Grave Story: Russ McKelvy (1854-1915)

Here lies Russ McKelvy, an early two-way baseball player who played parts of two seasons in two different leagues. McKelvy was an outfielder and pitcher for the Indianapolis Blues of the National League (1878) and the Pittsburgh Allegheneys of the American Association (1882).

Russell Errett McKelvy was born on September 8, 1854 in Swissville, Pa. Either his gravestone is off by a year, or all the baseball stat sites are. A lot of newspapers spelled his last name as “McKelvey,” making it hard to track him down through history at times. It seems like McKelvy was a well-educated man, which put him above a good number of his baseball brethren. He is listed as a member of the Delta Tau Fraternity at Allegheny College, Class of 1875. According to Baseball Reference, he attended the college from 1873 to 1877. He was the school valedictorian of his class when he graduated, whether it was 1875 or ’77.

McKelvy entered pro ball with the Pittsburgh Allegheneys of the International Association in 1877. It wasn’t a major-league team, though they frequently played exhibition games with the National League teams, and it was made up of a bunch of former and future big-leaguers. McKelvy’s teammates included Pud Galvin, Candy Nelson and Ned Williamson. Galvin was the primary pitcher, though McKelvy made at least one appearance on the mound and also pitched in exhibition games. One article from August 23 of that year recaps a game between Pittsburgh and the NL’s Chicago White Stockings. McKelvy started the game as the right fielder, with Galvin as the starting pitcher. He relieved Galvin on the mound in the third inning when Chicago hammered him, with Galvin moving out to right field. Chicago hit McKelvy just as hard, scoring 5 runs, so the two players traded positions again! McKelvy ended up with 3 hits and Galvin pitched better after his breather, but yes, managing games in the 1970s was a way different job than it is today.

A photo of the Salt Lake Deserets, which probably dates to the early 1880s. Russ McKelvy is reclining on the lower left. Source: Salt Lake Herald Republican, July 4, 1915.

McKelvy hit about .200 for Pittsburgh, but it was enough that he was signed by the NL’s new Indianapolis team for the following season as the starting center fielder. The Blues also picked up a couple of his Pittsburgh teammates as well, namely Williamson and Nelson. This is the only year that Indianapolis had an official National League team (though it would have been different if Art Angotti had had his way), and the team finished 24-36 — good for a 5th place finish — before folding. He played in a league-high 63 games and hit .225, with 4 doubles, 3 triples and 2 home runs. He also made 4 pitching appearances, including one start, and went 0-2 with a 2.16 ERA. That sounds like a good number, but he actually allowed 23 runs on 38 hits in 25 innings. Thanks to late 1870s fielding, only 6 of those runs were earned.

An article in The Buffalo Commercial reported the following on March 21, 1879: “R.E. McKelvy, center-fielder of last year’s Indianapolis Blues, has given up professional ball playing, for this season at least. He may now be found at the Walker House, Salt Lake City, Utah, where he holds the position of clerk.”

He didn’t entirely give up on ball playing, of course. An article in the Salt Lake Herald-Republican on July 4, 1915 discussed the history of baseball in Utah. Under the charming headline of “National Game in Salt Lake Dates Back to When It Was Secondary to Indian Fighting,” The article talks about the Deserets, which was founded in the early 1880s. “The boys played a fast game and with Russ McKelvy pitching always felt safe of winning. Seldom indeed did they lose, and then they always came back next time with a win,” the article stated.

By 1882, McKelvy was back in Pittsburgh and still involved with baseball, pitching for a couple of semi-pro teams in the area. He was asked to umpire a game between the Allegheneys and Cincinnati of the American Association on May 21. He gave no home-team advantages and in fact made a couple of calls against Pittsburgh that angered the fans. It must not have bothered the Allegheneys much, because he made one appearance with them as a right fielder on August 24, going 0-for-4 at the plate.

For his career, McKelvy had a .222/.237/.284 slash line, with 57 career hits in 247 at-bats. He scored 33 runs and had 36 RBIs. His obituary makes the dubious claim that McKelvy was the second man to throw a curve ball. There are probably a half-dozen pitchers who have claimed to have invented the curve, and a few of them were playing professionally when McKelvy was in college.

Source: Omaha World-Herald, October 20, 1915.

McKelvy’s family goes back a long, long way, thanks to his marriage to Blanche Lewis in 1880. She is listed among the Daughters of the American Revolution. Her ancestor, Isaac Sadler (1760-1843), served as a private in Capt. Stephen Stevenson’s company in Col. Megan’s regiment in 1777.

Shortly after the birth of their daughter Isabel in 1883, the family had moved to Omaha, where McKelvy would spend the rest of his life. They had another daughter, Blanche Russell, who was born in Nebraska in 1890 or so. Blanche McKelvy seemed to be a pretty prominent member of the Omaha social scene, as a regent of the Isaac Sadler division of the DAR. According to various Omaha directories, she was the woman’s page editor or society editor of the World-Herald as well. She was struck by a streetcar in 1910 and suffered a spinal injury. Her injuries were grave, but she recovered enough to resume her editor’s job. She lived until April 27, 1934, a day before her 78th birthday.

As for Russell McKelvy, he didn’t give up on baseball completely, so it seems. He put together a team to play the “professional Omahas” — presumably the team in the Western Association. It looks like he may have grabbed a few former professionals to fill out his team, though only the last names are listed. His pitcher Salisbury could well be Harry Salisbury, who pitched for the ’82 Allegheneys. Later, in the 1890s, there is a “McKelvy” listed as an umpire for several Western Association games. It’s a safe bet that this would be the same man.

McKelvy went to work for the Pacific Express Co. railroad when he moved to Omaha. He was also listed in directories as a principal of Swartz & McKelvy, which seemed to be a newsstand/used bookstore. For 16 years, he was an official for the Woodmen of the World in the monument department. WOW at the time was a fraternal organization/insurance company that supplied grave markers for its members. If you go to an old cemetery and see a gravestone that looks like a tree trunk, look for a Woodmen emblem. So, fellow tapophiles, if you come across a Woodmen of the World monument that dates to the early 1900s, chances are that McKelvy helped put it there.

Russell McKelvy died on October 19, 1915 at the age of 61 from a combination of heart and kidney diseases. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Omaha.

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