In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d take a moment to look at the life of Michael Joseph “King” Kelly: outfielder, catcher, baseball manager, and the son of Irish immigrants. Many even consider Kelly to be the game’s first true superstar.
Michael Joseph Kelly was born on December 31, 1857 in Troy, New York. He was the son of Mike and Catherine Kelly, who had left Ireland during the 1840s to escape the potato famine. In 1862, when little Mike was four years old, his father joined the Union army in the American Civil War, leaving Catherine to raise Mike and his older brother, James. Following the war, the family moved to the Washington, D.C. area. However, after his father fell ill, he left the army, and the Kelly family moved to Paterson, New Jersey. Sadly, the older Mike’s health continued to decline, and in the early 1870s, he passed away. His wife followed him in death shortly thereafter.
The now-orphaned Mike Kelly found work in a factory to support himself. At the end of each work day, he would spend his evenings playing baseball around town. Paterson was home to several amateur clubs, and in 1873, the fifteen-year-old Kelly was invited to play baseball on Blondie Purcell’s amateur team, which played teams throughout the New York metro area. From 1875 to 1877, he played three seasons of semi-pro ball in Paterson and in other cities.
In 1878, the Cincinnati Red Stockings offered Kelly a contract, making him a major league ballplayer at the age of twenty. The Red Stockings signed Kelly as a catcher and an outfielder, but he played primarily in the outfield since the Red Stockings already had an established catcher in Deacon White. After playing in Cincinnati for two years as an outfielder and backup catcher, Kelly took part as players from the Cincinnati team and the Chicago White Stockings went on a barnstorming tour of California. During the tour, Cap Anson invited Kelly to join the Chicago team for the 1880 season.
As a member of the White Stockings, King Kelly was among the league leaders in most offensive categories every year, including leading the league in runs from 1884 through 1886 and in batting in 1884 and 1886. He was also one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, becoming one of the first to use a glove, mask, and wear a chest protector. Cap Anson even gave credit to Kelly for inventing the hit-and-run, and he participated in devising strategies for the game that are now considered commonplace, including playing off first and third base, adjusting the outfield positions according to the player batting, the double steal, and the infield shift. Chicago won five pennants while Kelly played for the White Stockings.
Off the field, however, Kelly was known for his drinking, his charm, and his tendency to bend the rules. Kelly’s off-the-field behavior did not hurt his popularity with the fans, but he frequently was fined by team owners for disorderly conduct. Anson tried, but generally failed, to try to keep Kelly in line behaviorally, and to keep him physically fit.
After the 1886 season Chicago sold Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters for a then-record $10,000. By this time, the 28-year-old Kelly was arguably the biggest star in the National League. Newspapers and fans called him “King” Kelly or “The Only” Kelly. As a member of the Beaneaters, Kelly continued to produce offensively, scoring 120 runs in 1887 and 1889. He also continued to draw large crowds to games, even though Boston didn’t win any pennants. In addition, now that he was no longer under Cap Anson’s supervision, Kelly became even less self-disciplined, especially off the field.
During the 1890 season, Kelly managed and played for the Boston Reds in the Players’ League, and the Reds won the only Players’ League title under his leadership. Then, in 1891, Kelly returned to Cincinnati as the captain of a newly established American Association Reds. However, by August, the team folded, and Kelly signed back with the Boston Reds, who had moved to the American Association after the Players’ League folded. Kelly spent just four games with the Reds before returning to the Beaneaters to finish out the season.
After spending the 1892 season with the Beaneaters, batting a career-worst .189, his contract was assigned to the New York Giants for 1893. He played just twenty games for the Giants, batting .269 and driving in 15 runs.
Kelly’s big league career ended after the 1893 season, having collected 1,357 runs, 69 home runs, 950 RBIs, and a .308 batting average. He won eight pennants with various teams during his sixteen seasons, and he also hit better than .300 eight times. He led the league three times in both doubles and runs scored, and is one of the few NL players to have scored a record six runs in a game. In his career Kelly played every position on the diamond, even making appearances on the mound. Kelly was also known throughout the game for making controversial plays, including this play that led to the creation of Rule 3.03.
