SABR

Jim Kelly

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

A live bat, good speed, and a solid work ethic should have afforded a substantial major-league career to the World War I-era outfielder who played under the name Jim Kelly. But Kelly was handicapped by a belated start in professional baseball and owed his relatively brief tenure as a big leaguer to forces far larger than his playing skills. First, established baseball’s conflict with the upstart Federal League and, thereafter, American entry into the Great War provided Kelly and others with major-league playing time. And once those hostilities were concluded, the likes of Jim Kelly were discarded, dispatched back to the minors or released outright. Still, Kelly – who lived a quiet life off the diamond under his given name of Bob Taggert – persevered, playing the game that he loved for decades more. As remembered by his grandson Joe, Bob Taggert, aka Jim Kelly, hit a home run in his final game as an Ohio industrial league player in 1946. He was then 62 years old.

The ballplayer known as Jim Kelly was born Robert John Taggert in Bloomfield, New Jersey, on February 1, 1884. He was the oldest of four children born to the elder Robert Taggert, a coachman who had emigrated from England in the late 1860s, and his wife, the former Matilda Frey, a native of Scotland.i By 1900, the Taggert family had relocated to the adjoining city of Newark, where Robert and his younger siblings attended school.ii Little else is known of the early life of the player who became Jim Kelly, except that he began his career with amateur and semipro clubs in and around Newark, playing as Bob Taggert.iii

The whereabouts and activities of Bob Taggert during his younger adult years are unknown. As far as has been discovered, he made his debut in professional baseball in 1911. Presumably to disguise the fact that he was already 27 years old, Taggert altered his name to James Robert Kelly and trimmed six years off his age, giving his employers an 1890 birth year.iv Measuring 5-feet-10 and weighing 180 pounds, Kelly batted left, threw right, and played his entire pro career as an outfielder. Authorities differ on just where the Kelly career started. According to Baseball-Reference, he spent his first year with the Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) Robin Hoods of the Class D Western Canada League in 1911, batting .332, with 22 extra-base hits. Again according to Baseball-Reference, he then split the 1912 campaign between Great Falls and Helena (Montana) of the Class D Union Association, batting a combined .276 in 125 games. The transaction cards in the Kelly file at the Giamatti Research Center, however, tell a different story. The cards place Kelly with the Chillicothe Infants of the Class D Ohio State League, playing both seasons for $125 a month and batting .303 (1911) and .309 (1912). Although they lack the degree of statistical detail provided by the Baseball-Reference entries for Kelly, the more probable accuracy of the Giamatti Research Center player transaction cards’ placement of Kelly in Chillicothe during 1911 and 1912 is bolstered by a telltale domestic event. On March 21, 1913, New Jersey native Robert John Taggert (aka Jim Kelly) was married to Rosetta Crum in the bride’s hometown of Chillicothe, Ohio. From that date on, Bob and Rosetta Taggert would spend the offseasons of their 48-year marriage as residents of Chillicothe.

The Kelly transaction cards indicate that after the 1912 season, he was drafted for $300 by the Denver Bears of the Class A Western League. Kelly, however, did not stick with Denver, being optioned to Great Falls in April 1913. An outstanding .333 BA, with 38 extra-base hits, in 121 games at Great Falls prompted Kelly’s recall at season’s end. But his return to Denver was preempted when the outfielder was drafted and then reserved for the 1914 season by the National League Pittsburgh Pirates.

Jim Kelly made his major-league debut as a 30-year-old Pirates pinch-hitter on April 24, 1914, making a ninth-inning out in a 6-1 loss to St. Louis. After another unsuccessful pinch-hitting appearance the following day, Kelly saw no further action for almost two weeks. Then on May 9, he collected his first major-league base hit, a pinch-hit single off Cubs right-hander Jimmy Lavender. Thereafter, Pirates manager called on Kelly more regularly as a pinch-hitter, but rarely used him in the outfield. Despite good speed and an official 1.000 fielding average,v Kelly was considered a defensive liability during his Pirates tenure and appeared in the outfield in only seven games. Pittsburgh sportswriter A.R. Cratty panned his defensive play in an early-August loss to the Giants, writing that “Jim Kelly in right field gummed up a couple of spanks [hits] that should have been boscoed [caught] instead of being permitted to go for long hits. That display settled Jim’s goose as a Pirate. Back to the minors with him.”vi The sentiments of club management were apparently in accord. On August 27 Pittsburgh sold his contract to the last-place Jersey City Skeeters of the Double-A International League.vii In his limited time with the Pirates, Kelly had batted .227 (10-for-44), with three extra-base hits.

