Michael “King” Kelly drank whiskey and hit line drives.
He befriended bartenders and strangers. The son of Irish immigrants closed saloons and invented the hookslide. He swore off drinking a thousand times and led the National League in batting average twice.
Kelly, born Dec. 31, 1857, grew up in Troy, N.Y., the son of Michael Sr. and Catherine, who fled Ireland and that country’s terrible potato famine in the 1840s.
The elder Kelly marched off in 1862 with a volunteer Union regiment out of Troy. Unscathed in war, he fell ill not long after the final battle had ended. Michael Sr. died in Patterson, N.J.; Catherine passed away a few years later.
Young Michael took a job in a coal factory and began playing baseball on some of the top teams in Patterson, an early baseball hotbed. At age 15, he joined a team led by “Blondie” Purcell. That squad, featuring pitchers Jim McCormick and Edward Nolan (the “Only” Nolan, he was so good), dominated local clubs.
Big-league scouts started looking at Kelly. The Cincinnati Red Stockings signed him to a deal. He enjoyed his first big year in 1879. Besides finishing third in the National League with a .348 batting average, he also ended up third in hits (120) and triples (12) and fourth in runs scored (78).
Cincinnati didn’t enjoy quite the same success that Kelly did. The team lost thousands of dollars, and owner J. Wayne Neff let go of all his players. Kelly signed with the Chicago White Stockings, the forerunner of the Cubs.
The man with the big, thick mustache and the shock of red hair spent the next seven seasons in Chicago. He led the league in runs scored three times and in doubles twice. In 1884, Kelly topped the N.L. with a .354 batting average. He topped the league again in 1886, this time with a .388 average. Now a superstar, the versatile Kelly played mostly catcher and in the outfield. He also helped out in the infield if needed.
After losing to the St. Louis Browns (actually, the forerunner of the Cardinals, not the future A.L. club) of the American Association in the 1886 World Series, the White Stockings owners sold off some of their top players. The Boston Beaneaters (forerunner of the Red Sox) hired Kelly to be player/manager. He was still a good player, he was Irish, and this was Boston.
The affable Kelly stayed a Beaneater for three seasons, but he managed the team only during that initial campaign. He went from there to the Boston Reds (The Players League, 1890), then to the Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers (the American Association, 1891), back to the Boston Reds (1891), then back to the Beaneaters and (1891-92) and, finally, to the New York Giants (1893) before hanging it up.
Kelly retired with a .308 batting average (.368 on-base percentage), 69 home runs and 950 RBI. He also scored 1,357 runs and finished with 368 stolen bases (Steals did not become an official stat until 1886, several years into Kelly’s career. He swiped a career-high 84 bases in 1887.)
But, Kelly’s career was more interesting than those numbers. As mentioned, he supposedly came up with the feet-first hook slide to avoid being tagged out. He often “cut” bases, rounding them without actually touching them. Sometimes, he got away with the trickery, sometimes an attentive umpire called him out.
According to some, while in the outfield, he’d stick an extra ball into his pocket. If a batter whacked a pitch over the fence, Kelly would take the sphere from his pocket and swear that it was indeed the batted ball. While catching, Kelly liked to throw down his mask in front of the runner and prevent him from touching home plate. At bat, Kelly learned how to foul off pitch after pitch, wearing out the hurler and, he hoped, drawing a walk.
Not only Kelly did excel on the field. He also performed on stage, touring with a vaudeville troupe in the offseason, often reciting the popular poem “Casey at the Bat.” The 1889 hit song “Slide, Kelly, Slide” proclaimed the ballplayer’s prowess on the bases and, much later, inspired a film short. Some experts call his book Play Ball, published in 1888, the first baseball autobiography.
Kelly made a lot of money, and he spent it all. He liked people, people liked him, and, as they liked to say, “hey, bartender, the next round’s on me.” He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, stop drinking, no matter how many people pleaded with him. Kelly also liked to hang out at the track, and, hey, why not put down a bet or two? By time he retired, he was broke. “Mike was a friend to everyone except himself,” someone once said.
“King” Kelly died Nov. 8, 1894, just one year after quitting baseball. He contracted pneumonia in Boston, supposedly catching cold after giving another man his overcoat during a snowstorm. He had traveled to Massachusetts to appear at a local theater with the London Gaiety Girls. They played “Nothing Is Too Good for the Irish” and “Poor Mick” at the wake. Years later, his widow, Aggie, said, “Mike was just an overgrown kid.”
Kelly was voted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 1945.