By Scott A. Rowan
Nearly 100 years before Bob Uecker, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Merlin Olsen, or any of the other sports stars who became as famous (or infamous) for their acting roles as they were for their athletic careers, former Chicago baseball star Mike “King” Kelly beat them to the punch. Kelly, who performed in vaudeville shows at the end of his career, would undoubtedly have added films to his list of accomplishments had movies existed in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In addition to his performances on the stage, King Kelly was the inspiration for the fi rst pop song in recorded history, wrote the fi rst player autobiography, was quite possibly the inspiration for the most famous sports poem in history, and launched the pastime of autograph collecting.
Fans couldn’t seem to get enough of Kelly. Standing 5’10” and weighing 170 pounds, he was defiant and handsome, a hard drinker and a known womanizer who loved the attention of the crowd. As Glenn Stout wrote in his book The Cubs:
He [Kelly] found a way to exploit every possible advantage during a game, such as cutting corners when he ran the bases if he noticed the umpire looking the other direction. In one particularly notable act of tactical brilliance, Kelly was sitting on the bench when the opposition lofted a foul ball in his direction. Th e King sprang to his feet, called out, “Now catching, Kelly,” and caught the ball. Th e out stood, for there was no rule against making a substitution in the middle of a play.1
Called “the Babe Ruth of the nineteenth century,”2 Kelly’s immense popularity was largely due to his daring on the base paths, where he pioneered the “hook” slide that fans loved to see—and which became the basis for a famous song years later. The hard-partying player was known for his exploits with women and his disdain for authority figures, two traits that seemed to make him more popular than any other player. Kelly may not have lived to be very old, but he had a life that many young men dream of living.
After two seasons in Cincinnati to start his career, Kelly signed with the White Stockings as a free agent before the 1880 season, sparking the first dynasty in professional baseball history. During the next seven seasons (1880–86), Kelly led Chicago to five first-place finishes in the National League, as well as one second-place finish.
Despite his great talent, however, Kelly was a problem for the team. Owner A.G. Spalding and player/manager Cap Anson both preached restraint when it came to alcohol and womanizing. Kelly laughed off their demands and did as he pleased, taking full advantage of his reputation as arguably the greatest player in the game. Wrote Stout:
Not only was Kelly a drunk, a gambler, and a womanizer, but even worse, his behavior seemed to have little effect on his play, which made discipline impossible to enforce. In fact, although Kelly had spent most of the 1886 season drinking more often and harder than ever, he had responded with his greatest season ever, hitting .388, scoring 155 runs in 118 games, and knocking out 175 hits. A performance like that led others on the team to follow his example and excuse their own behavior and ignore Anson’s admonitions to hew to the straight and narrow.3
Spalding had had enough of Kelly’s antics, and on February 14, 1887, sold his rights for $10,000—a staggering amount at the time—to Boston, who welcomed the colorful Irishman to town. Chicago’s dynasty ended with the departure of Kelly, who became an even bigger legend during his tenure in Boston thanks to artists who gave the ballplayer immortality in poetry and song.
Ernest Thayer’s famous poem “Casey at the Bat” first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888. Later that summer, East Coast newspapers reprinted the poem, switching “Kelly” for “Casey”—one of the reasons historians cite Kelly as the inspiration for the poem. Another reason was that Kelly, who had parlayed his outrageous personality into a vaudeville act, appropriated the poem, reciting it as if he had written it himself. Thayer, however, never confirmed that Kelly was the inspiration for the poem, contending rather that “Casey” was an amalgam of several different players. While Kelly’s claim to being the inspiration for “Casey” is questionable, what isn’t is the effect he had on popular music, according to biographer Marty Appel, author of Slide, Kelly, Slide: The Wild Times and Life of Mike King Kelly. In 1889, well-known vaudeville actor, singer, and comedian John W. Kelly (no relation) published the song “Slide, Kelly, Slide”; his costar, Maggie “the Irish Queen” Cline, then made it famous by using it in her stage performances. Two years later, on August 3, 1891, popular singer George J. Gaskin recorded the song on a wax cylinder, a new invention that allowed multiple recordings to be made at once. The cylinders were sold in the marketplace beginning in 1892. This time period also marked the beginning of tracking music sales, and the first song that topped the charts, according to Appel, was “Slide, Kelly, Slide” (GeoVerse™188), with its catchy refrain:
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Your running’s a disgrace!
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Stay there, hold your base!
If someone doesn’t steal you,
And your batting doesn’t fail you,
They’ ll take you to Australia! Slide, Kelly, slide!
The line about Australia refers to Spalding’s off season baseball tour of 1888– 89, which took an all-star team of players to games in Australia, along with other stops around the world, in an effort to popularize the game internationally. Spalding, a teetotaler, despised Kelly’s drunkenness and refused to allow him on the team despite the fact that he was one of the best players in the game. Wrote Appel:
By January 9, 1892, the song had become America’s first “pop hit record”—a song that was neither classical nor opera, patriotic nor religious. It was just a silly song that captivated the nation and helped make baseball more mainstream than it had been. . . . [Kelly] was full of innovation in his short life. The very practice of signing random autographs for strangers on the street began with Kelly—not just for ballplayers, but for all celebrities.4
In addition to becoming the first hit pop song, “Slide, Kelly, Slide” also became the inspiration for two movies of the same name. Chicago-based Essanay Studios produced a silent film in 1910, which was followed by a 1927 talking film “talkie” starring William Haines as Tom Kelly, the ace pitcher of the New York Yankees. While the movie changed Kelly’s affiliation to the Yankees, it did feature two other actors with connections to the White Stockings/Cubs. The father of Kelly’s love interest in the film was played by actor Harry Carey, who was the inspiration for the pseudonym chosen years later by announcer Harry Christopher Carabina, known to the world as Harry Caray. And Tony Lazzeri, who played for the Cubs in 1938 but was more-well known for striking out against Grover Cleveland Alexander in the 1926 World Series, appeared in the film as Tony Lazzen.
Between signing autographs, writing his 1888 autobiography Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field, and the popularity of both “Casey at the Bat” and “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” Kelly was the first true crossover celebrity in American sports and entertainment. However, by the time “Slide, Kelly, Slide” hit the charts, the ballplayer was near death due to his hard drinking.
Kelly was hospitalized during the fall of 1894. Entertaining to the end, while there he slipped on the floor, prompting him to utter, “This is my last slide.”5
Sadly, that would be no joke. Kelly died on November 8, 1894, at the age of 36.
A 1945 veteran’s committee selected Kelly for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which credited him with writing the first autobiography of a baseball player, but made no mention of his contributions to American music culture or his connection with “Casey at the Bat.”