Over the winter of 1914-1915, the Pittsburgh Rebels, the local entry in the newly arrived Federal League, embarked upon a campaign to upgrade the club’s talent via raiding its Steel City rival, the Pirates. On Opening Day 1915 the Rebels lineup included former Pirates Ed Konetchy (1B), Mike Mowrey (3B), and Jim Kelly (RF). The Pirates had attempted to recall Kelly during the offseason but he had refused their contract, signing instead with the Pittfeds.viii Finally given a chance to play full-time, the 31-year-old Kelly turned in an outstanding 1915 season. On April 24 a home-run-robbing catch by Rebels right fielder Kelly preserved a Frank Allen no-hitter over the St. Louis Terriers, the first in Federal League history. Two weeks later Kelly hit the first pitch of a May 11 game against Buffalo for a four-bagger, accounting for the only run in Pittsburgh’s 1-0 victory. With the FL pennant race devolving into a three-way contest between the Rebels, Chicago, and St. Louis, the Pittsburgh Press raved about the play of the hometown club’s leadoff man. “Jim Kelly is still playing the great game that he has been putting up for the last couple of months, and is making a bid to climb over the .300 mark in batting. He has been slamming the ball consistently and yesterday picked off three bingles in five trips to the plate. His fielding has been great and nothing seems too hard for him to handle.”ix The highlight of the season for Kelly, however, came away from the field. On July 22, 1915, wife Rosetta gave birth to John Robert Taggert, the couple’s only child.

The 1915 Federal League flag would be decided by the outcome of a late-season six-game series between Pittsburgh and Chicago. With the Rebels trailing 3-1 in the next-to-last game, Kelly tied the score with a two-run triple in the bottom of the eighth, but damaged his knee sliding into third. He was out for the remainder of the series, the injury inflicting a “crucial” blow to Rebels’ pennant chances in the estimation of Federal League historian Robert Peyton Wiggins.x In the end Pittsburgh (86-67) finished third, an eyelash behind the champion Chicago Whales (86-66) and runner-up St. Louis (87-67).

Given the opportunity to be an everyday player, Kelly had proved his mettle. He batted a solid .294, with 33 extra-base hits, and stole 38 bases, the third highest total in the FL. Among the Rebels, Kelly’s totals in triples (17), home runs (4), total bases (212), and slugging percentage (.405) were bettered only by the long-ball-hitting Ed Konetchy. Jim had also defended capably, although his 15 errors were the most by a FL flychaser.xi Such performance should have extended Kelly’s stay in the majors, but he, like a multitude of others, fell victim to the demise of the Federal League at the close of the 1915 season.

During the offseason, Sporting Life reported that, “Outfielder Robert Taggert of the Pittsburgh Feds, who plays under the name Jimmy Kelley [sic], is at home in Chillicothe, O., and says that he hasn’t taken on a pound of weight since the end of the season. His right knee, which was injured the day before the season closed, is all right again.”xii His professional situation was far more unsettled. In January 1916 Taggert/ Kelly was among the erstwhile Rebels unconditionally released by club president Ed Gwinner. When Kelly contacted National Commission chairman Garry Herrmann, he was advised that his rights had reverted to the Pittsburgh Pirates, the club that he had jumped for the Federal League.xiii When asked about Kelly’s status with the club, Pirates president Barney Dreyfuss played it coy, informing the press, “I do not care to make any statement on that score at this time. Kelley knows what he has to do. Let him apply to me for a job if he wants to.”xiv But Sporting News correspondent Ralph E. Davis judged the statement as no more than a ploy designed to afford Dreyfuss the chance to administer a parting tongue-lashing to a contract jumper. Kelly, Konetchy, Mike Mowrey, and the other one-time Pirates had no real chance for re-employment by the club.xv

For Jim Kelly, adrift professionally and with a wife and child to support, 1916 would prove a trying year. As reflected by the transaction cards in his file at the Giamatti Research Center, Kelly signed with the Indianapolis Indians of the Double-A American Association on March 31. A month later he was sold to Memphis Chickasaws of the Class A Southern Association. A lowly .196 batting average in 40 games for Memphis earned Kelly another demotion; he was sold to the Galveston Pirates of the Class B Texas League. But Kelly refused to report and was placed on the suspended list by Memphis on July 25. Shortly thereafter he was reinstated so that his contract could be sold to the Great Falls Electrics of the Class B Northwestern League. Here Kelly regained his bearings, batting .320 in 52 late-season games. The following year, a fast (.353 BA) start with Great Falls led to Kelly’s acquisition by the Columbus Senators of the American Association.xvi Although Kelly batted only .248 in 64 games with Columbus, circumstances had now aligned for his return to the major leagues.

