Jerome Kelly

This article was written by Charlie Bevis

For 20 years, from 1902 to 1921, Jerome Kelly1 served as the groundskeeper for the Boston ballclub in the American League, maintaining the playing field during an era when the team won six American League championships.

Jerome Kelly was born on August 8, 1858, in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a town bordering Boston to the north.2 He was the third oldest of the six children of Michael and Mary (Donnelly) Kelly, who were both born in Ireland. With a growing family, Michael Kelly, a laborer, moved his family in 1860 to Roxbury, a town on the southwest border of Boston.3 Jerome grew up in the gritty, industrial area of Roxbury, which was absorbed into the city of Boston in 1868, where he received a basic grammar-school education.4

As a young boy, Jerome went to work to help support the family, likely in one of the many piano factories located in the Roxbury neighborhood. By 1880 Jerome was working as a self-employed piano tuner, while his younger brother John worked in an organ factory.5 By 1890 Jerome lived at 7 Palmer Place, in the more desirable Dudley Square section of Roxbury, and in 1895 moved in with his widowed sister Rose at her house at 65 Palmer Street.6 During the 1890s, Jerome worked as a self-employed organ tuner, one of more than five dozen such tradesmen listed in the business section of the Boston City Directory.7

In 1902 Jerome became the groundskeeper at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, where the Boston Americans played their home games in the American League. It is unclear why the ballclub hired an organ tuner to be its groundskeeper. In a 1909 interview with the Boston Post, Jerome admitted, “When I first came here in 1902, I knew very little about the practical side of groundkeeping.”8

After plans were announced in February 1902 for upgrades to the stands and field at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, Jerome dramatically increased the quality of the playing field. Midway through the 1902 season the Boston Globe reported that “altogether the field is in better condition than ever since it was opened [in 1901]” due to the efforts of “grounds-keeper Kelley, under whose direction the improvements have been made.”9 The Boston Post later reported, “Ground Keeper Kelley has the Huntington avenue grounds in better shape than ever before. The diamond is as smooth as the proverbial billiard table, while the outfield, too, is free from stones and bumps.”10

The Boston ballplayers gave Jerome many suggestions to improve the playing field. “I soon found the players were my best friends,” Jerome remarked in that 1909 interview. “They were always ready with a kind suggestion when they saw I was in a hole.”11 Player-manager Jimmy Collins was a frequent contributor, since he knew a good field would lead to more victories, and Cy Young was a confidant, sharing aspects he saw in the fields at the other ballparks in the league, no doubt particularly the condition of the pitching mounds.

Jerome took pride in his job as groundskeeper, based on this Boston Post report in the spring of 1903: “Jerome Kelley, the efficient groundkeeper at Huntington Avenue, will hold forth again this season. Kelley says he will make the field the finest in the country.”12 Jerome’s work was a key ingredient to help the Boston Americans win back-to-back American League championships in 1903 and 1904.

After the snowy winter of 1904, the Boston Globe often publicized the work of Jerome as he and his crew struggled to get the field in shape for the team’s season opener. In early March, five weeks before the first game on April 18, a foot of ice still covered the playing field at the Huntington Avenue Grounds. “Nothing except an unusual spell of spring weather will give ground keeper Jerome Kelley an opportunity to give the grounds the overhauling they need before a game of championship ball can be played on them.”13 Two weeks later, the ice had melted somewhat, “but even now much [ice] remains, and shovels and picks have been resorted to by custodian Jerome Kelly to clear it away.”14 One week later, “Jerome Kelly has cleared the field of ice, and has rolled not only the diamond, but the outfield as well.”15

The ultimate compliment for Jerome’s work became in the April 18 evening edition of the Boston Globe, when an article about the season-opening ballgame devoted the opening paragraphs to his groundskeeping effort: “Probably the first man awake in Boston this morning was Jerome Kelley, custodian and ground-keeper at the American League ball park on Huntington Av. The sun had not been long up before Kelley was at work, giving the finishing touches to the grounds for today’s opening. Smooth as a billiard table, and remarkably hard, considering the late spring, and the tons of ice which had to be removed from them, the grounds are in excellent shape.”16 In early May, the Globe printed a photograph of Jerome, to honor his behind-the-scenes work.17

By 1904 the Taylor family owned both the Boston Globe and the Boston Americans, with John I. Taylor in charge of the ballclub (which he’d name the Red Sox in late 1907) while his father continued to run the newspaper. “Since President Taylor has owned the club, I have always been able to get just what I wanted,” Jerome said in 1909 about support for his groundskeeping efforts. “When he took hold in 1904 he gave me carte blanche to buy whatever I might need.”18

