From the base ball archives of Cheap Seats…

King Kelly

A look at: Mike (King) Kelly

We’re talking Base Ball…

Not only a game, baseball is a part of us. Like any relationship, baseball requires time (162 games and then some), emotional support (bring on the blogs and the forums), and has a special language of its own (‘he’s a horse!’). As kids we relish in our favorite heroes who launch souvenirs across the field like shooting stars—surreal and worth fighting Joe Schmo for—and we sit through 9 innings regardless of weather or score to take in that special moment. We embrace the aromas of roasted peanuts and ballpark dogs. Cherish the wins and shrug off the losses with bitterness and booze. Baseball is truly one of the greatest games this country has to offer that has its roots deeply embedded in our cultural history. I invite you to indulge in the 1880s with me to examine one of the characters that enriched baseball history. A “colorful player and audacious base-runner”[1] named Mike (King) Kelly. A ballplayer that changed the way rules of the game were designed and with eccentricities to delight.

Get your peanuts!

The 1880s was a time in baseball history when rules were constantly being negotiated and changed to meet with the growing demand. Gloves were introduced dropping the rate of errors and flat bats evolved into round bats.[2] Pitchers no longer threw underhand, and the overhand style we know today became standard. It was a known fact that the committee on playing rules accepted suggestions one season and announced new rules in the following season. For those who think baseball is too slow (how dare you), this will make you count your blessings: the number of balls required to issue a walk (BB)[3] fluctuated seven times. Initially, it took a pitcher nine-pitches to walk a batter; it was not until 1889 that the accepted number was four.[4] The reasoning behind these changes rings on the contemporary issue concerning speeding up the game. Baseball is a game that is constantly looking for a balance between offense and defense. In attempt to meet this balance with a more formulated time conscientious game, the rules were mended back and forth based on the development of the stadium, equipment, umpires and – more importantly – the defining 19th century ballplayer.

Before The Babe, there was The King…

One prime catalyst for propelling rule change in baseball is the great Mike Kelly known by the nickname, King Kelly or The King[5]. Celebrity player in his heyday, Kelly would be spotted with his pet monkey readily signing autographs for admiring fans before a game. He was embraced by not only baseball, but also American culture. His charismatic face and iconic mustache were conveyed through art, music, and literature.[6] The well-known painting by artist Frank O. Small depicting King Kelly sliding swiftly onto second[7] soon replaced formally celebrated paintings behind most bars in the city.[8] The base stealing Kelly even inspired one of the first hit pop songs of the 19th century, which was attributed to his entertaining style of baseball, “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” You could even argue that he inspired the Jay-Zs and Beyonces of the 19th century.

#YonceStatus

An artist of the game…

As legend has it, “half of the National League’s rules were written to keep King Kelly from stealing ballgames” (James 36).2 Kelly was a utility player[9] who led the league in batting in 1884, hitting .354 for the season and with the best record in baseball in 1886 winning him the NL batting title with a freakish .388 batting average (BA).[10] He helped lead the Chicago White Stockings to five pennants and then was purchased by the Boston Beaneaters for a whooping $10,000.

Nonetheless, it was his antics that brought a zest to the dish of greatness. The outfielder was known for tucking an extra ball into his pocket to quickly return a ball back into the infield and get the out. If ever did we ask for an example of a rule change being enforced because of the actions of a ballplayer, this is one of them. At that time, in-game substitutions were allowed; meaning, all a ballplayer had to do was call himself into a game. Naturally, during the ninth inning when the third out was popped over the head of King Kelly, who at the time was seated on the Chicago bench, sprouted up calling himself into play only to catch the game ending out.[11] There are countless accounts of Kelly cutting across the infield while running the bases to dropping his catcher’s mask on home-plate preventing a runner from touching home, and most notably for his pioneering of the fake limp to first base (seen oftentimes with players nowadays) where he would then suddenly (it is a miracle friends!) dash off to steal second. There are many descriptions of the King stealing five bases in a game, there are even reports of six steals in one game (the speedy Kansas City Royals have a lot to learn from this Hall of Famer). King Kelly averaged over 50 stolen bases (SB) in four consecutive years and ended with a career total of 368 SB.9 He was well known for this entertaining style of play and innovative tactics of eluding the rulebook. I am sure modern ballplayers would love to be admired for their shenanigans.

[Kelly’s] strongest playing point was that he was always ready. He could take advantage of a misplay which others wouldn’t see until afterward. He played the umpire as intelligently as he did the opposing nine. He would make a friend of him, engage his confidence, and in various ways get the best of close decisions.”

– Teammate Fred Pfeffer

Rethinking the rulebook…

Rules such as calling yourself into a game at anytime do not exist today. Cutting across the infield…forget about it. Changes in equipment, professionalization of the leagues, and player development (with the shaping of the minor leagues in the late 1880s) all contributed to the once rowdy and reckless origins of baseball. Players like The King certainly contributed to changes in the game and – at the same time – enabled the charm of the sport to capture the imaginations and hearts of Americans. There is no other decade in baseball history that has contributed to so many modifications in such a short timespan. With that being said, this type of influence is not unknown today. Player impact over the game is still prevalent, as we have seen with the fairly nascent home-plate collision rule in the wake of a tragic collision. The memory still lingers like a bruise on the hearts of Giants fans.

posey5261In 2011, Scott Cousins’ slid directly into Buster Posey—2010 Rookie of the Year, 2012 National League MVP, and three-time World Series champion catcher for the San Francisco Giants—causing a serious and, as all Giants fans feared at the time, potentially career-ending injury.[12] Fortunately, that was not the case. Buster Posey made a unimaginable recovery only to return in 2012 where he went on to lead his Giants into the World Series with a memorable and very satisfying win.

That’s it folks.

@BeantownGiant

Footies

[1] Engraved on the Cooperstown Hall of Fame plaque of Mike (King) Kelly.

[2] James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Free Press, 2001.

[3] The statistic for a walk is known as “Bases on Balls,” abbreviated as BB.

[4] http://www.baseball-almanac.com/rulechng.shtml

[5] His nickname came from the title “the King of Baseball,” which was given to him in the 1880s.

[6] Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field is an autobiographical collection of baseball stories written by King Kelly.

[7] Small, Frank O. “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” Print. 1880. Digital Commonwealth, http://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/sf2687821

[8] http://www.thenationalpastimemuseum.com/article/king-kelly-baseballs-first-celebrity-0

[9] Unlike players today, the King played every position.

[10] For more about his stats, checkout: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/k/kellyki01.shtml

[11] This is one of the many great stories and legends of King Kelly found in aforementioned book by Bill James.

[12] For more on the injury and the rule see: http://blog.sfgate.com/giants/2014/02/25/sf-giants-catcher-buster-posey-satisfied-with-new-plate-collision-rules/ and http://m.mlb.com/news/article/68267610/mlb-institutes-new-rule-on-home-plate-collisions

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About BeantownGiant

California Native, East Coast Transplant. Academic Researcher by day, Baseball Culturist-Historian by night. SFGiants fanatic. Writer @CheapSeatChron Catch me tweeting @BeantownGiant
This entry was posted in Baseball, Cheap Seat Chronicles, History, King Kelly, MLB. Bookmark the permalink.

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