High Pockets Kelly
Statistics can tell you a lot about a baseball player. In the case of George Kelly, they don’t say nearly enough. The first baseman for the New York Giants when they dominated the National League in the early 1920s, he was a clutch hitter par excellence and an astonishing defensive player. A quick-wristed slasher who could also crank out 400-foot homers, George made the winning play in back-to-back world championships and left a legacy as one of the most admired men in the game.
George Lange Kelly was born on September 10, 1895, in San Francisco, California. He was the product of a baseball-playing family. His mother’s brother, Bill Lange, was one of the best all-around players in professional baseball during the 1890s. George’s brother, Reynolds (aka Ren) Kelly, played pro ball for many years on the West Coast and pitched a game for the Philadelphia A’s in 1923.
Growing up in San Francisco, George watched the city blossom in the years after the earthquake of 1906. He rooted for the top pro team, the Wasps, who were champions of the California League in 1901. The Pacific Coast League, formed when George was 9 years old, displayed the talents of several future major leaguers, many of whom played for the hometown Seals. Ping Bodie was among the many memorable hitters on those early San Francisco clubs.
Kelly was long and lean. He stood 6-feet-4 as a teenager and could pitch, hit, and field with strength and a grace that was unusual in a boy of his build back then. George was good enough on the diamond to drop out of high school and make a buck playing semipro ball around the city and across the Bay in the Oakland area.
George experienced his first year of organized professional ball in 1914 at the age of 18. He manned first base and played the outfield for Victoria, British Columbia, of the Northwest League. He batted a modest .250 but showed flashes of power. A slashing hitter with moderate speed, he was known for going on tears during which he hammered inside pitches against—and occasionally over—the faraway fences of that era.
Kelly returned to Victoria in 1915 and collected 44 extra-base hits in just 94 games—enough for an August call-up from the Giants, who purchased his contract. The team was rebuilding at the time, and Kelly was eyed as a possible replacement at first base for Fred Merkle. However, he rode the pine for two seasons in New York and showed little at the plate, failing to hit .200 either year. He became the object of derision on the part of the fans. John McGraw once recalled that Kelly was “laughed out of the ballpark.”
And in a sense he was. The Giants were back in the first division by 1917, and McGraw, impatient with George’s lack of progress, placed him on waivers. The Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up to spell 43-year-old Honus Wagner at first base, but Kelly failed to hit again and was placed back on waivers. McGraw decided to give him another chance. He reclaimed Kelly and optioned him to Rochester, where he redeemed himself somewhat with a .300 average in 32 games.
After spending 1918 in military service, Kelly returned to baseball. He began the 1919 season at Rochester and mauled International League pitching at a .356 clip with 15 home runs—quite a feat in the Deadball days. He was promoted to the Giants after first baseman Hal Chase was suspended for his myriad misdeeds and gambling connections. Kelly played in 32 games at first and hit a robust .290 with good power. The Giants finished well behind the Cincinnati Reds, who went on to capture a tainted World Series over the infamous Chicago Black Sox.
In 1920, the Giants were primed to seize control of the National League. McGraw had a veteran pitching staff led by Art Nehf, Fred Toney, Jesse Barnes, and Phil Douglas. The lineup was balanced between up-and-coming players like Kelly, Frankie Frisch, and Ross Youngs and established hitters like Larry Doyle, George Burns, and Dave Bancroft, who was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies for old-timer Art Fletcher.
The Giants battled the Brooklyn Robins all year, but, despite a trio of 20-game winners, New York fell short by seven games. Perhaps the team’s best hitter, Kelly was one of four players in the league to reach double figures in doubles, triples, and homers. He led the National League with 94 RBIs and also 92 strikeouts. Kelly was a free-swinger during his career, although this was his only season atop the strikeout list.
McGraw could live with the K’s as long as the RBIs were there. Time and again, Kelly delivered clutch hits for the Giants. He fielded his position brilliantly as well, showing off his rifle arm when opponents tried to advance on infield plays. He regularly went far into the outfield for cutoff throws, wheeling around to nail surprised runners at home plate. It was George’s positioning and footwork on long hits that became the blueprint for all future first basemen on relays.
