Grave Story: Mike Kelley (1875-1955)

Here lies Mike Kelley, one of the most important figures in the history of Twin Cities minor-league baseball. He was one of the last of the independent minor-league team owners. He also was a first baseman for the Louisville Colonels in 1899, the last year Louisville had a major-league team.

Michael Joseph Kelley was born in Templeton, Mass., on December 2, 1875. He passed up the chance to go to college in order to play baseball. He later said he could have had a free ride at Harvard, Dartmouth, Brown or Amherst in exchange for playing on the baseball teams, but he wanted to turn pro. His father told him, “Michael, you can take up baseball if you like, but I was hoping that you would get into something that was more permanent.” Baseball ended up becoming pretty permanent.

Kelley joined the Augusta (Maine) Kennebecs of the New England League in 1895, when he was 19 years old. He spent his first season as a catcher before moving to first base in 1896, and he stayed there for the remainder of his playing career. There are no stats available for his rookie season, but he did top .300 in 1896. “Mike Kelley seems to be the heavy batsman of the Augustas this season,” reported The Boston Globe in 1896. “With the exception of a few amateur movements Kelley makes a clever first baseman.”

Kelley continued to hit up and down the East Coast. He started 1899 playing for former big-league manager Billy Barnie’s Hartford club, and he hit .330 in 58 games. Louisville owner Barney Dreyfuss acquired him in July when first baseman Dave Willis was sidelined with vision problems, and he became an immediate fan favorite. On July 19, he drove in 5 of Louisville’s 8 runs with 3 hits. A few days later, he played stellar defense at first base, took part in a triple play, and collided so hard with Brooklyn catcher Deacon McGuire on a play at the plate that two runs scored before McGuire could scrape himself up off the dirt and retrieve the ball.

“He is a big, husky-looking chap, and handles himself well, both at bat and in the field,” reported The Courier-Journal. Even his name had significant cache among baseball fans, since the legendary Mike “King” Kelly’s death in 1894 still stirred up emotion.

“While he may never become the equal of the famous Mike Kelly (for his like will never live again), I am sure he will prove a worthy and useful player,” said Louisville player/manager Fred Clarke.

For the season, Kelley played in 76 games and had a .241/.307/.326 slash line. He homered three times, drove in 33 runs and scored 48 times. He stole 10 bases and picked up 68 hits. It would prove to be his only season in the major leagues, but his baseball journey was just getting started.

The Louisville Colonels finished the season at 75-77, and that wasn’t enough to save the franchise. The National League pared down from 12 teams to 8 in 1900, and the Colonels were one of the teams that was contracted out of existence. Before that happened, Dreyfuss, who had moved from the Colonels to the Pirates, worked out a deal with Louisville’s new boss, Harry Pulliam, to acquire every single decent player the team had. A total of 11 Colonels became Pirates in the trade, including Honus Wagner, Tommy Leach, Clarke, and Kelley.

Kelley never played a game for the Bucs, because the team sold his contract to the Indianapolis Hoosiers before the 1900 season. He struggled at the bat and seemed to be more focused on making plans to become a baseball magnate rather than a player. He invested in a team in Youngstown, Ohio, but it was a financial bust. He returned to the Indians in 1901 and was hitting .346 when the team unexpectedly shut down in mid-July. He signed with the St. Paul Saints to finish off the season. While the stats aren’t available, Kelley must have made an impression, as the team named him player-manager for the 1902 season. He was lauded for his “considerable force of character and determination,” qualities that a good manager needs.

As a first baseman, Kelley continued to hit well for a few more seasons, though he was essentially done as a regular player by 1905. As a manager, he kept the Saints in contention while dealing with major-league clubs poaching some of his best players. He wasn’t afraid to be an authoritarian either. He suspended one of his better pitchers, Archie Stimmel, on September 12, 1902, because he said Stimmel wasn’t taking care of himself.

Source: Hennepin County Library.

The Saints won the 1903 American Association championship, led by hitting stars Kelley, Miller Huggins and Germany Schafer and pitcher Charlie Chech, who won 24 games. They repeated in 1904, and Kelley became a hot commodity as a manager. The official story was that he almost accepted a deal to manage in Toledo that December. Instead, Saints owner George Lennon, who was retiring from the game, sold Kelley half the club, with the rest being offered as shares to the general public.

“I think a joint stock baseball club will be a big winner in St. Paul, and I am willing to risk the experiment,” Kelley said, adding that “business always prevails before sentiment with me.”