Groundskeeping at the Huntington Avenue Grounds was a year-round job. After the baseball season concluded, Jerome maintained the field for football games played by high-school and college teams. During the winter he often erected an ice rink that was used for ice-hockey games and general skating. Showing the pride in his work was the occupation he reported to the Boston City Directory: Superintendent of the American League baseball grounds.19

While he had pride in groundskeeping, Jerome also had humility. He was baffled by the rare newspaper interview, once saying: “I don’t know what I can say about groundkeeping that would interest the general public. The public wants good baseball, and as long as they get it, it doesn’t make much difference what is behind it.”20 He knew his role within baseball: “There is an old adage that a man cannot serve two masters and serve them well, but the baseball groundkeeper goes this one better. He serves three, the club owner, the player and the public, and I think that he serves all well.”21

At the start of the 1907 season, the Boston Post complimented the groundskeeper by reporting that “Jerome Kelly had the yard looking as freshly groomed as the Public Garden.”22 Less than a week later, the Boston newspapers also congratulated him on his wedding, which he timed to coordinate with the team’s road trip to New York on April 20 to 22 so that he could be back on duty for the April 24 home game against Philadelphia.

At age 48, after seemingly bent on being a bachelor for life, Jerome married 44-year-old Mary F. Katon on April 21, 1907.23 The wedding ceremony was held at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Roxbury, as “his many friends in the baseball world, including the members of the Boston American League baseball team, were not let into the secret” about his impending nuptials.24 After a brief honeymoon, the couple lived at the 65 Palmer Street house in Roxbury, along with Jerome’s sister Rose and two of his brothers.25 Jerome and Mary, who had no children, lived there for the rest of their lives.26

In the 1909 interview with the Boston Post, Jerome shared some details about his activities as groundskeeper. The grass in the infield was mowed three or four times a week and the outfield grass was cut twice a week. The basepaths had to be rebuilt five or six times a year, with the soil near first base patched more often given the frequency of baserunners there. “The pitcher’s and batsmen’s boxes are constructed of clay tightly packed to a depth of eight inches,” he revealed. “I use a blue clay dug from a depth of 30 feet or more, [because] the surface clays are too loose and gritty. As long as they continue building subways, I guess I will not have to worry over the source of supply.”27

When the Huntington Avenue Grounds were closed down at the end of the 1911 season, the Red Sox moved to their new ballpark, Fenway Park, which opened in 1912. Jerome gained a small measure of posthumous fame for his work to develop the playing field at Fenway Park, which was the focus of the six-page prologue to Glenn Stout’s 2011 book, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year.28

In mid-October of 1911, Jerome and his crew removed the sod from the infield at the Huntington Avenue Grounds and transported it to the construction zone at Fenway Park. “Through the foresight and skill of Ground Keeper Jerome Kelly, the splendid grass diamond that laid at the Huntington Avenue park has been removed to the new grounds,” the Boston Post reported. “It takes fine sod and plenty of the right kind to make a baseball diamond for the footing must be springy and firm and only sod that has been mowed and treated for a decade or more is adaptable to such a need.”29 With the transplanted infield sod laid over a layer of loam atop the drainage system, Jerome’s crew also seeded the outfield to grow some grass before the winter set in.30

To properly maintain the new playing surface, Jerome had to grapple with an unusually wet spring and summer during 1912. The ballclub even authorized the purchase of “sections of rubberized canvas designed to protect the infield from inclement weather.”31 These first tarps at Fenway Park were especially handy for the cool autumn weather to protect the diamond during the World Series.32 The Red Sox players voted to give $150 to Jerome as part of their World Series proceeds, in recognition of his groundskeeping efforts during the season.33

Jerome was responsible for the upkeep of the playing field at Fenway Park when the Red Sox won four American League and World Series championships between 1912 and 1918. The ballplayers rewarded him in 1915, 1916, and 1918 with a $100 share of their World Series proceeds.34

In the epilogue of his book Fenway 1912, Stout notes that of the many changes made to Fenway Park during its 100-year history “what has changed the least is perhaps what matters most — the field itself, those few hallowed green acres upon which some of the greatest players and greatest games in the history of baseball have been played.”35 Stout touts Jerome as “the man first responsible for that,” an unheralded workman who helped shape the eventual aesthetic legacy of Fenway Park.36

During the phenomenal baseball success at Fenway Park during the decade of the 1910s, Jerome regularly received newspaper publicity at the beginning of each baseball season, after preparing the field following the tough winters in New England. For example, at the start of the 1914 season, the Boston Globe noted that “in spite of the severe winter and the unusual depth of the frost, the playing field at Fenway Park is in excellent condition, thanks to Jerome Kelly and his corps of busy assistants.”37

Midway into the 1921 season, his 20th year as groundskeeper, Jerome, now 62 years old, abruptly quit, “evidently provoked at what he regarded as unfair criticism of the condition of the field … made by some of the players.”38 He then worked as a concrete inspector until 1935.39

Jerome Kelly died on April 24, 1943, at his home in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.40

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and verified for accuracy by the BioProject fact-checking team.