Kelly led the NL in assists and putouts in 1920 and 1921. The addition of the sure-handed Bancroft at shortstop created a startling number of chances for Kelly. In fact, his 1,759 putouts in 1920 established a new league record (which still stands), and he was consistently at or near the top of these categories throughout his career. Amazingly, from the first day he took the field for the Giants, George used the same first baseman’s glove, a thin piece of leather that looked positively prehistoric by the time he retired in the 1930s.
In 1921, the Giants were the class of baseball. Their offense had learned the art of hitting the new livelier baseball, with five regulars topping .300 and catchers Frank Snyder and Earl Smith combining for a .325 average and 18 home runs. Frisch, Youngs, and Burns set the table for Kelly, who socked a league-leading 23 homers and drove in 122 runs to lead the team. Only Rogers Hornsby had more RBIs that year.
In just his second full season, Kelly had distinguished himself as one of baseball’s best clutch hitters. Over the years, McGraw would say that there was no player on his roster that he would rather see at the plate in a big situation than the man fans called Long George and Highpockets. McGraw was especially proud of the work that had gone into developing Kelly, and the dividends paid by his uncharacteristic patience with the young slugger.
Unlike the home run champion, Babe Ruth, who shared his stadium (the Polo Grounds), Kelly was a quiet, businesslike player who did not yearn for public attention. This earned him much respect and many friends in the game over the years—and figured importantly into his ultimate Cooperstown enshrinement. His baseball acquaintances simply called him Kell.
The Giants trailed the Pirates for much of the 1921 season but swept a five-game series at the Polo Grounds in August to seize control of the pennant race. In what was perhaps the key at-bat of the season for New York, Kelly faced control artist Babe Adams in the sixth inning of the nip-and-tuck opener and worked the count to 3 and 0. When he peered into the dugout for the expected take sign, Kelly was surprised to see McGraw signal him to swing away. Adams laid one in, and Kelly hit it into the railroad yard behind the left-field bleachers.
The Giants finished with 94 victories and a four-game cushion over the Pirates. It was a nice piece of managing by McGraw. Almost the entire team had turned over since the 1917 pennant-winner.
In the World Series, the Giants faced their Polo Grounds tenants, the Yankees, in a best-of-nine format. The Yanks shocked fans with shutouts in the first two games, but the Giants rebounded to win five of the next six. The last two games were close, exciting affairs, won by McGraw’s men 2–1 and 1–0.
Kelly had a difficult series at the plate but made up for it in the ninth inning of the final game. With one out and Aaron Ward running on the pitch from first, Home Run Baker drilled a grounder toward right field. Second baseman Johnny Rawlings made a sprawling stop and threw to Kelly from his knees to nip the runner. Ward never stopped, and George, ever attentive, gunned the ball across the infield to Frisch, who took the throw as the Yankee runner crashed into him. Flat on his back, Frisch held the ball high so that the umpire could call the final out.
The bang-bang play was a fitting end to a thrilling contest. The game’s lone run had come in the first inning, when sure-handed Roger Peckinpaugh was unable to handle a hit by Kelly.
The Giants got off to a fast start in 1922, and the rest of the league never caught up. Kelly was at the heart of the offense again with 17 homers and 107 RBIs to go with a .328 batting average. Irish Meusel, picked up in a trade the previous season, had a career year at the plate, and the team got a boost from veteran Casey Stengel, who won the center field job at midseason. The Giants were hard to stop with the bats in their hands. In one game against the Boston Braves, Youngs hit for the cycle, and Kelly added a pair of inside-the-park home runs.
New York easily outdistanced the Reds, Pirates, and St. Louis Cardinals to win the pennant again. The World Series, against the Yankees again, was exciting but one-sided. The AL representative had leads in three games only to see the Giants come back to win each time. The Giants won another game with a 3-0 shutout. Another game ended in darkness a 3-3 tie. With the Series returning to a best-of-seven format, the Giants were repeat champions. Once again, Kelly was in the thick of the winning play. He knocked in the tying and tie-breaking runs in Game Five with a bases-loaded single in the eighth inning. The Yankees, leading 3-2, had walked Youngs to get to Kelly.
