Appel: King Kelly, baseball’s first celebrity

From SABR member Marty Appel at The National Pastime Museum on May 20, 2013:

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the first baseball biography (or in this case, autobiography). It was in 1888, at the peak of his fame, that Mike  “King” Kelly’s “Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field” was published.

It must be emphasized how difficult it was to achieve “fame” at that time, let alone be worthy of a book. Before radio became a force in American culture in the 1920s, and before national magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post made their marks at the turn of the century, the idea of being a national celebrity really didn’t exist. Yes, people knew the U.S. presidents and the names of Civil War generals, outlaw cowboys and an inventor or two, but outside of that, you had P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill as “entertainers,” John L. Sullivan as a boxer — and not many others.

Baseball essentially produced three whose names were known outside of those homes where The Sporting News, Sporting Life or the Police Gazette was read. One was Adrian “Cap” Anson, player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings, and another was his versatile and colorful star player, Mike Kelly. Like Miller Huggins and Babe Ruth 40 years later, they would clash as disciplinarian vs. mischief maker, with the incorrigible player driving his manager mad. (The third was the team’s owner, Albert Spalding, largely through his sporting goods company).

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Originally published: May 20, 2013. Last Updated: May 20, 2013.