Appel: King Kelly, baseball’s first celebrity, part 2

From SABR member Marty Appel at The National Pastime Museum on June 13, 2013:

Largely because of the huge Irish population in Boston, where the overall number of residents grew 24 percent during the 1880s, the arrival of Mike Kelly in 1887 seemed something like a homecoming — a hero’s return. When Chicago had come to town, he’d always been a star attraction. Now, playing everyday at the South End Grounds on Walpole Street, he would be huge.

Because kids knew his arrival schedule, they began to assemble outside the park for a chance to see Kelly in person. (He was hard to miss, often toting a pet monkey on his shoulder.) And what better way for the kids to show that they’d actually met him than with an autograph? So pencils in hand, the autograph process began. And of course, Kel was a willing signer, greatly enjoying the attention. He signed “M.J. Kelly,” because “King” had not yet become his nickname. A new cultural phenomenon was in bloom.

Kelly soon touched American culture in almost every imaginable way. Art, music, literature — they were all to come. In short order, an artist named Frank O. Small did a painting of Kelly sliding into second that replaced Custer’s Last Stand behind most Boston bars as fast as they could be reproduced.

The Beaneaters (not yet Red Stockings) made him captain, with John Morrill shedding that title and remaining manager. It caused some stress; by year’s end, Morrill had both titles back. But Kelly hit .322 during that year in which walks counted as hits (.394 without the modern adjustment), Boston won the championship, and Kelly proved well worth the money, at least in Year One.

Read the full article here:

Originally published: June 13, 2013. Last Updated: June 13, 2013.