It was a grand occasion, the Boston Beaneaters' 1887 home opener and the first chance for fans to watch newly acquired star Mike "King" Kelly, whose batting and baserunning exploits were exceeded only by his élan.
He'd been purchased from the Chicago White Stockings for the unimaginable sum of $10,000 after leading the league with a .388 batting average and 155 runs. He'd invented the hook slide and the hit-and-run play, and stole as many as 84 bases in a season. He liked to address the crowd between pitches, banter with the umpire and bait the opposition, blurring the lines between baseball and performance art.
After the game, Kelly was off to the Boston Theatre, then to a banquet in his honor at the Elks Lodge. Mayor Hugh O'Brien presented him with a gold watch and chain. The 5½-by-9½ rigid card-stock program given to guests was festooned with red velvet ribbons. Its edges were gold leaf, its centerpiece a studio cabinet-style photograph of the striking, mustachioed Kelly.
He'd made fashionable the notion of signing an autograph when he rose to stardom with the Chicago White Stockings under legends Cap Anson and Albert Spalding. The post-Civil War era produced the first wave of American celebrities, from Mark Twain to Buffalo Bill, from John D. Rockefeller to John L. Sullivan.
Kelly was the first larger-than-life pro baseball player, and many of the Elks had him autograph their programs as the evening progressed, whiskey flowed and toasts became grandiose.
He dipped a pen into an inkwell, and signed, "Truly Yours, M.J. Kelly." One of the programs surfaced 124 years later, and it's in mint condition. Kelly's autograph is a rarity, and this one is perhaps the most valuable ever for a baseball player.
Many of the programs never even left the building that night. Thoroughly soused, Kelly was loaded into his carriage, normally horse-drawn. But on this night Elks and other admirers lifted the carriage and lugged it through the streets to his home.
It was a great night to be a Bostonian, a great night to be Irish, a great night to be King.
Within two years Kelly was the subject of America's first pop music hit, recorded on a wax cylinder and played on the phonograph Thomas Edison had invented in 1877. The song was titled, "Slide, Kelly, Slide," which is what fans in Chicago would chant when he flew around bases in his prime. It was sung on stage by dance hall star Miss Maggie Cline and covered by numerous artists as 78 rpm records proliferated in the early 20th century, well after Kelly's death.
Within four years he was moonlighting as a Vaudeville act, reciting "Casey at the Bat," often substituting Kelly for Casey. His pet monkey sat on his shoulder and a beer or shot of whiskey was invariably in his hand.
Within seven years he'd drank himself out of the major leagues and was a player/manager for an Allentown, Pa., farm team. After the 1894 season he contracted pneumonia during a boat trip from New York to Boston and died Nov. 8 at age 36, leaving a wife and small child. Legend has it he slipped off a stretcher at the hospital, looked up from the ground and said, "This is my last slide."
In 1945 Kelly was inducted in the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. By the second half of the 20th century, the player who'd been as beloved in his era as Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were in theirs faded into obscurity.
All the while, one of the autographed programs from the Elks tribute dinner in 1887 was preserved in mint condition, buried in a trunk beneath newspapers, letters and some other Elks mementos in the attic of a wealthy family in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. When the matriarch died in 1985, the family had a yard sale. The trunk of mostly junk sold for $25.
The man who bought it was a lifelong Elks member who enjoyed collecting pins and other relics from the club's early days. So he was thrilled to find the perfectly preserved program from the 1887 dinner. He had no idea who Mike Kelly was and didn't care. He just liked the way the program looked behind glass in his home office, and there it stayed for 25 years.
A couple years ago the man's 12-year-old nephew was hanging around his office, picking up and setting down Elks memorabilia. He saw the autograph and said, "That's King Kelly! He's in the Hall of Fame!"
Now the autographed photo and program are in an online sports memorabilia auction that will conclude Saturday. The consigner -- the Elks aficionado who bought the trunk at the yard sale and kept the program all
these years -- asked not to be identified.
SCP Auctions estimates that fewer than 10 authentic Mike King Kelly autographs are known to exist, and most are on contracts or other documents. This is the only known Kelly autographed photograph.
Kevin Keating, perhaps the foremost sports autograph authenticator in the country, said the value should be substantially more than $100,000. And he said that no baseball autograph has ever sold for six figures on the inherent value of the signature.
"I can think of some Babe Ruth items that sold for more, but the signature was on a Babe Ruth home run ball, or a home run bat," he said. "What carries the value of the Kelly piece is the autograph itself. It's so aesthetically pleasing. If you could bring Kelly back to life to sign one thing, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything nicer for him to sign. It's breathtaking."
Kelly's voice is preserved in an autobiography he produced with a ghostwriter in 1888, the first ever by a baseball player. The home opener and Elks dinner of a year earlier were fresh in his mind.
"I shall never forget the opening game of the season in Boston," he wrote. "It was the most memorable night of my life."
Kelly became an active member of the Boston Elks chapter. Celebratory and charitable, blue-collar and benevolent, the Elks were a great fit for him. The Elks started in New York shortly after the Civil War, spinning off a group launched by vaudevillian Charles Vivian called the Jolly Cork Club so named because of a trick new members fell for every time.
Everyone would set a bottle cork on the bar. The new man was told that on a count of three the last man to grab his cork must buy a round of drinks. At three, everyone but the new man would remain still, so, of course, he had become the last to grab. Everybody had a good laugh and another drink.
The Jolly Cork members soon began raising money for local causes and eventually they voted on a new name. The Elks beat out the Buffaloes.
By 1887 in Boston, the Elks had become one of the few places where men of English and Irish descent mixed amiably. The Irish, long treated with disdain, gradually became accepted. Hugh O'Brien was the city's first Irish mayor. The purchase of Kelly by the Beaneaters was one more hugely symbolic gesture for the Irish.
Kelly became something of a labor pioneer when he and most other top players from the National League broke away from owners they believed were exploiting them and started the Player's League in 1890.
He refused to break ranks even when the powerful Spalding, owner of the Chicago White Stockings, privately offered him more than double his $4,000 salary to defect back to the NL (the American League didn't yet exist).
Kelly thought it over and, according to Spalding's memoirs, turned down the offer, saying, "I want the $10,000 bad enough, but I've thought the matter all over and I can't go back on the boys."
The Player's League fell apart after one season, however, and Kelly was never the same. Overweight and slovenly from years of boozing, he was released by Boston in 1891 and signed by an American Association team based in a suburb of Cincinnati that was known as Kelly's Killers.
He'd swim across the Ohio River after games, once nearly drowning after taking a few shots of whiskey, according to Marty Appel's biography, "Slide, Kelly, Slide." Kelly's career was coming to an end: He'd finish with a .308 average with 1,813 hits in 16 seasons, but having made an impact far beyond statistics.
Kelly went from being baseball's best player to barely hanging on.
Yet throughout his career he was an innovator and an entertainer, helping baseball become a favored spectator sport.
Saloons that long had a painting of Custer's Last Stand hanging on the wall behind the bar replaced it with one of Kelly sliding into home plate.
He was a hero in Chicago, revered in Boston and marveled at by the rest of the country at a time when exploits not eye-witnessed spread slowly through newspapers, magazines and word of mouth.
And thanks to at least two people clueless as to what they had acquired, one mint-condition autographed photograph of King Kelly has survived into the 21st century, and is about to become one of the most valued pieces of baseball memorabilia ever.
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