 

Photo credit

Boston Red Sox pitcher Buck O’Brien gets out of a jam when Fred Snodgrass of the New York Giants flies out to left field with the bases loaded and two outs in the 5th inning of Game Three of the 1912 World Series on October 10, 1912, at Fenway Park. (COURTESY OF HUNT AUCTIONS)

 

 

Notes

1 Like many Irish surnames, there was inconsistent spelling of Jerome’s last name during his lifetime, either with one “e” as “Kelly” or with a second “e” as “Kelley.” In government documents, such as birth and marriage records and federal census enumerations, his surname was spelled as Kelley prior to 1875 (except for the 1860 census) and as Kelly thereafter. In Boston City Directory listings, his surname was spelled as Kelly from 1880 to 1882, Kelley from 1890 to 1902, and Kelly thereafter. In newspaper accounts, his surname was spelled as Kelley more often in the early years of his baseball career; Kelly was used more often in his later years as well as for all extensive articles about him. For these reasons, the spelling of Kelly was chosen for this biography.

2 Birth record of Jerome Kelley, number 195 in the 1858 vital records of Charlestown, Massachusetts. There was no middle name in this birth record. Jerome used the middle initial “L” in government and public records, but it is unclear what it stands for. He may have used this middle initial simply to distinguish himself from the several other men in Boston named Jerome Kelly.

3 Federal census record for 1860 for Michael Kelly, Ward 1, Roxbury, Norfolk County, Massachusetts.

4 Federal census record for 1870 for Michael Kelley, Ward 13, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Jerome, reported to be 10 years old, was not listed as a student, as was his older sister Agnes, but instead simply as “at home.”

5 Federal census record for 1880 for Michael Kelly, 7 Chadwick Place, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts; Boston City Directory, 1880 and 1882.

6 Boston City Directory, 1890, 1892, 1895, 1897; federal census record for 1900 for Rose Owens [Jerome’s sister], 65 Palmer Street, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

7 Boston City Directory, 1890 to 1902.

8 “Both Boston Groundkeepers Look Like Pennant Winners,” Boston Post, December 19, 1909.

9 “Baseball Notes,” Boston Globe, June 16, 1902.

10 “Players’ Bench,” Boston Post, September 8, 1902.

11 “Boston Groundkeepers.”

12 “Baseball Notes,” Boston Post, February 22, 1903.

13 “American Grounds Covered with Ice,” Boston Globe, March 9, 1904.

14 “Getting the Parks in Shape,” Boston Globe, March 24, 1904.

15 “Carpenters at Work,” Boston Globe, March 31, 1904.

16 “Fair Weather, Lots of Bunting and Good Field for Collins’ Men,” Boston Globe, April 18, 1904.

17 “Baseball Galore for the Local Fans,” Boston Globe, May 2, 1904.

18 “Boston Groundkeepers.”

19 Boston City Directory, 1903 to 1921.

20 “Boston Groundkeepers.”

21 “Boston Groundkeepers.”

22 “Baseball Notes,” Boston Post, April 17, 1907.

23 Marriage records for Boston for 1907 at the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 573, Page 83).

24 “Kelly-Katon: Groundkeeper of American League Ball Grounds and Bride Leave at Midnight on Tour,” Boston Globe, April 22, 1907.

25 Federal census record for 1910 for John [sic] L. Kelly, 65 Palmer Street, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

26 Federal census records for 1920, 1930, and 1940 for Jerome L. Kelly, 65 Palmer Street, Roxbury, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

27 “Boston Groundkeepers.”

28 Glenn Stout, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Year (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), xvii-xxii.

29 “New Red Sox Park Will Rival Best in the Country,” Boston Post, December 3, 1911.

30 Stout, Fenway 1912, 42.

31 Stout, Fenway 1912, 92.

32 Stout, Fenway 1912, 242, 273.

33 “Red Sox Get the Mazuma: Quirk, Kelly and Riley Remembered by Players,” Boston Post, October 19, 1912.

34 “Red Sox Want No Place in the Sun,” Boston Globe, October 15, 1915; “World’s Champions in ‘The Great Divide,’” Boston Globe, October 14, 1916; “Each Sox Regular Receives $1108.45,” Boston Globe, September 13, 1918.

35 Stout, Fenway 1912, 347.

36 Ibid.

37 “Major League Baseball Season Opens Tomorrow,” Boston Globe, April 13, 1914.

38 “Jerome Kelly, Sox Grounds Man, Quits,” Boston Globe, June 9, 1921.

39 Boston City Directory, 1923 to 1935.

40 Death notice for Jerome L. Kelly, Boston Globe, April 25, 1943.