An extraordinary 1897 Mike “King” Kelly Banquet Program is being offered in the current SCP Auctions November 19th, 2011 Auction. Bidding is now open. Mike “King” Kelly was the hard-living, hard-drinking son of a Civil War veteran whose skills at baseball and infectious charm turned him into the game’s first hero, and a symbol of what it meant to be a celebrity in America in the 1880s and 1890s.Years before Babe Ruth captured the country’s attention as the Sultan of Swat, another player was crowned “King” of America’s Pastime. Michael Kelly, born in 1857 in Troy, N.Y., so captivated the sport of baseball he earned the nickname of “King Kelly”. Since that time neither Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Musial, Williams, nor Mays were anointed as royalty. The stories and lore of 19th century baseball players are passed on from generation to generation. Myth eventually mixes in with the truth and tall tales are spun, but the true persona of Kelly, who was born on New Year’s Eve in 1857, defies embellishment.
A Paul Bunyan-esque character with an equal measure of talent, charisma and bravado, Kelly learned the game of baseball on the sandlots of Patterson, N.J. After kicking around with some semi-pro teams he caught on with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in the late 1870’s. Although the Cincinnati team of Kelly’s tenure was on the decline, that didn’t stop Kelly from embarking on a Hall of Fame career. An innovator on the field, who was not above taking advantage of the only umpire running the game, Kelly proved himself not only to be the most talented player of his era, but also the most cunning. He caught the eye of Cap Anson, the feisty player/manager of the Chicago White Stockings, who lured Kelly to the Windy City. Anson and Kelly made almost an unbeatable pair in Chicago.
They teamed together for seven seasons, capturing the National League pennant four times. Kelly won the batting championship in 1884 (.354) and 1886 (.388) with the White Stockings. Fans from all over the country flocked to witness the swaggering star and his daring baserunning antics. Wherever the White Stockings competed throughout the country, they played to sold-out venues. “As a drawing card, Kelly was the greatest of his time,” Baseball historian Maclean Kennedy wrote. “Fandom around the circuit always welcomed the Chicago team, with the great Anson and his lieutenant, King Kelly.” His popularity was such that the first hit song for Thomas Edison’s new phonograph invention was called “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” in honor of the talented catcher/right fielder.
Eventually, Kelly’s taste for Chicago’s nightlife affected his relationship with Anson, who was a known disciplinarian. His off-field antics started to affect his skills. Team officials hired security to follow Kelly during the season. Anson fined Kelly $250 in 1885 for incessantly missing curfew. A story in July ran in the Chicago papers stating Kelly was fined a hefty sum for consuming lemonade a 3 a.m. Kelly refuted the published report. “I have to offer only one amendment,” Kelly said. “I never drank a lemonade at that hour in my life! It was straight whiskey!” Anson grew tired of dealing with Kelly’s shenanigans prompting the Chicago club to send their top drawing card to Boston for the unprecedented sum of $10,000.
The Boston franchise was eager to dress Kelly, the game’s most famous player, in a city known for its Irish heritage. They made him the highest paid player in the game, something he aspired to be for years. Kelly spent three seasons in Boston, hitting between .294 and .318. He was the toast of the town. Literally. Thousands of Irishmen came to the ballpark everyday to see one of their own dominate a game that caught the attention of the entire nation. Kelly’s unrestrained lifestyle began to catch up with him. In 1891 he competed for Cincinnati (NL) and both Boston franchises. His skills continued to deteriorate from his carousing. Overweight and out of shape, Kelly kicked around for two more seasons before calling it a career after 20 games with the New York Giants in 1893. Kelly still lived like a King and paid for it with his health. Traveling to New York from Boston on a steamship, Kelly who was fighting a bad cold, developed pneumonia. When admitted to a Boston hospital, orderlies dropped his gurney. “I think, me mates, this is me last side,” Kelly said to the medical staff. He was correct. Kelly died the following day, on Nov. 8, 1894, at the age of 36.
Presented here is what we unabashedly claim to be the greatest 19th Century baseball autograph find in hobby history. The offered program was issued for a “Testimonial Banquet and Presentation Tendered Mr. M.J. Kelly By Members of Boston Lodge of Elks and Other Friends Monday Evening May 9, 1887”. Measuring 5 ½” by 9 ¼”, its centerpiece is an actual studio cabinet-style photograph of the guest of honor, inscribed by him in black fountain pen “Truly Yours, M.J. Kelly”. Constructed of rigid card stock, the programs lavish design elements include red velvet ribbons, pom-poms and gold leaf edges. It has been estimated that the number of authentic King Kelly autographs known to exist can be counted on two hands, with most exemplars being on contracts or other documents. This is the only known King Kelly autographed photograph known. It has resided for years within the collection of a curator of Elks Lodge memorabilia, with more consideration for that genre, than for its revelation as one of the finest treasures ever to surface from America’s National Pastime. Includes full LOAs from PSA/DNA and JSA.
A cord that once bound the three-page program is now absent, leaving the pages loose from one another. An interior page that was once glued to the inside front cover lists the events honored guests. The page carrying Kelly’s autographed visage was formerly glued to the inside back cover. Its separation has resulted in glue residue and surface paper loss on the back, not affecting the display value of the photograph. Detailed images of every page surface are available online.