Year Inducted: 1945 (Veterans Committee)
Baseball is notorious for its slow pace. There is very seldom a slow drop-off between eras, a dead-ball era can beget a home run-friendly era in a season or two and vice-versa. It is because of this that a lot of players from the past can easily be forgotten, or replaced in popular view.
A good example of this is to imagine who the best hitter of all-time was at the end of each decade. The list would probably look something like this:
1900- Cap Anson/Nap Lajoie
1910- Ty Cobb/Honus Wagner
1920- Ty Cobb
1930- Babe Ruth
1940- Babe Ruth
1950- Babe Ruth/Ted Williams
1960- Babe Ruth/Ted Williams
1970- Babe Ruth/Hank Aaron
1980- Babe Ruth
1990- Babe Ruth
2010- Babe Ruth/Barry Bonds
The above list is a little tongue in cheek, but the point is that the definition of greatness changes, and the game changes, and very few players can survive that breakneck evolution. People still remember some past players, but they aren’t as iconic as they once were. Today’s subject is one of those players. King Kelly was at once the most popular player in America. He was a great hitter, he was charismatic, he was handsome, and all too quickly he was forgotten and surpassed.
Kelly was a very good hitter, slashing .308/.368/.408 in his career for a wRC+ of 131. To put that in perspective, at the time of his retirement, his wRC+ was in the top 10 all-time among players with 4000 or more plate appearances. He also ranked 9th all-time in WAR and 8th in base-running runs. While obviously not a point in time that a lot of home runs were hit, his 69 career home runs were good enough for 10th all-time. Kelly was, in more ways than one, a game changing player.
Many baseball historians liken the emergence of King Kelly to that of Babe Ruth. Not necessarily from a statistical point-of-view (and let’s be fair here, Kelly gets crushed in that fight), but from a cultural one. As mentioned earlier, Kelly’s charm and good looks helped people get into baseball. On the field, Kelly was as dynamic an entertainer as he was a player and his hard-nosed, quick witted style of play wowed fans and players alike. Off the field, Kelly helped bring baseball into dominance with his popularity. He published the first ball player autobiography, there were songs and plays written about him, and he even performed in plays himself. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Kelly was the first superstar of the game.
Unfortunately, as Cap Anson wrote in his biography, Kelly’s number one enemy was himself. Kelly tried a few times in his career to remain sober, but couldn’t ever quit completely. Whether that caused his decline following his excellent season in 1886 (he was only in his age 28 season that year) is hard to tell as there aren’t any available reports of a weight problem like there were for players like Tommy McCarthy or Hack Wilson. Needless to say, a once-top flight career started going south after only 8 seasons.
Kelly most likely suffers due to a long decline, as Pud Galvin did. However, he also suffers in this ranking by being surpassed so quickly by other hitters, even hitters of his time. The top hitters of Kelly’s era (Cap Anson, Roger Connor and Dan Brouthers) are far ahead of him, and they themselves got passed by not too much later by guys like Cobb and Wagner and Ruth, so Kelly gets lost in the fold.
It’s important to note that Kelly is deserving of the Hall of Fame, as without a lot of his contributions to the culture of the sport, it may not have become the game it is today. But solely as a player, it’s tough for him to stack up against a lot of the later legends.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 7/15/16 This Yankee shortstop became famous as an announcer following the end of his career.