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Baseball's Golden Era and Dark Age
He was the ideal baseball athlete. About six feet tall, and his anatomy was moved by an electric engine, guided by an eagle brain, that would see a point in the game and execute it with a lightning move that no one possessed but the late lamented Kelly. TED SULLIVAN, Humorous Stories of the Ball Field, 1903
In his long-ago heyday of the 1880s, everyone called him the "King of Baseball." And it was true: Michael Joseph Kelly was the most brilliant ball player of his era. Brighter stars have emerged over the past century and a half, from Babe Ruth to Willie Mays to Mike Trout, relegating Kelly's legend to the deeper recesses of baseball memory. But the lad could play the game with the best of them. And he knew how to put on a show.
Baseball bards still slap their knees about the day Kelly made a leaping, circus catch — both arms reaching high above the right-field fence — to steal a potential game-winning home run. "Three out," the umpire barked as a beaming Kelly emerged from the gloaming. "Game called because of darkness," the ump declared. Trotting back to the bench, the Celtic imp gave his teammates a sly grin as he opened his empty palms. "It went a mile over me head!"
King Kel's proud and erect bearing, charismatic good looks, and rascal charm found a perfect daily outlet on the "diamond field," which he turned into his personal stage. And as baseball fanatics would someday do for Babe Ruth, himself a peerless crowd pleaser, the public followed King Kelly's every move, especially on the base paths. Chants erupted from the grandstand the moment he rounded a base and made a beeline for the next bag: "Slide, Kelly, Slide!" the crowds yelled, creating one of the slang phrases of the era — it later became the title of a Tin Pan Alley ditty and a popular painting that hung on barroom walls.
As his antics multiplied, Kelly acquired a national following. His likeness appeared on posters and in early baseball cards. He was the game's — quite possibly the nation's — first matinee idol. Kelly liked to think of himself as Ernest Thayer's model for "Casey at the Bat"— not so, but some vaudeville houses featured orations of it by King Kel. "Babe Ruth's popularity is a small thing compared to the worship that America lavished upon the King," came the sober assessment of Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson, a sportswriter-turned-baseball entrepreneur who witnessed the play of both legends. "How the country adored Mike Kelly!"
A Boston bookseller entreated Kelly to write baseball's first autobiography. Play Ball was published in 1888, and in it, with a ghostwriter's help, the King gave voice to an idea that would become a cornerstone of baseball's future popularity: "If I could afford it, I would allow all the small boys, of high or low degree, to witness the ball games free of charge."
Young boys were the lifeblood of the game, Kelly declared. They followed the box scores every day, knew player histories and statistics, and talked baseball constantly to their fathers, mothers, sisters, and cousins. "They make veritable gods of their favorite players at home," which in turn brought people out to the ballpark. "The small boys are a tower of strength to the game of baseball."
Kelly's overt bow to childhood and adolescence was a novel sentiment that didn't conform to nineteenth-century social custom. American children in the first decades after the Civil War still worked from dawn to dusk on family farms or as menial laborers in factories and mills. In rural and urban settings alike, young people were expected to contribute to their families' income until they were old enough to head out on their own. Parents and school authorities were slow to accept the idea that childhood was a distinct period of human maturation, that boys and girls needed ways to develop their bodies and explore their fantasies — that they needed to play. Many adults frowned on child's play, viewing it as a form of idleness or, worse, a product of the "devil's workshop." Parents of this era had grown up in antebellum America, when a strict, puritanical strain of religious belief piled its moral weight on work and repentance. The notion that playing games might build Christian character was anathema to the inheritors of the Calvinist tradition in America. As one Unitarian minister was said to have recalled: "To play at cricket was a sin, in the eyes of the fathers, as much as to dance or to play on an ungodly instrument." King Kelly's assertion that professional baseball owed its success to a boyhood passion for the game was all but lost on this generation of adults.
Yet times were changing, thanks to a long period of peace and prosperity that followed the Civil War. The trends of industrialization, migration from countryside to city, rising incomes, and shrinking family sizes altered the relationships of adults to children, opening doors to new forms of childhood expression. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, notes historian David I. Macleod, progressive reformers put forward a variety of plans to promote child welfare.
Boys and girls in the 1880s and 1890s had more freedom than their parents had had at midcentury. While child labor laws to restrict the employment of kids in factories and mills were still decades away, more and more families were beginning to enjoy a middle-class lifestyle in which children not only could avoid work but also could lead sheltered and relatively carefree lives. They could be left in school during the day and allowed to roam on weekends and in the summer months. And as kids do when left to their own devices, they invented games to play and then played them endlessly.
