Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What A Character

King Kelly was the most flamboyant player of his time and probably the most famous and popular until Babe Ruth came along. A larger-than-life character, off the field he was quite a site, wearing patent leather shoes and an ascot with a huge jewel in the middle and twirling a cane. He was sometimes accompanied by a black monkey and a Japanese valet. When asked if he drank while playing baseball Kelly replied, "It depends on the length of the game."

On the diamond his contributions to the game include the hit-and-run play and the double steal. He and his manager Cap Anson devised a number of other strategies, such as having the first and third basemen play off the bag, moving fielders according to the hitter's tendencies, and having the catcher cover throws to first.

He hit .384 with 12 home runs in 1884, his best season, and led the Chicago Nationals to five pennants. But his greatest skill was sliding - he mastered the hook slide, the fadeaway, and the fallaway. His slides were so impressive that they actually inspired a popular song of the day called "Slide Kelly Slide". After its release by Edison Studios the song became America's first 'pop hit' - until then recordings (cylinders) were opera, religious, or patriotic songs or recitals. It also inspired a 1927 movie of the same name.

After one particularly impressive slide Kelly was ruled out by umpire 'Honest John' Kelly (no relation - and, yes, even the umpires had nicknames in those days). But King reached under himself, picked up the ball and asked, "John, if I'm out, what's this?"

Kelly was just as cunning as he was talented. Sometimes when the lone umpire had his back turned Kelly would take a short cut home from second base, which inspired a unusual rule that doesn't seem to make sense to us today, namely that a runner must touch all bases in order. When he caught, he tried everything to distract the batter and would trip up runners with his mask. Late one afternoon, while playing right field (he played all nine positions over the course of his career) he leapt high into the air as the dusk gathered in the twelfth inning and grabbed the ball and immediately ran into the dugout. The game was called due to darkness and declared a tie. When his teammates asked him how he'd caught the ball Kelly answered, "How the hell should I know? It went a mile over my head!"

Probably his most celebrated stunt occurred when Kelly was managing and a foul popup drifted near his bench, out of the reach of his catcher, Charlie Ganzel. As the substitution rules were somewhat liberal in those days Kelly yelled out, "Kelly now catching for Ganzel," and caught the ball himself.

When Albert Spalding sold Kelly to Boston in 1887 for the unheard sum of $10,000 Chicagoans were so crushed that many, including Clarence Darrow and poet Eugene Field, wrote irate letters to the city's newspapers. The giddy Bostonians gave their new hero and horse and carriage and a house!

As his skills were fading King was purchased by New York - on the provision that he take a Turkish bath before each game to purge the spirits from the night before. When he skipped a game to go to the racetrack he was released.

Perhaps inevitably, Kelly took to performing in vaudeville, reciting the popular poem of the day "Casey at the Bat." He may actually have been the inspiration for the 1888 classic - its author, Ernest Lawrence Thayer, had seen Kelly play the year before while a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. Kelly also produced baseball's first autobiography imaginatively titled"Play Ball." On his death bed King whispered, "This is my last slide."


Rick Blechta said...

Great essay, Will. I've heard the name, but knew very little about the man and player. They don't make 'em like that anymore.

Now the characters take drugs and get kicked out of the game.

John the Tomahawk Trembath said...

Hey, Will, I really liked this blog too. Especially the Casey at the Bat reference. I did not know that King Kelly was the inspiration. What a guy. "There's no joy in Mudville tonight- mighty Casey has stuck out." As a fan of small ball, if only he had bunted!

Will Braund said...

I can appreciate why you would say that Casey should have bunted John, but that's what pissed Ty Cobb off - the fans found it more exciting to see the Babe mightily strike out swinging for the fences than see Cobb poke a single through a gap and then steal second and third.