Off the field, King Kelly took on an acting career shortly after he first arrived in Boston. In March 1888, Kelly made his regular play debut, as Dusty Bob in Charley Hoyt’s “A Rag Baby.” He was also popular enough to book a vaudeville act during the 1892-1893 off season, where he was billed as “King Kelly, the Monarch of the Baseball Field.” In the off season of 1893-94, Kelly performed in “O’Dowd’s Neighbors.” Additionally, in 1889, he was the subject of the popular song, “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” Kelly’s autobiography, Play Ball was published while he was with the Beaneaters in 1888, the first autobiography by a baseball player.
King Kelly died of pneumonia in November 1894 in Boston. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.
Bud Fowler was the earliest known African-American player in organized professional baseball, as well as the first to play on integrated teams. Born John W. Jackson on March 16, 1858, Fowler was the son of a fugitive slave-turned-barber. His father had escaped from slavery and migrated to New York, eventually settling in Cooperstown. The young John Jackson learned to play baseball during his youth in Cooperstown, but it remains unknown why he went on to adopt the name “Bud Fowler.”
Fowler learned to be a barber like his father, working in the profession to supplement his income while he played ball. He played amateur ball for a few years, and his first year of prominence in the game came in 1878 at the age of twenty. By this time John W. Jackson was calling himself “Bud Fowler,” and would be known by this moniker throughout his baseball career. On April 24, 1878, he pitched a game for the Chelsea Picked Nine, who defeated the Boston Red Caps, champions of the National League in 1877. He pitched some more for the Chelsea team, then played a few games with the Lynn Live Oaks, and finally finished that season with the Worcester club.
The Lynn Live Oaks were a member of the International Association (IA), considered by some historians to be the first minor league, as they operated in cooperation with the National League. Thus, with his stint with the Live Oaks in 1878, Fowler became the first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history, and thus the game’s first African-American professional ballplayer.
Continuing to support himself as a barber, Fowler went on to play for baseball teams in New England and Canada for the next four years. He then moved to the Midwest, playing for teams in Niles, Ohio and Stillwater, Minnesota with the Northwestern League.
Fowler initially signed with the Stillwater team as a catcher. However, after the club lost its first fifteen games, Fowler was put on the mound. On May 25, 1884, he led the team to its first victory, a 13-7 win over Fort Wayne. The team relied heavily on his right arm from that point on, and Fowler delivered, winning five of Stillwater’s first seven victories. All his time on the mound took its toll on his arm, however, and that season marked his transition from the battery to the infield.
Fowler signed with the Keokuk (Iowa) club in February 1885 where he quickly became the most popular player on the team as a second baseman. Fans and newspapers alike admired not only his abilities as a ballplayer, but also his intelligence and his “gentlemanly” conduct. Unfortunately, the Western League folded in mid-June due to financial reasons, leaving Fowler without a team.
After short stints in St. Joseph, Missouri and in Portland, Maine, Fowler signed with the Pueblo Pastimes of the Colorado League to finish out the year. The impression he left in Colorado became evident when the Rocky Mountain News commented, “A league of colored baseball players has been organized in the South. It is safe to say there will be few of them as good as Fowler.” The following season, in 1886, Fowler joined a team in Topeka, Kansas where he led the league in triples, helping Topeka to the pennant.
Fowler continued to journey from team to team, however, racial tensions were starting to become more and more pronounced. One Sporting Life article commented, “Joe Ardner, in one game he played, shows himself to be … far superior to the ‘coon’ Fowler on second base.” Around this time, some exclusively black baseball leagues were forming, though Fowler continued to play on integrated teams, in spite of the racism he faced. In 1887, however, nine of Fowler’s white teammates with the Binghamton team signed a petition demanding that Fowler and black teammate William Renfro be released or they would quit. Finally fed up with the struggle, Fowler requested and was granted his release from the Binghamton team in late June.
