of flair also led to the belief that the famous “Casey At The Bat” was originally written about Kelly. In fact, once his playing days were over, Kelly would perform on stage doing readings of the famous poem.
After the 1886 season, Chicago sold Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters for the princely sum of $10,000. In fact, he was referred to as “$10,000 Kelly” after the sale. His popularity among Boston’s large Irish population proved to make it a worthwhile investment, as Boston became the biggest draw in baseball.
The following year found him back in Cincinnati, this time in the American Association. Cincinnati ownership hoped to cash in as Boston had, even naming the team “Kelly’s Killers”. It didn’t work, and the team lost to much money they relocated to Milwaukee during the season.
The following season, Kelly was back in Boston, this time also in in the American Association. Shortly after the season began, the Beaneaters offered him a contract, and he was back in the bigs.
But at this point Kelly had nothing left in the tank. He hit .231 and .189 before playing one last season with the New York Giants.
In November 1894, King Kelly was travelling by boat to Boston from New York. A snowstorm hit, and Kelly fell ill. By the time he got to Boston it had become pneumonia. 4 days later he was gone at age 36.
King Kelly was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.