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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Baseball Star Mike King Kelly Signed to Play in Boston in February 1887


Mike King Kelly, one of the premier baseball players of the late 19th century, signed a deal to play for the Boston Beaneaters on February 14, 1887 for a record $10,000, the highest price paid for a professional athlete up to that time. 

 The Boston Globe reported that Kelly left the Chicago White Stockings in a deal negotiated on Valentine's Day in Poughkeepsie, NY between Kelly and Beaneater treasurer J.B. Billings.

"Diamonds cannot be bought with shoestrings," Kelly said as "he toyed with a diminutive cane and puffed at a Sweet Caporal cigarette," according to the Globe. 

Kelly had three great years with the Beaneaters, then went on to coach and play for the Boston Reds in the short-lived Players League.  Described as a larger-than-life character, Kelly was as notorious off the field as on.  A great base runner, he had his own song, Slide Kelly Slide, a popular ditty written by J.W. Kelly and sung by Maggie Kline. 

Along with Boston Globe reporter William L. Drohan of South Boston, Kelly wrote a book  Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field, published in 1888 and described as baseball's first autobiography.

After baseball Kelly went on the Vaudeville circuit with a minstrel group called O'Dowd's Neighbors, which was later described as consisting of "two Irish comedians, a German comedian, a female impersonator, some clever dancers, a Negro quartet, a donkey and a puppy." 

Kelly was in Boston, getting ready for performance, when he fell ill and was taken to a hospital where he died.  The Boston Globe obituary on November 9, 1894, described it this way,

"At 9:55 last night King Kelly heard the decision of the Great Umpire of which there is no appeal.  The famous ball player passed away at that hour at the emergency hospital, with a few of his old friends watching every phase of his last uphill fight in the game where defeat is sure."

Kelly is buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Mattapan, a neighborhood in Boston.  He was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY in 1945. 

For more details on Boston Irish history, visit IrishHeritageTrail.com.

For cultural activities, visit IrishBoston.org.