The Polo Grounds got a facelift in 1923, as the Yankees moved across the river to their shiny new stadium. With more seats added to the Giants’ ballpark, more fans saw the team prevail in a spirited race with the Reds. Once again, Kelly hit triple digits in RBIs and batted over .300. He had his first of two career three-homer games, made more noteworthy by the fact that he rounded the bases in three successive innings. A potential crisis developed in New York when Bancroft fell ill late in the year. Bancroft’s incredible range was the key to the team’s defense, not to mention George’s league-leading putout totals. Fortunately, teenager Travis Jackson filled in at shortstop and the team didn’t miss a beat.
For the third straight fall, the Giants and Yankees met for all the marbles. This time, the Pinstripers got the better of Kelly and his teammates. The series seesawed back and forth for four games before Bronx power provided the winning margin in Games Five and Six. Kelly was one of several Giants who was stifled at the plate. He collected a mere four hits.
The Giants regrouped to win the pennant in 1924. Kelly was the man, slamming 21 homers and knocking in 136 runs to lead both leagues. He did much of this damage during an eye-popping stretch in July when he belted home runs in six straight games. He actually established a new record with a total of seven in those six contests. Earlier in the season, he produced the second three-homer game of his career.
New York edged the Pirates and Robins in the final week but the Giants were denied a chance to face the Yankees again, as the Bronx Bombers faltered down the stretch and were beaten for the pennant by the Washington Senators. As the fall classic approached, a scandal broke that involved several Giants. Jimmy O’Connell, a reserve outfielder, and coach Cozy Dolan were accused of offering a Phillies player money to “lay down” in a late-season game. When questioned by the commissioner’s office, O’Connell suggested that Kelly and Frisch had known about the plot. Both players, viewed as paragons of fair play by the baseball powers, were quickly cleared of any wrongdoing. O’Connell was banned from organized ball for life. The World Series started under this cloud, but when it went the distance, the scandal was mostly forgotten. The Giants appeared to have the upper hand late in Game Seven, until veteran Walter Johnson took the mound and shut New York down. The championship was decided in the 12th inning when a bad-hop grounder plated the winning run for the Senators. Kelly led all batters in the series with seven runs.
The Giants failed to repeat as NL champs in 1925, a season that saw Kelly log most of his games as the team’s second baseman. McGraw was intent on getting young Bill Terry’s bat into the lineup, and Kelly agreed to move over when Frisch injured his hand. He did a fine job at an unfamiliar position, and also enjoyed another solid year at the plate with 20 home runs, 99 RBIs, and a .309 average.
Kelly played his final season for the Giants in 1926. Reinstalled at first base, he had a stellar season on defense. He also led the club in home runs and RBIs. But with the team playing .500 ball and Bill Terry languishing on the bench, the Giants decided to move Kelly, who at 30 years old still had some trade value. After the season, he was dealt to the Reds for veteran outfielder Edd Roush.
Cincinnati already had a first baseman, Wally Pipp, and was solid at second and in the outfield, George’s other potential positions. For the Reds, the trade was more about unloading the taciturn Roush. Kelly saw just 236 plate appearances during the 1927 campaign, as the Reds finished in the second division.
Kelly got into more games for the Reds in 1928, supplanting Pipp as the everyday first sacker and batting .296. Cincinnati won more than half its games but was not a serious threat for the pennant. The club bottomed out the following year, losing 88 games. The Reds were good at manufacturing runs, mostly through singles and steals. Kelly often did the heavy lifting with runners on base. In fact, he surpassed the 100-RBI plateau for the fifth and final time of this career in 1929. But with the game favoring power hitting more and more, the Reds floundered without an abundance of run producers.
Cincinnati released Kelly during the summer of 1930. He played for six weeks with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, and then was acquired by the Chicago Cubs to fill in for injured Charlie Grimm at first base. He hit a sparkling .331 and got to witness the tail end of one of history’s most remarkable hitting displays as teammate Hack Wilson clubbed 56 homers and amassed 191 RBIs. The Cubs went down to the wire with the Cardinals, but St. Louis slipped by them in the final week to win the pennant.
