This article was written by Joseph Gerard
Dick Kelley was a major-league pitcher for the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves from 1964 to 1968, and the San Diego Padres in 1969 and 1971. A nearly 6-foot-tall left-hander, Kelley pitched 520 innings in the major leagues, finishing with a record of 18-30 and an ERA of 3.39 that was just above league average. He compiled a record of 69-45 in the minor leagues, including two outstanding seasons in the International League in 1965 and 1966 in which he finished second and first, respectively, in ERA among starting pitchers. His professional career was cut short by a shoulder injury suffered in 1970; despite an attempt at a comeback, he retired after the 1972 season.
Richard Anthony Kelley, the youngest of six children, was born on January 8, 1940, in the Brighton section of Boston to Lawrence and Clara Kelley. Dick’s father sold electrotype plates. Kelley graduated from Saint Columbkille High School in 1957. He belonged to the choir, lettered in baseball and basketball, and was named to the All-Boston baseball team after pitching two no-hit games.
In his high-school yearbook. Kelley listed his ambition as graduating from college, which suggests that he was not a highly sought-out prospect. He chose instead to pursue a career in professional baseball when he was discovered by Herb Shankman, a former pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves system. Shankman noticed Kelley pitching on the sandlots in Brighton and brought him to the attention of Braves farm director John Mullen. Mullen sent in area scout Jeff Jones, who made Kelley an offer: “I’ll give you a tryout and if you look like you’ve got a chance, I’ll send you to spring training with the farm clubs at Waycross, Georgia.”1 Jones was impressed enough to visit the Kelley household and discuss the young man’s future with his father, although with no other scouts bidding, Jones parted with Kelley receiving only $750 of the Braves’ money as a signing bonus.
Kelley began his career in 1959 with the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Braves of the Class B Three-I League, but as a 19-year-old rookie he appeared in only four games, pitching nine innings, before being transferred to Boise of the Class C Pioneer League. He pitched 117 innings for Boise, finishing the year with a 6-5 record and a 4.92 ERA. While he struck out 101 batters, he walked 96, a precursor of control problems that would plague the left-hander throughout his minor-league career.
As a result of his command issues, Kelley was returned to Boise to begin the 1960 season. He threw 130 innings, improving his record to 13-8 and his ERA to 4.57, while striking out 143 batters. But he also walked 98 as his wildness continued. Still, the Braves raised Kelley one level in 1961 and he returned to Cedar Rapids, this time putting together an excellent season that marked him as a prospect. He posted a record of 15-5, finished second in the league in ERA at 2.43 and recorded 200 strikeouts in 186 innings. He tied for the league lead in shutouts with four and was voted to the All-Star team. While still exhibiting control problems, Kelley reduced his walks per nine innings from 6.8 to 5.9. On June 26 he pitched a one-hit shutout against Lincoln, and on August 2 pitched hitless ball for seven innings of a scheduled seven-inning game against Topeka, but lost 2-1 in the eighth inning on the only hit he allowed.
Kelley was promoted to Austin in the hitter-friendly Double-A Texas League in 1962, and he finished with an 8-7 record and an ERA of 4.41. The Braves were pleased enough to promote him to Triple-A Denver in 1963; Kelley started 15 games and also worked out of the bullpen for the first time in his career. He finished with 105 innings pitched, a 6-9 record, and an ERA of 4.20.
Kelley recounted that the high point of his career up to this point was when he took the mound for the Bears in a midseason exhibition game against the Braves, pitching as well as contributing to the offense with three hits, as the Bears routed their superiors by a score of 16-1. “I used to be a pretty good hitter in the City Park League back in Brighton,” Kelley said. “In fact, I was a first baseman and outfielder when Jeff Jones looked at me as a pitcher.”2
After two rather mundane seasons at the highest levels of the minor leagues, Kelley surprised many in the Braves organization by making the major-league club out of spring training in 1964. He made his major-league debut on April 15, 1964, in San Francisco against the Giants, but his wildness returned. Before it was over, he had allowed four runs on two hits and three walks without recording an out.
As luck would have it, Kelley developed a severe case of numbness in his pitching hand soon after, which initially stumped the Braves’ physicians but was ultimately traced to a circulatory disorder. He was put on the disabled list on May 7, and upon his return to action on June 8 he threw another two innings at Denver before being shut down again. He did not reappear for Milwaukee until October 2, when he pitched two shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kelley returned to the mound for Las Estrellas Orientales of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Winter League, as the Braves thought the warm weather would help his recuperation. In an effort to quickly ascertain whether he was healthy and ready to contribute, the Braves assigned Kelley to Triple-A Atlanta to begin the 1965 season.
