Michael "King" Kelly

Photograph of Michael "King" Kelly

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Michael Kelly was born in Troy, New York on December 31, 1857 to Mike and Catherine Kelly.  Both of his parents were Irish immigrants who fled the potato famine of the 1840s.  Kelly and his parents moved to Washington, D.C. before settling in Paterson, New Jersey.  Soon afterward both his parents died, leaving Kelly to fend for himself.  He found a job at a coal factory, and during his spare time he played baseball.  In the 1870s he joined several amateur baseball clubs and was quickly contracted by a minor-league team.  By 1878 he was playing for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, a National League team.

Kelly performed very well during his first year in the National League, but it was not until his second year that he really shined.  He batted .348, thus obtaining the third highest hitting average for that year.  He also became known for his ability to think quickly on the field and to find loopholes that would benefit himself and his team in the official game rules.  Combined with his penchant for arguing with and taunting other players and the umpires, Kelly turned baseball into a form of theater.

By the end of the 1880s there was a great deal of tension between major league players and owners.  Many players, including Kelly, became so frustrated and disillusioned that they formed the Players' League, which lured over one hundred players away from the National League. The goal was to create an organization that was more democratic and conducive to the needs of players. Unfortunately, due to a series of problems, it failed after only one year.

Despite this fact, Kelly was so beloved that in 1890 fans purchased a house in Hingham, Massachusetts for him and his wife of nine years, Agnes (Hedifent) Kelly.  On August 13, 1890 the Globe reported that Kelly and his friends came to Hingham on the train, went to the Cushing House where they were greeted by owner George Cushing, and then sat down for a meal.  Kelly received the papers for the house after dinner, and everyone then proceeded to Main Street in order to view it. Another article in the Globe describes the Main Street house as, "[e]nveloped in a maze of spreading branches of beautiful elm and maple rock trees in a quiet corner of the quiet town of Hingham..." 

Although Kelly seemed to enjoy his Hingham home, his stay was very brief.  He spent all of the money he earned in baseball on his wife, one child, and a lavish lifestyle.  As a result, he could not pay his taxes, and in 1893, he lost his beautiful home.  For the next several years Kelly played on different teams, but was losing his speed and strength.  He was sent out on the field less and less until his final game on September 2, 1894.

Although Kelly was very talented and generally considered to be a genial person, his performance on the field sometimes suffered from late-night drinking and gambling.  His money was often spent on alcohol for friends or tickets for plays and vaudeville. 

In the 1890s Kelly went from vaudeville admirer to performer, booking dates during the off-season and often performing the beloved poem "Casey at the Bat."  In 1895, while traveling to Boston, Kelly developed pneumonia and died only a few days later on November 8, 1895.  Kelly was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.