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…
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…
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.”
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