One of the greatest player of the century - the 19th century, that is - Kelly was a flamboyant batsman and baserunner (his daring baserunning prompted fans to coin the battle cry, "Slide, Kelly, Slide") and he became the most popular player of his day. Such was his popularity that he can claim the dubious distinction of having written America's first sports autobiography.
The catcher-outfielder may have been baseball's first larger-than-life character, sparking the Chicago Nationals to 5 pennants, playing on 8 pennant winners altogether in 16 seasons and hitting .300 or better eight times. His .354 in 1884 and .388 in 1886 led the nascent NL. He led the league three times each in doubles and runs scored, and he is one of ten NL players to have scored a league-record six runs in one game.
But numbers don't do his talents justice. His manager Cap Anson credited Kelly with originating the hit-and-run play (though this is disputed). He devised baseball's first elaborate set of signals with pitcher Larry Corcoran, who would move his chaw from one cheek to the other to indicate fastball or curveball.
But his greatest skill was sliding. Kelly won renown for his daring baserunning, stealing at least 50 bases for four successive years, with a high of 84 for the Braves in 1887. He once stole six bases in one game. he could do the hook, he fadeaway, and the fallaway so expertly yhat his admirers insisted that he could box with his feet. After one especially dazzling effort, he was called out by umpire Honest John Kelly. But then King reached under his body, produced the ball and said, "John, if I'm out, what's this?"
Colorful both on and off the field, Kelly acted with flair and was admired and adored by fans. Sometimes, when the lone umpire wasn't looking, he would take a short cut to home from second base. He would trip up baserunners with his mask. Once, while playing right field in a game against Boston, with the score tied and dusk gathering in the 12th inning, he leaped high into the air and snatched a line drive with two hands, then ran straight into the dugout. The game was called on account of darkness; when his teammates asked him how far the ball had been hit, he replied, "How the hell should I know? It went a mile over my head."
But his most celebrated stunt occurred when he was a manager. A foul pop drifted near the dugout, out of reach of his catcher. Thinking quickly, he took advantage of the liberal substitution rules of the day - he yelled out "Kelly now catching for Murphy" and caught the ball.
After capturing the batting crown in 1886, Albert Spalding sold the colorful Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters for a then-record $10,000. Chicago fans were so upset they boycotted their team, except when Boston played there; such personages as Clarence Darrow and Eugene Field wrote irate letters to the city's newspapers.
Joining the Players' League in 1890 as Boston's player-manager, Kelly's team captured the league championship by posting an 81-48 record. After serving as player-manager for Cincinnati-Milwaukee of the American Association for part of 1891, Kelly returned to Boston and helped the Braves win titles in 1891 and 1892. He played a few games for the Giants in 1893, then drifted to the minors, managing Allentown in the Pennsylvania State League and Yonkers in the Eastern League.
He wore the finest tailored clothes and the most current styles, and American
billboards featured the handsome, happy-go-lucky Irishman as the nation's
best-dressed man. Kelly supplemented his income with off-season stage
appearances and wrote
In 1894, his career over, he began performing in burlesque shows. While traveling to Boston to appear at the Palace Theater for Mike Murphy's Burlesque Corps in the fall of 1894, he caught a cold that turned to pneumonia. He was taken to a hospital on November 5, and while some claimed he fell off the stretcher and others said he was dropped while going up the stairs, there was no dispute as to his final words. "This is my last slide," he whispered. Three days later, he was gone at age 36.
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