Shortly after Fowler’s release, the International League formally banned any additional signings of African-American players.
Fowler continued to play for various integrated teams in other leagues over the next several years. However, racism was becoming more and more of an issue. In the fall of 1894, conditions led him to organize the Page Fence Giants, an all-black team sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan. From 1894 to 1904, Fowler played and/or managed the Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, the Smoky City Giants, the All-American Black Tourists, and the Kansas City Stars.
At the end of his career Bud Fowler insisted that he had played on teams based in twenty-two different states and in Canada. No doubt the journeyman characteristic of his long baseball career was due in large part to the racism factor.
Bud Fowler died on February 26, 1913 of pernicious anemia after an extended illness, just shy of his 55th birthday.
We boys hailed his coming with delight because he would always join us on the lawn. I remember vividly how he ran, how long were his strides, how far his coattails stuck out behind.
~Written about Abraham Lincoln in an early childhood letter
The author of the letter unknown, but Lincoln was known to play baseball on the front lawn of the White House. Lincoln even had a field, called the White Lot, constructed on White House property for ballgames. This field hosted a number of games between the Potomac Club and the earliest incarnation of the Washington Nationals (both teams formed in 1859). One more reason to love our 16th President!
This weekend I watched a short documentary produced by Major League Baseball, Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues. While the time period covered in the documentary spans from Moses Fleetwood Walker playing major league ball in the 1880s on up to the induction of Negro League players into the Baseball Hall of Fame starting in 1971, the documentary focuses primarily on the story of the Negro Leagues.
Dave Winfield narrates the documentary, and it includes footage from Negro League games, as well as some Major League games. It also features interviews with Negro Leagues players, including Buck O’Neil, Bob Mitchell, Willie Mays, John “Mule” Miles, Cool Papa Bell, and Ted Radcliffe. The interviews highlight just how good many Negro Leagues players really were, especially compared to white Major Leaguers, and it’s a lot of fun to see how much these guys light up when they talk about the level of talent.
The documentary touches on the racial struggles faced by black players. For example, many players accepted the fact that they would have to go around to the backs of restaurants to get food, and it was not uncommon to sleep on the bus because the hotels in a given town would not give them rooms. Nevertheless, the players talk about how much fun they had traveling and playing ball. The eventual recruitment of Jackie Robinson by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier, of course, receives due attention.
Overall, Pride and Perseverance is a fantastic overview of the history of the Negro Leagues. For a documentary that runs less than an hour long, it manages to cram a lot of interesting information into the film. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Yesterday I happened across a tidbit stating that one of the largest baseball card collections resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I’ve never been a card collector, so I suppose this might already be common knowledge and I’ve just been out of the loop. I did want to check it out all the same, so I poked around and discovered that the Met is in the process of cataloging the cards, all part of the Jefferson R. Burdick collection, online. You can find the collection here.
Just minutes of exploring has revealed some gems, such as this collection of cartooned baseball stars from 1943:
And these old school pennants from 1933.
And there are, of course, a myriad of traditional baseball cards:
I have to say, this is my type of card collection. A variety of cards, and yet virtual so that they don’t actually take up a bunch of physical space. Happy exploring!
On September 30, 1893, the last day of the season, rookie Duff Cooley of the St. Louis Browns collected six hits to help destroy the Boston Beaneaters, 16-4. The twenty-year-old utility player accomplished the feat by hitting four singles, a double, and a triple at Robison Field in St. Louis.
September 26, 1896 marked the season finale for the Cleveland Spiders, which they played against the Louisville Colonels at Eclipse Park. Cleveland outfielder Jesse Burkett collected three hits as the Spiders won, 4-3. Burkett thus finished the season with a .410 batting average, making him the first player to hit .400 in consecutive years, having batted .405 the previous season.