Their favorites, featured in numerous books of games of this era, included black tom, red rover, the ever-popular tag, and also run, sheep, run. An 1883 publication, Games and Songs of American Children, listed "base-ball" as a rudimentary form of a game "that has become the 'national sport' of America." A book from 1887, The Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports, described the game of "rounders," a precursor to baseball, also called "sockey" in some sections of the country. Yet another book, In Door and Out (1882), spends a good deal of space on the game of "shinny," played with a "stout leather-covered ball ... and sticks, shaped like a Golf-stick, but not so heavy at the turn."
These free-form games and many others worked their way into playgrounds, streets, and open fields all over America, invented, improvised, and modified by kids. These games would spawn a national sports craze.
The first organized forms of baseball emerged in New York and other East Coast cities before the Civil War, although these activities had developed mainly as a social diversion for young gentlemen. To late teens and young adults, the American game offered a faster, more athletic, and easier-to-follow pastime than British cricket. Baseball's popularity spread across the country — both north and south — as wartime troops took to filling the long hours between battles. Soldiers took the game home with them, and a National Association of Base Ball Players, founded just before the war, soon grew to four hundred amateur clubs, some as far away from the East Coast as San Francisco and New Orleans.
The rise of baseball was not an isolated occurrence in the leisure customs of nineteenth-century America. Americans were showing new interest in outdoor activities, from skating and sledding to rowing and lawn tennis. Many of these games were adapted from juvenile pastimes by adults. Baseball was one such appropriated amusement, according to historian David Lamoreaux: "Like these other sports, one of the game's obvious attractions was the opportunity it gave its early players — momentarily, at any rate — to relive their childhood."
Baseball kept growing in the early 1870s, mainly as a quasi-professional activity in urban social clubs and recreational leagues. The professional game attracted skilled players and eager spectators, which suggested a business opportunity, and so the National Association of Professional Ball Players formed in 1871 to capitalize on it. But this player-driven outfit could never sustain success in such a loosely regulated environment, where players moved from team to team as it suited them, and clubs rose and fell from season to season (and even in midseason), depending on their ability to field a winning squad and draw a crowd.
This erratic climate changed in 1876 with the formation of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, an owner-driven combine known today as the National League. The NLPBC introduced strict player-contract regulations and predictable, summer-long game schedules among its eight charter clubs. The league also developed a relatively sophisticated public relations machine that created a handful of A-list stars like King Kelly and his Chicago teammate Adrian "Cap" Anson, as well as a second tier of such home-team favorites as Dan Brouthers, Buck Ewing, Old Hoss Radbourn, Mickey Welsh, and Tim Keefe.
Paying young men to play baseball and charging an admission fee to watch them remained a questionable proposition in "respectable" society. The Victorian moralists who viewed idle play and leisure activity as an affront to the Protestant work ethic were even more offended by sports professionalism. They ranked the pro game at the same low order as political corruption, social immorality, and demon rum. "I believe the whole tone of the base ball as played today is demoralizing and should be rated with the second class theater," said a leader of the Young Men's Christian Association. Thanks to showmen like King Kelly, however, this was becoming a minority view in the 1880s, even within the YMCA, although some stigma remained.
As more and more Americans moved into towns or cities, the new shop clerks and office workers found companionship and recreation in social and athletic clubs, which effectively replaced the extended farm families they had left behind. Before long the leader of a club in Brooklyn could rhapsodize on the occasions when he and his mates "would forget business and everything else on Tuesday afternoons, go out on the green fields, don our ball suits, and go at it with a rush. At such times we were boys again."
The Golden Era
One day in the mid-1880s, King Kelly's White Stockings were hosting the Detroit Wolverines at Chicago's Lake Front Park, and the two teams "were fighting hard for the championship that year," as Detroit pitcher George "Stump" Weidman later recollected. The score was still tied going into the thirteenth inning, Weidman said, when Kelly kicked off a rally.
King Kel was the star catcher, outfielder, and jack-of-all-trades for the White Stockings, a charter franchise of the National League and its most successful club in the 1880s. Cap Anson called the shots from first base as player-manager, and impresario Albert Spalding took care of the business dealings. And even though the White Stockings' roster was stacked with some of the best players in the game, everyone in the club — including Anson and Spalding — readily acknowledged that Kelly filled the seats. He "was a whole-souled, genial fellow, with a host of friends," Anson said.
On this afternoon, Kelly was about to pull off one of his most audacious stunts, as told (and retold) over the intervening decades. Stump Weidman remembered it clear as day: Kelly had gotten to second base with teammate Ned Williamson on first, and the pair staged a quick double steal. But as lead-runner Kelly barreled safely into third base, a loud shriek pierced the din of the ball park. The King stood up gingerly, limping in pain and slowly wandering over toward second base, where Williamson now stood. "They began talking," Weidman remembered, watching from the pitcher's box while his infielders tossed the ball around to keep loose. "We paid no attention to them."
Play resumed, runners now on second and third, and Kelly still appeared to be in agony over on third base. But just as Weidman began his windup, Kel darted up the line toward home — then he came to a stop halfway, staring straight at Weidman in the pitcher's box. Stump couldn't believe his eyes. "For the life of me I couldn't imagine what sort of jingle Kelly was up to," he said.