In the beginning, American entry into World War I in April 1917 had not had a dramatic effect on Organized Baseball. The 1917 season was played pretty much as usual. That all changed, however, as the conflict continued – particularly after the War Department issued its “Work or Fight” order to able-bodied young men. Although past prime draft age, Jim Kelly had dutifully registered for military service with the Chillicothe draft board under his true identity: Robert John Taggert, date of birth, February 1, 1884. His occupation was listed as a carpenter in the employ of John Crum, his father-in-law. He then reported to the Columbus club for the 1918 season, again using his nom de baseball Jim Kelly. But uncertainty regarding the playing of the season abounded. With ranks thinned by player entry into the military or by the performance of vital support activities on the farm or in defense plants, many clubs, particularly those in the lower minor leagues, ceased operations. The American Association began the 1918 season as scheduled, but hesitantly. Then on July 21, it suspended operations for the 1918 season, thereby leaving Double-A players available for major league call-up.

The baseball situation in Boston was a commonplace one. Although the Red Sox and Braves continued to play, the attention of the New England citizenry was concentrated on the war. Each day, newspaper headlines encapsulated developments at the front, with related reportage often focused on the heavy casualties suffered by local men in arms. Baseball was a matter of secondary interest. During 1918 the Boston press generally contracted its sports coverage to a single page, with most of the ink devoted to the American League-leading Red Sox. Little attention was paid to the Braves, deep in the National League second division. Seeking to improve their standing, the Braves signed a number of the now unemployed Columbus players, including Jim Kelly, batting a healthy .324 when the league stopped. Upon his arrival in Boston on July 27, the new Braves outfielder informed the press that he was dropping the alias Kelly and would play under his birth name of Taggert.xvii No explanation for the name change was published, but those playing professional baseball while a war raged were resented in many quarters. And playing in Boston under an assumed name would have been particularly ill-considered. Moreover, as Robert John Taggert, a 34-year-old married man with a wife and young child to support, the new Braves player was not suitable military draft material (unlike James Robert Kelly, a seemingly unattached 28-year-old). In any event, the Braves’ regular left fielder was now a newcomer named Taggert, although the press called him Jim or Jimmy, rather than Bob.xviii

Whatever the first name, Taggert made a fine first impression in Boston, going 3-for-8 in a July 26 doubleheader sweep of Cincinnati. Ed McGrath of the Boston Post advised readers that “the new outfielder Taggert … gave a handsome account of himself, fielding correctly and hitting fiendishly,”xix while James C. O’Leary of the Boston Globe reported that the work of Jimmy Taggert “in the field and at the bat made a favorable impression, and if he can keep it up will help [Braves] Manager [George] Stallings considerably.”xx The Boston Herald’s Burt Whitman summed up the situation succinctly, calling Taggert’s arrival “good news” for the Braves.xxi Three days later, “Jim Taggert broke [Cubs manager] Fred Mitchell’s heart by pounding a triple to right field with two on and two out in the last half of the ninth” to give the Braves a 3-2 victory over Chicago.xxii

Taggert continued his standout play for the remainder of the abbreviated 1918 season, called to a close on September 1. In 35 late-season games, he batted .329 and provided sound outfield defense for the seventh place (53-71) Braves. With 215 major-league games now under his belt as Jim Kelly and Jimmy Taggert, the outfielder had raised his lifetime batting average to .297, outstanding for the Deadball Era. He had also proved a capable basestealer and a more-than-adequate defensive player. Baseball Magazine deemed Taggert a likely Boston returnee for the 1919 season.xxiii Sadly, it was not to be. The major-league playing career of Jim Kelly/Taggert had reached its end, the victim of exposure of his true age (35) and the return to baseball of younger, more established players from military service and defense-industry jobs.

His major-league days may have been behind him, but Taggert’s professional career was far from over. Over the ensuing decade (1919-1928), he appeared in more than 1,200 minor-league games, once again playing as Jim Kelly. Into his 40s, he remained a Double-A-level player, taking a regular turn in the outfield for Columbus, Newark, and Syracuse. Kelly then gradually dropped down, going first to the Class A Eastern League (Hartford, 1926), and then to the Class B New England League (Lawrence, 1926). Our subject finished his minor-league career as Bob Taggert, player-manager for the Augusta Tygers of the Class B South Atlantic League (1927) and the Vicksburg Hill Billies of the Class D Cotton States League (1928).