The 1931 season found Kelly without a major-league job. The Millers, however, welcomed him back with open arms, and he rewarded them by blasting 20 homers and driving in 112 runs. He moved on to Jersey City at the start of the 1932 campaign and was picked up by Brooklyn a couple of months into the season. The acquisition enabled the Dodgers to move first-sacker Joe Stripp to third base, the team’s weak spot. Kelly was reunited with Hack Wilson, who teamed with Lefty O’Doul, Johnny Frederick and Danny Taylor to give Brooklyn a surprisingly potent attack—and the Cubs a run for their money. The Dodgers finished third, and Kelly completed his last big-league season with a .243 average.
Kelly could look back on his career with great pride. His average stood at .297, and he finished with 1,020 RBIs—good stats by any measure in the gigantic stadiums of his day. He also had 148 home runs, and his two three-homer games remained a National League record until Johnny Mize set a new mark more than 20 years later. Kelly’s career slugging average was only .452, but at a time when first base in the National League was not a position given over to big swingers, it was a very respectable number.
Kelly returned to California over the winter and was offered a job as a reserve outfielder with the Oakland Oaks the following season. He didn’t have much left in the tank and called it quits after 21 games.
He stayed in baseball as a coach, and in 1935, he was hired by his old Cincinnati teammate Chuck Dressen, who managed the Reds. He stayed with the club until 1937, when Dressen was fired.
Casey Stengel, another former teammate, offered Kelly a job with the Boston Braves in 1938. He coached for Boston until 1943, when Stengel was relieved of his duties. Kelly wasn’t done with baseball. He scouted for the Reds on the West Coast for a couple of years and returned to the field as a coach for the team during the 1947 and 1948 seasons. He did some more scouting after that, and eventually retired to the town of Millbrae, California..
In 1971, a distant cousin of George’s, Rich Chiles, played in his first major-league game. Chiles logged six seasons in the majors, bouncing between the Houston Astros, New York Mets, and Minnesota Twins.
In 1973, Kelly learned that he had been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, which at the time included former players and team executives who knew him well. He entered Cooperstown along with Mickey Welch, Billy Evans, Monte Irvin, Warren Spahn, and Roberto Clemente.
Highpockets passed away on October 13, 1984, in Burlingame, California, at the age of 88. Before he died, he was a generous contributor of memories and recollections to baseball writers and historians. He had seen it all, from the earliest days of Pacific Coast League baseball, through the final days of the Deadball Era, to the development of the modern game. When asked to name his all-time all-star team, he often placed Ernie Lombardi at catcher. As a coach, he worked with Lombardi on the Reds in the 1930s. He listed Glenn Wright, with whom he played ever so briefly in Brooklyn, as the most underrated player of his time.
Some have criticized Kelly’s place among the immortals, feeling he was a notch below Cooperstown quality. Though he had a flair for hitting dramatic home runs, he was not a classic slugger. And the fielding prowess of first basemen has never merited their inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Gil Hodges fans, for example, have often pointed to Kelly and asked, “If Highpockets is in, why not Gil?” These are the debates keep baseball history alive and, ultimately, make the game great.
A version of this biography originally appeared on the site Jockbio.com.
Alexander, Charles. John McGraw. New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.
Mercurio, John. Chronology of Major League Baseball Records. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Neft, David, Michael Neft, and Richard Cohen. The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.
Graham, Frank. McGraw of the Giants. New York: G.P. Putnams Son, 1944.
Schoor, Gene. The History of the World Series. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1990.
Shatzkin, Mike, editor. The Ballplayers. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1990.
Skipper, John. A Biographical Dictionary of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2000.
Smith, Ira. Baseball’s Famous First Basemen. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1956.
Novi, Jud. “George Kelly Recalls the Game of Fifty Years Ago.” Baseball Digest, June 1979.
Hanna, William. “Long George Kelly: A True Star of the Diamond.” Baseball Magazine, August 1926.
The New York Times (various articles from the 1920s)