Kelley had an excellent spring training and the Atlanta Crackers named him as their Opening Day starter against Rochester. Kelley won that game, as well as his next three starts, on his way to a record of 11-2 and ERA of 2.16. “It’s just a matter of time until my arm gets strong again and I’m able to go nine innings regularly,” he said. “It’s healthy now, all the numbness is gone and I feel like a pitcher again.”3
Ironically, Kelley received the call to return to the Braves on June 3 when left-hander Denny Lemaster was felled by a similar injury to his pitching arm. Once more, things did not go well at first glance for Kelley. He gave up three home runs during a shutout loss to Don Drysdale and the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 6 at County Stadium. Four more relief appearances followed before he was considered for another start. This time Kelley finally took advantage of his opportunity in a June 25 assignment against Cincinnati. He went nine innings, allowing just four hits and one run with a no-decision in a game the Reds won in 11 innings. “The way my arm feels now,” Kelley said, “you would never know there had been anything wrong.”4 Kelley went on to appear in 21 games for Milwaukee, 17 out of the bullpen. He threw 45 innings and posted an ERA of 3.00 and an ERA+ of 118.5
It was a watershed year in 1966 for the Braves, as they made the move from Milwaukee to Atlanta. Kelley was optioned to Richmond of the International League, on April 11, a move he knew was coming. “I worked only six innings in the spring,” he said. “Even if I had stayed with the Braves, I wasn’t in shape to pitch.”6 Kelley got off to a slow start at Richmond but soon won six consecutive complete games to post an ERA of 2.08, at which point he was recalled by the Braves.
Kelley attributed his strong run at Richmond to the work he put in on his offspeed pitches. “I knew I had to work on my offspeed pitches to win up here,” he said. “I did and I think it helped my fastball and slider a lot.”7 He also learned to pitch inside. “A right-handed hitter, for some reason, always expects a lefty to pitch him outside,” said Kelley, “and that’s what I was doing. I just didn’t, or couldn’t, come inside. Now I do and it helps.”8
Manager Bobby Bragan put Kelley in the bullpen at first, but after injuries to Joey Jay and Don Schwall, Bragan inserted Kelley into the Braves rotation on July 31. Kelly took the 4-3 loss against the Giants, but came back to defeat the Phillies for his first win on August 5. Before his next start against the Dodgers, Bragan was fired and replaced by Billy Hitchcock. Kelley provided his new skipper with his second big-league win by outpitching Don Drysdale to defeat the Dodgers on August 10. “Kelley pitched great, an outstanding game, didn’t he?” said Hitchcock.9 Catcher Joe Torre told Kelley, “You pitched better with men on base than before. You bore down better.”10
Kelley credited his recent success to Torre’s growing confidence in his screwball, which he threw 10 to 15 times per game. It was a pitch he had been refining in Richmond. “He improved all of his pitches at Richmond, every one of them,” said pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt. “I think Dick has one of the best fastballs in the league, both in velocity and the way it moves.”11 Kelley finished 1966 with a record of 7-5 and an ERA of 3.22. It was probably his best season, as his strikeout-to-walk ratio was a career best 2.38, as was his WHIP of 1.185, and he posted an ERA+ of 115.
Kelley felt that he had finally established himself as a major-league pitcher, and approached 1967 spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, with confidence. “I don’t feel like I’ve got to prove anything to anybody anymore,” he said.12 Kelley made 39 appearances for the Braves in 1967, 30 of them out of the bullpen. He finished with a record of 2-9 and an ERA of 3.77, but also put himself into the baseball record books.
On September 8, during a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Kelley entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning. After retiring Cookie Rojas on an infield popup, Kelley proceeded to strike out six Phillies in succession – Bobby Wine, Rick Wise, Tony Taylor, John Briggs, Johnny Callison, and Tony Gonzalez – to tie the National League record for most consecutive strikeouts by a relief pitcher that was held by John Meyer of the Phillies and Pete Richert and Ron Perranoski of the Dodgers. “He could have gotten the record, too,” said catcher Torre, “but I got a little careless on number seven.”13
During spring training for the 1968 season, Kelley spoke openly about the arm problem he first experienced in 1964. “Something snapped near my bicep on a pitch, and I know it was pretty bad,” he said. “That was early in the season, and I didn’t pitch again until October.”14 Since that time, Kelley admitted, his arm never felt right, with the area between his wrist and elbow staying cold regardless of how much he exercised it.
Kelley went on to have very similar numbers in 1968 as he had in 1967, with his innings, hits allowed, walks and strikeouts virtually identical. Once again he pitched mostly out of the bullpen, making 11starts in his 31 appearances. He did record an ERA of 2.75, which was the lowest of his major-league career.