Weidman ran toward Kelly, figuring to corner him in a run-down. But Kelly no longer showed any signs of injury as he bolted for home. The speed demon was now chugging down the line "full tilt" as Weidman fired the ball to catcher Charlie Bennett. Bang-bang came a collision of ball and ball players. The ball trickled onto the ground, but the catcher had at least managed to stop Kelly in his tracks before he could cross the plate. Weidman picked up the ball and reached out to tag the King. Danger averted.
What no one had noticed in the melee was Williamson now charging home in Kelly's wake. (Williamson later confessed he'd made a shortcut past third base by some fifteen feet while everyone, including the lone umpire, had their eyes fixed on the King.) "Just then," Weidman recounted, "I saw Williamson make a flying leap in to the air. He hurdled [over] ... Bennett and Kelly lying on the ground." Williamson tumbled onto home plate untouched, scoring the winning run.
The frenzied hometown partisans exploded in a torrent of cheers and delight. They all knew who the star of this game was: the mastermind, King Kelly, who popped up from the ground, brushed himself off, and bowed to an adoring crowd.
The 1880s were the golden era of nineteenth-century baseball, when the game hitched its boisterous, lighthearted play — and still-evolving rulebook — to a new American appetite for watching people play games. (Ned Williamson's leapfrogging was legal at the time, though not for long.) Professional ball players were not just athletic contestants — they were performers, actors, tricksters, and sometimes conjurers. Like the primping poseur in "Casey at the Bat," every ball player from Kelly on down had the same objective: play to the crowd.
Players took their cues from club owners, who staged elaborate entertainments each weekday and Saturday afternoon — though rarely on Sundays, when many Sabbath-observing cities still outlawed ball games, along with vaudeville theater and the circus. Like their show-business counterparts, Chicago owner Spalding and his fellow magnates strived for spectacle. Owners even tried outfitting players in fancy silk costumes with colored patterns on their jerseys and stockings, a quixotic attempt to identify players by position on the field: first basemen wore scarlet with white vertical stripes; second basemen, orange with black vertical stripes; and so on.
No one combined the sport's showmanship with dazzling athletic skills better than Mike Kelly, the Irish American prodigy. The King upheld his regal act off the field — "a sight for the saints to verify" — carousing from pub to pub with his tall, shiny hat cocked, "his cane a-twirling as though he were the entire population, his Ascot held by a giant jewel, his patent leather shoes as sharply pointed as Italian dirks."
One thing muddies the appeal of this rogue's story today, however: he's mostly a product of our imaginations. Kelly's aura, as well as his astounding baseball feats, has been exaggerated over the years — if not wholly made up. He was a spectacular and accomplished player, to be sure. But shopworn anecdotes like the dusk-hour circus catch have no eyewitness sources. Stump Weidman's vivid depiction of his trick play at home plate was probably fiction — or at least has yet to be documented.
Yet these tall tales have taken on a life of their own, right up to the present. Even Weidman took pleasure in recounting the home-plate ruse in 1904, a decade after Kelly had passed from the scene. Weidman died one year later, and his rendering soon morphed into more fanciful versions. Kelly aficionados have appropriated the fable, changed some of its key details (they say Williamson slid between Kelly's legs to score the winning run), and handed it down as the quintessential example of early baseball heroics. But no one cites an eyewitness. Kelly's feats "seemed to come from the tales of Baron Munchhausen or Paul Bunyan," concedes one of the fable's modern raconteurs.
But baseball needed Kelly's lifeblood and his vaudeville air. At the turn of the twentieth century — the start of what's now called the "modern" era of organized baseball — a much more sinister image had taken hold of the game. Baseball had been a raw, untamed sport in Kelly's days, its character and playing styles changing as often as its ground rules. By the 1890s, players, managers, and owners had agreed on most of the rules of play, but they also had entered a much darker period, flirting on the edge of one form of disaster after another, behaving like adolescents lurching through hormonal growing pains. It didn't take long for more nefarious actors to change the game.
Excerpted from "Tinker to Evers to Chance"
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Table of ContentsPreface: “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” 1 Baseball’s Golden Era and Dark Age Part One Boys to Men 2 The Irish Game: Johnny Evers in Troy 3 The Midwestern Game: Joe Tinker in Kansas City 4 The Western Game: Frank Chance in Fresno Part Two Chicago Century 5 Baseball Revival, 1903-1905 6 Baseball Insanity, 1906 Part Three Dynastic Cycles 7 Conquest into Culture, 1907 8 Team of Destiny, 1908 9 Destiny Dissolves, 1909-1912 Epilogue: Hall of Fame
Acknowledgments Appendix: Diaspora Abbreviations Used in Notes Notes Index