April 24th, 2013
Buck Ewing and King Kelly were quite a pair, though they never played on the same club. Ewing was Cincinnati’s hometown hero who made his mark in the big leagues with Troy; Michael Joseph Kelly left his birthplace of Troy to become the toast (alas, too frequently, for he drank his way out of the league) of Cincinnati and several other venues, notably Chicago and Boston. Ewing was a catcher who in later years played increasingly at other positions; Kelly began as an outfielder but wound up catching nearly as many games as he played in the garden. Ewing was a model citizen and the model for all right-thinking individuals; Kelly was a reprobate and perhaps an idol for the rest of us.
They were different in all these regards, Kelly and Ewing, but they had this in common: ordinary speed on the basepaths but cleverness and breathtaking daring. “Ewing’s Famous Slide” was the title of a popular litho of the day, memorializing an apocryphal tale of his announced intent (and ultimate success) in stealing home after he had already stolen second base and third.
Ewing was born in rural Ohio in 1859, played his first professional ball with the aptly named Buckeyes, and returned to Ohio to play with and manage the Reds in the 1890s. In fact, in a story little noted today, he’d returned there in 1883, when the Troy franchise collapsed. Suddenly finding himself without a home, Ewing signed with the Cincinnati Reds of the American Association. However, the great Harmony Conference (also known as the Tripartite Agreement) of the National League, the Northwestern League, and the American Association yielded a settlement by which Ewing (and fellow Trojans Mickey Welch and Pete Gillespie) were turned over to the newly formed New York Gothams. (New York’s National League team was known as the Gothams until manager Jim Mutrie, some years hence, exclaimed that his brawny lads were “Giants.”) Ewing scored more than a run per game and played at second, short, third, and the outfield when the catching grind wore him down.
He became a legend for his audacity, pluck, and field generalship. Intangibles went a long way with fans and sportswriters back then, more so than today when stats seem to be the sole measure of the man. But Ewing could hit: once he led in homers, another time in triples, and he hit as high as .344. He could throw: the snap throw to second from a crouch position started with Buck Ewing, not Pudge Rodriguez. And he could run, too, stealing 53 bases in the Giants’ championship year of 1888.
So how great was he, really? Twenty years after his last game, veteran sportswriters compared him to Cobb and Wagner and pronounced him their peer. And when the Hall of Fame was opened in 1939, Buck Ewing, long gone but still revered in all his hometowns, became its first catcher.
Kelly’s sliding wizardry was more scientific. He developed the hook slide, whereby he encouraged his opponent to try to tag the front leg that was away from the base while his back leg landed him safe. His exploits were celebrated not only in a Harper’s Weekly print from his Chicago White Stocking days but also in a Tin Pan Alley tune, “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” that gently mocked his vanity: “Slide, Kelly, slide! Your running’s a disgrace! Slide, Kelly, slide! Stay there, hold your base!”
Kelly was the first baseball star to milk his fame for all it was worth. Product endorsements, personality licensing, theatrical appearances, Kelly pioneered them all. With Play Ball: Stories of the Diamond Ball Field, he launched what has become a staple of baseball literature, the celebrity biography. Published by Emery & Hughes of Boston, this forty-six-page booklet (ghosted by Jack Drohan of the Boston Globe) is highly entertaining if not demonstrably factual. The stories about Kelly are legion, and like the ones attaching to Rube Waddell, that other great mythic figure of early baseball, if they’re not true, well, they ought to have been. History is more than the mere recitation of fact. Scrupulous fact checkers may successfully repudiate this story or that one, but they can’t attach feet of clay to Kelly’s idol because he did such a good job of that himself, drinking himself to death before he reached the age of 37.
There are a hundred great stories about the King, but let me share with you this almost certainly fictitious classic, a story that’s so often told and so illustrative of his genius that it’s better than merely true. Once, in the days when a substitution took effect upon a captain’s announcing it, an opposing batsman lifted a low foul ball toward the Boston dugout, where Kelly was taking a day off to recover from a bruise of the day before or the booze of the night before. Kelly saw his catcher would never get there in time, so he leapt from the bench, shouted, “Kelly now catching for Boston!” and snagged the fly. Not surprisingly, the rules makers changed things not long after that. No matter–rules were not made to constrain a King.
Sober or not, he was the best player in baseball in the mid-1880s. But Kelly’s high-living, fun-loving lifestyle had him in constant hot water with his Chicago manager, Cap Anson. When Kelly was sold to Boston in 1887, at the height of his career, it was for $10,000, the largest amount of money ever paid for a ballplayer. The medal given him by his Boston fans in that year was for his 84 stolen bases, the most on the club and the third best total in the league.
Out of baseball after a few games with New York in 1893, he sought a new career on the boards. He was on his way to Boston to perform Casey at the Bat at the Palace Theater in November 1894 when he was stricken with pneumonia. As they carried his stretcher into the hospital, it is said, the attendants tripped and dumped Kelly on the floor. “That’s me last slide,” he said. A few days later the “$10,000 Beauty” died.