On October 14, 1968, the major leagues conducted an expansion draft to fill the rosters of two new National League teams scheduled to debut the following year, the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos. Kelley was left unprotected by the Braves, and was selected by the Padres with their 14th pick.
The move to San Diego provided one key benefit for Kelley – it allowed him a chance to become a full-time starter with the fledgling Padres. He had spoken of the problems he had handling a relief role. “I just had a mental block, I think. I didn’t know how to warm up as a relief pitcher.”15 In his first season in San Diego, he started 23 games, and finished with a league-average ERA of 3.57 but only a 4-8 record, mostly due to the lack of run support by his teammates, who averaged just over three runs in Kelley’s starts. He did pitch the best game of his career, a one-hit shutout of the Houston Astros on July 6, his no-hit bid spoiled by Denis Menke’s second-inning infield single.
An ominous sign for Kelley’s future was the onset of shoulder tendinitis, which ended his campaign in early September. In the offseason San Diego held out hope that Kelley would recover. Padres manager Preston Gomez spoke of Kelley’s promise: “Kelley has one of the best arms in the majors and, on a given day when he’s right, can beat anyone.”16 But it was not to be – Kelley came to spring training experiencing pain in his shoulder and was placed on the disabled list on April 27. He was reinstated on May 20 but was optioned to the Salt Lake City Bees of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he threw only four innings.
Later, Kelley spoke of the experience. “That night at Salt Lake City still is like a nightmare. My arm had hurt in spring training and the Padres sent me to Salt Lake. The second time I pitched I could feel a tear in my shoulder. The pain got so bad I cried.”17
Kelley stayed in California and rested his arm until the winter, when he began a strict exercise program that including light throwing. The Padres’ director of minor league operations, Peter Bavasi, received a positive report from the team physician, Dr. Paul Bauer, and offered Kelley an invitation to report to spring training as a nonroster player. Kelley broke camp with the Padres and stayed healthy throughout the season, making 48 appearances, all but one in relief. He finished with a 2-3 record, earning his first win in almost two full seasons on June 6 when he started for the only time in the season and completed five innings in an 8-4 defeat of the Montreal Expos. His ERA in his final major-league season was 3.47.
Despite his rejuvenation in 1971, Kelley’s major-league career was over as his shoulder issues worsened. He was sent outright to the Alexandria Aces, the Padres squad in the Double-A Texas League, on April 27, 1972, but refused the assignment and was released. He was picked up by the Texas Rangers and assigned to their Triple-A affiliate, the Denver Bears, but he played in only nine games there.
After his retirement from baseball, Kelley became the field director for the Joe Torre Baseball Camp in Torrance, California, and later founded the Dick Kelley Pitching School in Newport Beach. He was married to Brenda Arnold in San Diego in 1970. They had two sons, Richard and Dennis, and one daughter, Debra. They were divorced in June of 1982.
Kelley died on December 11, 1991, in Northridge, California, after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 51.
Baseball Hall of Fame Library, player file for Richard “Dick” Kelley.
US Census Bureau, 1940 US Census.
1 Furman Bisher, “Kelley’s Comeback at Atlanta Holds Lefty Hopes for Braves,” Atlanta Journal, May 15, 1965.
4 Bob Wolf, “Kelley’s Wing Sound Again, Gives Braves Hurling Shot in Arm,” Milwaukee Journal, July 10, 1965.
5 ERA+, also called adjusted ERA, is a measure of a pitcher’s ERA adjusted for ballpark and compared to the rest of the league’s pitchers. An ERA+ of 100 is considered average; above 100 is better than average and below 100 is worse than average.
6 Wayne Minshew, “Kelley’s Off-Speed Pitches Accelerated Arrival With Braves,” Atlanta Constitution, August 27, 1966.
9 Charlie Roberts, “Forgetful Billy Remembers, Wins – Smiles,” Atlanta Constitution, August 11, 1966.
11 “Kelley’s Off-Speed Pitches.”
12 Wilt Browning, “Kelley’s Pitching Loose Now,” Atlanta Journal, February 27, 1967.
13 Ibid. “Kelley Relieves But Not in Time,” Atlanta Journal, September 8, 1967.
14 Wayne Minshew, “Hurler Kelley Can’t Heat Up: Odd Ailment Keeps Arm Cold,” Atlanta Constitution, March 16, 1968.
16 Paul Cour, “Padres Pin Hopes on Kelley, McCool, “San Diego Evening Tribune, December 13, 1969.
17 The San Diego Padres Baseball Club, “An Interview With a Boston Irishman,” (March 31, 1972) [Press release].