Back home in Chillicothe, Taggert took a position as a watchman for the Mead Corporation, a manufacturer of paper products. He also played for the Mead baseball team in the local industrial league. Joe Taggert recalled accompanying his grandfather to his final game as an active player sometime in 1946. At 62, Bob Taggert bade farewell to the game that he had played for nearly a half-century by hitting a home run. Because neither he nor his wife had a driver’s license, Bob spent his remaining years close to home, walking or riding around town on his bicycle.xxiv He died unexpectedly on April 10, 1961, in Kingsport, Tennessee, while visiting his son John and family. Robert John Taggert, aka Jim Kelly, was 77. He was interred at Grandview Cemetery in Chillicothe, thus bringing to a close a long and eventful life.

The writer is indebted to Tennessee Golf Hall of Fame member Joe Taggert for his generous assistance in the research and writing of this profile of his grandfather.

 

Notes

i Sources for the biographical information contained in this profile include the Jim Kelly file maintained at the Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, New York; US Census data, and Joe Taggert, the subject’s grandson. According to family lore, the Taggert clan was of Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry and originally surnamed McTaggert or MacTaggert. Besides Robert, the Taggert children were Florence (born 1888), Eliza (1888), and Mary Alice (1891).

ii As per the 1900 US Census.

iii Sporting Life, February 10, 1917.

iv The name James Robert Kelly and the birthdate February 1, 1890, invariably appear on the documents that survive in the Jim Kelly file at the Giamatti Research Center. Early in his professional career, Taggert also played under the name Barney Kelly (as per November-December 1977 correspondence between Hall of Fame historian Cliff Kachline and son John Taggert preserved by the family). Although Joe Taggert does not know why his grandfather assumed a baseball alias, he does recall his grandfather telling him that advanced age was always held against a player by club management. As Bob Taggert was apparently a player known in East Coast semipro baseball circles, the assumption of a nom de baseball served to disguise Taggert’s true identity and, perhaps more importantly, his too-old-to-be-a-prospect age when he was looking to enter the professional ranks.

v In seven games, Kelly registered 12 outfield putouts and one assist, without being charged with an error.

vi Sporting Life, August 1, 1914.

vii As per the transaction cards maintained in the Jim Kelly file at the Giamatti Research Center.

viii Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915.

ix Pittsburgh Press, August 26, 1915.

x Robert Peyton Wiggins, The Federal League of Baseball Clubs: The History of the Outlaw Major League, 1914-1915 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009), 273.

xi Total Baseball (7th ed.) gives right fielder Kelly a +14 fielding runs rating for 1915.

xii Sporting Life, December 11, 1915. The sporting press often spelled the Taggert alias as Kelley, rather than Kelly.

xiii The Sporting News, February 10, 1916.

xiv The Sporting News, February 10, 1916.

xv The Sporting News, February 10, 1916.

xvi The Kelly transaction cards indicate that he signed with the Paris (Texas) Survivors of the Class D Western Association in February 1917, only to be released two months later. (The Paris franchise itself was relocated to Ardmore, Oklahoma, on May 10, 1917.) In any case, the writer found no record of Jim Kelly playing in Paris or anywhere else in the Western Association in 1917.

xvii Boston Post, July 24, 1918; Boston Globe, July 25, 1918; Boston Herald, July 27, 1918.

xviii See e.g., the Boston Herald, July 27, 1918 (Jim Taggert); Boston Globe, July 27 and August 6, 1918 (Jimmy Taggert); Boston Daily Advertiser, July 30, 1918 (Jim Taggert); and The Sporting News, August 1, 1918 (Jim Taggert). Braves beat writer Francis Eaton reported that Boston club officials “cannot provide first names of the new recruits. Consequently, we cannot say off-hand that Jack or Bill or Jim did this or that. … [Braves] club officials are not even sure of the last names of some in the army of recruits which they have begun to mobilize” (Boston Daily Advertiser, July 30, 1918). Like most of his press brethren, Eaton eventually settled upon calling the Braves new left fielder Jim Taggert.

xix Boston Post, July 27, 1918.

xx Boston Globe, July 27, 1918.

xxi Boston Herald, July 27, 1918.

xxii Burt Whitman, Boston Herald, July 30, 1918.

xxiii Baseball Magazine, Vol. 22, April 1919.

xxiv As per Joe Taggert, telephone conversation with the writer, January 8, 2013.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.