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.
On January 12, 1988, Pirates slugger Willie Stargell was the only player elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. Stargell helped bring two world championships to Pittsburgh and was the National League’s co-MVP in 1979, as well as the World Series MVP that same year. Stargell was the 17th player to be elected to the Hall in his first year of eligibility.
Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds was unanimously voted the National League Rookie of the Year on December 1, 1956. After making his major league debut that year, Robinson had tied the then-record of 38 home runs by a rookie.
On October 19, 1932, outfielder Chuck Klein became the first Phillie to be named National League MVP when he received all first place votes for the honor. That season, Klein led the NL in hits (226), runs (152), home runs (38), and stolen bases (20).
Nicknamed “The Freshest Man On Earth,” Walter Arlington Latham was born March 15, 1860 in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. Latham’s father served as a bugler for the Union Army in the American Civil War, and at the conclusion of the war, young Arlie became interested in baseball when soldiers returning from the battlefield brought the game home with them.
By the time he was fourteen, Latham had become good enough to play with the General Worth nine, a local team in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where the family had moved. Latham started out as a catcher, but later took up playing third base to avoid getting beat up behind the plate. In 1877, Latham played with the Pittsfield, Massachusetts club as their third baseman, and then in 1879, he made his professional debut in minor league baseball with Springfield in the National Association.
Twenty-year-old Latham made his Major League debut on July 5, 1880 with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League, becoming the first man from New Hampshire to play in the majors. He then played for the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association in 1881, then the Philadelphia Phillies of the League Alliance in 1882.
Latham then joined the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in 1883. He stayed in St. Louis through the 1889 season, during which time the Browns won four consecutive pennants (1885-1888) in the American Association. Latham led the AA in runs scored with 152 during the 1886 season. He also batted .316 and stole 142 bases, then tacked on another 12 stolen bases in the playoffs. Adding to a reputation as an excellent base stealer, in 1887, Latham stole 129 bases, and he also led the league in stolen bases with 109 during the 1888 season.
In 1890, Latham jumped to the Chicago Pirates of the Players’ League. Later that year, in July, he returned to the NL with the Cincinnati Reds, where he served as a utility player and coach. Latham played for Cincinnati through 1895, then was traded to the Browns after the 1895 season. The Browns then released Latham after the 1896 season. Latham bounced around the minors for a few years before winding up with the Washington Senators in 1899. He later made four appearances for the New York Giants in 1909 at age 49.
Personality-wise, Arlie Latham was considered one of the funniest players in baseball. I’m not sure exactly how he earned the nickname “The Freshest Man on Earth,” but Latham was well-known for playing practical jokes. According to one account, the existence of the third base coach’s box is thanks to Latham. He would taunt opposing players third base coach, taking advantage of the lack of a coach’s box by running up and down the third base line yelling insults at the pitcher while he was in the middle of his windup.
His tendency to shout and gesticulate, not only as a coach, but also as a player, earned Latham the unofficial title of “the father of ‘chatter’.” The implication, of course, being that the practice of infield chatter that exists to this day had begun with Arlie Latham.
Latham finished his playing career with 742 stolen bases in seventeen professional seasons with a .269 batting average, .334 OBP, and .341 slugging. Latham died on November 29, 1952 at the age of 92 in Garden City, New York. He is buried in Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale, New York.
The Philadelphia Quakers (later known as the Phillies) won their first game in franchise history on May 14, 1883 again the Chicago White Stockings (later known as the Cubs). The Quakers had lost their first eight games of the season, but then proceeded to pound the White Stockings 12-0 at Chicago’s Lake Front Park. The Quakers would finish the season with a depressing 17-81 (.173) record, putting them in last place in the National League.