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.
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 Pittsburgh Pirates made their debut at Exposition Park in Pittsburg on April 22, 1891, losing to the Cubs, 7-6. Exposition Park had opened the previous year as the home of the Pittsburgh Burghers of the short-lived Players’ League. The Bucs would call Exposition Park home until 1909, when they moved to Forbes Field.
In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious. ~Walt Whitman
Thus begins the first disc of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns. This is a series that I’ve checked out from the library and started watching multiple times, yet never managed to finish. In an effort to change this, I’ve decided to commit myself to writing about each “Inning” of the series here. This way, I have a form of accountability to encourage me to get through the whole thing.
Approximately the first twenty minutes of the first disc serve as kind of a nostalgic, feel-good introduction to the series and the game. Images of Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and several others flash across the screen to a background of melodic music and various speakers ruminating about what an incredible game baseball is.
The First Inning then begins with the myth of baseball’s founding by Abner Doubleday. Burns describes the story behind Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game, then immediately refutes it, asserting that Doubleday likely never even saw a professional game. Baseball, rather, is most likely a direct descendant of two British sports: rounders and cricket. The game went through multiple variations until the founding of the New York Knickerbockers and the codification of rules by Alexander Cartwright. Henry Chadwick soon appears on the scene and becomes instantly enamored with baseball. Chadwick went on to invent the box score, using statistics to track players’ performances. The National Association of Base Ball Players was then formed to help maintain control over the sport and further codify the rules.
The outbreak of the American Civil War presented a disruption to organized baseball. On the other hand, it also served to help spread the game’s popularity as soldiers returning home at the end of the war took knowledge of the sport with them. In spite of the end of slavery, black teams found themselves banned from organized leagues. Women and girls, also, struggled for the right to play ball, as it was deemed too violent and dangerous for the fairer sex.
Burns chronicles the evolution of baseball from its status as an amateur pastime to a professional sport — a business. It is evident from his focus on the establishment of the reserve clause that Burns intends to delve into the subject further. It only makes sense to do so, of course, given the impact that this clause would have on the occurrence of so many events throughout the game’s history. Burns also puts some attention on gambling, which, as we know, would also impact baseball’s timeline of events.
The First Inning covers the development of the NL, the AA, the Players’ League, and the rise of Albert Spalding. A number of players are introduced, including Cy Young, Cap Anson, King Kelly, and John McGraw. We also meet Moses Fleetwood Walker and the bigotry he faced in the big leagues as a black player. This, followed closely by a discussion of Branch Rickey’s early life, present a foreshadowing recognizable by anyone familiar with the game’s history.
Most histories I have seen covering this period in baseball seem to treat the game with a kind of veneration. Personally, this is perhaps my favorite period in the game’s history to learn about, possibly in part due to this sense of awe that it brings out about baseball. So much of what happens next has already been established, yet there is still something pure and clean about baseball during the 19th century.
On July 12, 1890, a player known only as Mr. Lewis appeared in his only Major League game. In his Players’ League debut, Lewis gave up 13 hits, seven walks, and allowed 20 earned runs over three innings. The Buffalo Bisons lost the game 28-16 to the Brooklyn Ward’s Wonders at Eastern Park.
Weakened by the tendency of teams and players to jump to the National League, as well as by the formation of the Players’ League, the American Association disbanded on December 17, 1891. Several AA teams, including the Baltimore Orioles, the St. Louis Browns, and the Washington Senators, joined the NL following the collapse of the American Association. You can read more about the American Association here.