Captain of the original ‘dream team’

Four games they lost for the Temple Cup

Four games right from the start

So Cleveland ends with ache in back

And anguish in its heart

Oh, where is Cleveland’s pennant pole?

In the town of oyster stew

And where’s the gol-darned Temple Cup?

Afraid we got that, too

—Ode to the 1896 Champion Baltimore Orioles after they swept the Cleveland Spiders 4-0. The Temple Cup was a cup awarded to the winner of a best-of-seven, post-season championship series in the

National League, from 1894–1897.

As the Baltimore Orioles continue their improbable run for the American League Pennant, it is time to pay homage to one of the greatest Orioles to ever play the game — Joe Kelley.

The “Big Four”, clockwise, from top left: “Wee” Willie Keeler, John “Mugsy” McGraw, Hughie
Jennings and Joe Kelley.

Kelley was known by many nicknames during his Hall of fame baseball career. Swaggering. Kingpin. Handsome Joe. Cheater.

Adored by the ladies, loved by the fans, hated by umpires and despised by sportswriters, Kelley played major league baseball for 17 years, from 1891 to 1908, amassing a .317 lifetime batting average, 1,194 RBIs, 65 home runs — this was the dead ball era of baseball — and 443 stolen bases. He batted over .300 for 11 consecutive years, with a high of .393 in 1894. His 194 triples ranks ninth all-time 104 years after retiring from the game. He once had nine consecutive hits in a doubleheader, with the last four hits being doubles off of the pitching arm of Cy Young. As an outfielder, he had a .955 lifetime fielding percentage.

And it took him 63 years to make it to the Hall of fame.

Kelley played for a slew of teams during his career — the Boston Beaneaters, Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Brooklyn Superbas, Cincinnati Reds, Boston Doves and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League as a player/manager — but it was his time with the Orioles that was legendary.

Kelley, along with hall-of-famers John “Mugsy” McGraw, “Wee” Willie Keeler and Hughie Jennings, was a key part of the “Big Four,” the nucleus of the renowned 1894-1895-1896 world champion Baltimore Orioles. Along with his teammates, Kelley was instrumental in developing many innovations seen in today’s game.

And, like the majority of players back then, they weren’t above cheating.

Among the innovations was the renowned “Baltimore Chop,” where the ball is hit forcefully into the ground near home plate, producing a bounce high above the head of a fielder. This gives the batter time to reach first base safely before the ball can be fielded.

To help facilitate the bounce, the groundskeeper would bury a hard concrete-like substance at a strategic point in front of home plate to make the ball bounce even higher than normal. This made it possible to get a double off of the play.

Hiding balls in the outfield was another ruse used by Kelley and his teammates. The groundskeeper at Baltimore’s Union Park was told to keep the grass high in the outfield. A visiting player would hit into the deep underbrush, and Kelley or one of the outfielders would come up with one of the planted balls, hold the hit to a single or cut down the base runner at second.

The ploy worked until an infamous game against the St. Louis Browns. When St. Louis’s Tommy Dowd hit a ball to left center field, the runner at first, Joe Quinn, ran to third. Using a hidden ball, Kelley threw him out. But just as the single umpire was about to call Quinn out, fellow outfielder Steve Brodie, who had pursued the real ball to the fence, whipped it in, botching the inside play. After an argument, the umpire forfeited the game to St. Louis.

Kelley responded with Irish wit when asked about playing dirty baseball. “We bathe as much as the next and this talk is all nonsense. The Baltimore boys only defend themselves when playing against teams that treat us mean, especially that bunch from Cincinnati.”

Kelley was no fan of umpires. Before a game, an umpire asked to borrow his pocket watch. Later in the game, with Kelley at bat, the umpire called a strike. Kelley, infuriated at the call, got into a heated argument with the umpire and forgetting that the pocket watch was his, pulled it out of the umpire’s pocket, threw it on the ground and stomped on it. The umpire laughed and responded, “Not only are you out of here, Kelley, you’re an idiot. That was your watch you stomped on.”

During his career, one of his antics drew the ire of sportwriters. As a favorite player of ladies in his time, he would sometimes pull a comb and mirror out of his pocket between plays to groom himself, much to his admirer’s delight. In reality, it was a shrewd tactic, as the mirror would stay in his hand and he would shine sunlight in the eyes of the batter.

Kelley was also involved in a play that is possibly the only time a fair ball was hit over the fence for an out instead of a home run.

The night before a game, a windstorm blew the outfield fence down at Union Park. Workers managed to repair most of the fence before the game, but part of the fence was still sloping at a forty-five degree angle. A hard-hit ball went soaring over Kelley’s head. Kelley never stopped as he raced after the ball, running straight up the slope, catching the ball as he tumbled over the fence.

In a 1923 interview, John McGraw had this to say about his former teammate: “Joe had no prominent weakness. He was fast on the bases, could hit the ball hard and was as graceful an outfielder as one would care to see. He covered an immense amount of ground and had the necessary faculty, so prominent in [Tris] Speaker and others, of being able to place himself where the batter would likely hit the ball.”

After he retired, Kelley was all but forgotten to the annals of baseball history. Although he died on Aug. 14, 1943, he saw John McGraw get elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937 and Willie Keeler get elected in 1939. Two years after his death, Hughie Jennings was elected to the Hall. His adoring wife, Margaret Mahon Kelley, waited patiently all her life for her husband to receive the ultimate honor.

Unfortunately, she died shortly before he was honored by the Old-Timers Committee in 1971.

My great-grandfather, Joseph J. Kelley Jr. had this to say about his father at the 1971 induction ceremony: “Mr. Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of my brother, my children and most of our grandchildren who are all sitting out in the audience today, we wish to express our deep appreciation to the Old-Timers Committee for placing my father in the Hall of fame. We have just one regret and that is that my blessed mother could not be here today for she lived her life waiting patiently for this wonderful occasion, but died just two years ago at the age of 93.”

“Swaggering” Joe Kelley. One of the best baseball players. Ever.


Share This Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>