|King Kelly is one of baseball's most storied players, one of the game's first superstars and perhaps the most colorful player of the 19th century, if not of all time. He was extremely popular, thus the nickname. Michael Joseph Kelly was "The King" long before Elvis.
It has been said that most of the baseball rule book was written to close loopholes Kelly exploited. Take substitutions, for example. In 1891 he was the player-manager of the appropriately named Cincinnati Kellys in the American Association. He benched himself one day and was watching the action from the dugout when an opposing batter hit a pop fly that headed his way. Knowing his catcher didn't have a chance to get the ball, Kelly ran on the field, yelled to the umpire that he was putting himself in the game, and caught the ball for an out.
This prompted a rule change that substitutions could not be made while the ball was in play.
Another Kelly catch that people loved to talk about was made while he was holding the mug of beer he carried to the outfield because he hadn't quenched his thirst between innings. Legend is Kelly made the catch with his free hand while running. The mug remained tightly clenched in his other hand, and spectators claimed Kelly caught the ball without spilling a drop.
What's missing from that story is the cigarette that seemed a permanent fixture between his lips. He often smoked while playing the outfield. Reportedly he once hired a Japanese butler whose duties included lighting a cigarette and handing it to Kelly as soon as the player finished his last one.
In Kelly's day, baseball games had only one umpire. Players quickly realized one umpire couldn't possibly keep track of everything that was happening on certain plays. Thus Kelly would sometimes skip second base when the umpire wasn't looking, and run directly from first to third. Or, if he was on second base, he'd run straight home, skipping third base. Kelly wasn't the only player to take shortcuts, but he was the most notorious.
He obviously was no shrinking violet. In 1888 he wrote baseball's first autobiography, "Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Field." It sold for a quarter. In 2006 it was reprinted, with a price tag of $27.
Most of the time you'd find Kelly in the outfield, though he also did a lot of catching. In between he played every other position at one time or another, including 12 pitching appearances. He led the National League in hitting twice, stole a bunch of bases and inspired a popular saying that was turned into a song, "Slide, Kelly, Slide." Some say he invented the slide. Maybe not, but nobody did it quite like King Kelly.
Kelly's eating, smoking and drinking excesses caught up with him and by 1892 he looked like an old man. He played like one, too, hitting only .189 in 78 games with the Boston Beaneaters. Two years later he died of what was termed "typhoid pneumonia." He was only 36.
Kelly started his major league career with the Cincinnati Reds in 1878, but it was with the Chicago White Stockings (1880-86) that he earned his fame. His best seasons were in Chicago when he hit .354 in 1884 and .388 in 1886. The rest of his career was spent mostly with Boston teams in the National League, the ill-fated Players League (1890) and the American Association (1891). The Players League resulted from a dispute between major league players and team owners. Players set up their own league and it lasted just one season. Thus King Kelly, who managed the Boston Reds, lead his team to the one and only Players League pennant.
But for Kelly, the weirdest season might have been 1891. He returned to Cincinnati to manage a team in the American Association. The Cincinnati Kellys competed for attention againt the Cincinnati Reds of the National League. Not surprisingly, the Kellys lost, going out of business after 100 games and finishing seventh in an awkwardly arranged nine-team league. The other teams in the American Association continued to play and Kelly joined the first place Boston Reds long enough to play four games. Then he jumped back to the National League's Boston Beaneaters which had been Kelly's team from 1887-89. Kelly was a Beaneater in 1892 and a year later played briefly for the New York Giants.
In 1945 King Kelly was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.