Muscle Sport Magazine

OTD in Baseball in 1894: Superstar King Kelly Dies at 36


Any person dying at the age of 36 is tragic and it is even more shocking when that person is a recently-retired professional athlete. Such was the case on this date in baseball back in 1894 when King Kelly passed away from pneumonia. He was one of the top stars of the nineteenth century and spent many years as a player-manager, not uncommon in those days.

Kelly was an innovator during his 16-year major league career and he is credited with the hook slide, hit-and-run and the catcher backing up first base in the event of a wild throw. Playing both the outfield and behind the plate, the Troy, New York native was the first to wear a glove and chest protector, two-thirds of what would later be called the “tools of ignorance,” a jovial jab at a catcher’s intelligence for playing a position that takes its toll on the human body.

A popular song entitled “Slide, Kelly, Slide” was released in 1889 about him and in the offseason, Kelly delved into acting and worked the vaudeville circuit performing numerous roles, including “Casey at the Bat.” Ironically, it was rumored that Kelly was the inspiration and model for the poem.

The Hall of Famer made his National League debut in 1877 with the Cincinatti Reds and as was common back in the game’s early days, many franchises lost money and had to release their players. Kelly was quickly signed by Albert Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings and became an offensive juggernaut, as well as one of the best defensive catchers in the league. The team won five pennants in his six years in the Windy City.

Spalding sold Kelly’s contract to the Boston Beaneaters during the ensuing offseason for what was then a recored high amount of $10,000. When the Players League was formed in 1890, Kelly jumped leagues and was a player-manager of the Boston Reds. They won the pennant, but the league ended up folding after that. His next stop was in the American Association, but Kelly eventually returned to the NL before retiring after the 1893 season.


While traveling via boat from New York to Boston in November of 1894, Kelly fell ill at what was reported as a “slight cold,” causing him to miss the first few dates on his vaudeville tour. His condition worsened and even after being hospitalized, Kelly would end up dying from pneumonia.

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