No film exists of professional baseball in the nineteenth century. Without moving pictures we are left with colorful, often embellished, words to describe the early greats of the game. In those early days in the league’s formative years no player’s exploits jump off the page more-so than Mike ‘King’ Kelly.
While we can’t hear him speak in his thick Irish brogue, we can get to know Kelly through books, articles and a compelling selection of baseball cards created of one of professional baseball’s first beloved superstars.
“Kelly, along with Cap Anson, were the two nationally famous players at the time.,” said Marty Apell, baseball historian and author of Slide, Kelly, Slide: The Wild Life and Times of Mike King Kelly, Baseball’s First Superstar. “The celebrity – rare in America in those days – gave those cards special appeal because they could be discovered and appreciated anywhere. So add cards to Kelly’s list of cultural conquests – with a painting, a song, a recording, a cool nickname, autographing, and stage work. And oh yes, two batting titles.”
Here’s a look at some of Mike ‘King’ Kelly’s baseball cards, some as interesting as the man himself.
1887 Four Base Hits
It is lost to history who produced this 16-card set as the backs bear no marking. The front, however, provide a sepia photo with the player’s name and position labeled. In addition to Kelly, the set includes Hall of Famers John Clarkson, Buck Ewing, John Ward, and Mickey Welch. 1887 marked Kelly’s first season with the Boston Beaneaters after spending seven seasons with the Chicago White Stockings where he had won four National League titles and two National League batting championships. It is exceptionally rare with SGC encapsulating just one of the cards to date.
1887 Old Judge N172
By 1887 Kelly was the most popular player in the game. The Boston Beaneaters paid him the then-staggering sum of $10,000 to join their team in 1887 where the large Irish immigrant population revered him. As a result there at least fourteen variations to his Old Judge card as the manufacturer, Goodwin & Co., looked to capitalize on his fame. He is shown holding a bat at a 45-degree angle, a portrait with no cap, bat horizontal, bat in left hand side, bat on right shoulder, and hands chest high. Some cards identify by his newly earned nickname, ‘$10,000 Kelly’. Across all variations SGC has graded 78 Kelly N172’s making them available to those who can afford and can often be found on eBay.
1887 Gypsy Queen
1887 saw a number of sets featuring the likes of King Kelly including Gypsy Queen. There are 183 known players in the set, with many of the images shared from the Old Judge set.
SGC has only graded four examples of the card including an SGC 40 VG 3 that sold for $3,770 in the 2005 Robert Edward Auction. Heritage Auctions attempted to sell the highest graded — SGC 50 VG/EX 4 — but it went unsold with a $40,000+ pre-auction estimate.
The 1888 Goodwin Champions set featured 51 cards, but just nine were ballplayers. I a set that included Dan Brouthers, Cap Anson, and Tim Keefe, the great King Kelly had to be included. He is featured on a color lithograph widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cards ever made. It was both featured in the first episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball and as one of Joe Orlando’s Top 250 Sports Cards.
SGC has graded an impressive 60 examples of this card making them plentiful for the era. They are often found on eBay.
1888 Allen & Ginter
Along with Anson, Ward, and Bob Caruthers, King Kelly is one of ten ballplayers to appear in Allen & Ginter’s 50 card set. Here Kelly appears with ‘Boston’ emblazoned upon his chest in the familiar red color of the modern era. Allen & Ginter has become one of the more popular sets with collectors due to the fact that Topps has produced sets based on the design over the past decade.
The cards are also plentiful with SGC having graded the card 118 times, making it one of the more affordable original cards from Kelly’s career.