Almost none of that proved to be true. What followed is a godawful mess of a story, filled with lies, accusations, suspensions and underhandedness. There’s a whole in-depth essay about it here, if you want to read it. I will attempt to summarize, and I apologize if I get any facts wrong:

Lennon did not sell the Saints to Kelley. The announcement was made so that Kelley could take Lennnon’s place on the American Association’s board of directors. Lennon and Kelley’s relationship soured in 1905, as the Saints struggled and Kelley dreamed of a major-league managing job. Lennon solved his problem by selling Kelley to the St. Louis Browns, but Kelley argued that he wasn’t a player, he was team president (in a sham arrangement) and therefore couldn’t be sold. Kelley announced an agreement to buy the Minneapolis Millers while people were still trying to figure out who actually held the rights to his services. The National Commission, a 3-man council made up of AL President Ban Johnson, NL President Pulliam and Chairman Garry Herrmann, got involved, and they of course made the whole mess even worse by kicking Kelley out of organized baseball altogether before they realized they overreacted. I’m not even mentioning the multiple lawsuits, Kelley’s accusations of crooked umpires or his attempt to play for the Washington Nationals.

Kelley, over the course of about three years, went from Saints player/manager to Saints sham owner/player/manager to Browns holdout player to Millers attempted owner to blacklisted to reinstated. He managed briefly in Des Moines and Toronto before returning to his old role with the Saints on August 9, 1908, with Lennon still the team owner. Three years of confusion, lawsuits, recriminations and suspensions, and everything went right back to the way it was.

The Saints weren’t very good during this time, and Kelley left to manage in Indianapolis for a season. He returned to manage the Saints from 1915 through 1923, and he won three American Association championships in 1919, 1920, and 1922.

To this point, Kelley had been the fake owner of a Minnesota team and attempted to buy another. He finally became an actual baseball magnate when he acquired the Minneapolis Millers on November 22, 1923. He acquired the team from a group of investors led by George Belden and kept Belden as president. He had big plans, too.

“I will buy three new infielders and two new outfielders and will try to get at least three new pitchers for the club,” he told reporters. “It will take time to do this but I want to get a good club for Minneapolis… I will do all in my power to give the Minneapolis fans a winning club and will do all of the managing myself.”

As a manager, Kelley couldn’t match the success he had in St. Paul. From 1924-1931, the Millers finshed over .500 five times but finished no higher than second place, when they finished in second place with a 97-71 record. (Shout out to Stew Thornley for having the Millers’ season totals at the ready). He still demonstrated a knack for finding diamonds in the rough and turning them into stars. He picked up 36-year-old Rube Benton in 1926 after his 15-year career in the majors, and Benton pitched for the Millers until 1933 and won 115 games. Forty-year-old Zack Wheat hit .309 in part-time play in 1928, his final season in pro ball. Twenty-year-old Ad Liska went 20-4 for the ’28 Millers before Kelley sold him and a couple other prospects to the Washington Senators for $25,000. Pitcher George Dumont was a decade removed from the major leagues when he signed with the Millers in 1929, and he won 13 games for the team in ’29 and ’30.

Kelley hired friend and former major-leaguer Donie Bush to manage the Millers in January 1932, ending a 38-year-run as a field manager for one team or another. “I’ll probably be lost in the stands this summer,” said the 56-year-old Kelley, “but it will be quite a relief. The burden of worrying about the playing as well as the business end of a ball club has been quite a strain during recent years.”

Mike Kelley, right, welcomes new manager Dave Bancroft and his wife, Edna, to Minnesota. Source: Hennepin County Library.

Kelley was one of the most successful managers the American Association had ever had. His managerial record in Baseball Reference is incomplete, but the SABR essay I linked to earlier puts his record at 2,390-2,102.

Bush’s Millers, led by sluggers Joe Hauser (49 homers) and Spence Harris (.352 average) and pitchers Rosy Ryan (22 wins), Jesse Petty (16 wins) and Hy Vandenberg (11 wins), finished first in the American Association with 100 wins. The team lost to the Newark Bears of the International League in the Junior World Series. The team fell to second place in 1934, as Dave Bancroft succeeded Bush when the latter was hired to manage the Cincinnati Reds. Bush returned after a year’s absence, and the Millers finished first in 1934 and 1935. Those were years when the Millers had home run kings like Hauser, Buzz Arlett and Johnny Gill around. Even if their pitching wasn’t the best, they could bludgeon any team into submission.

The minor leagues were changing, though, as major-league teams began to acquire farm teams to develop their own young players, rather than trying to buy them from independent teams. Kelley was opposed to the farm system concept, but it was the future of baseball. While he had working agreements with various minor-league teams (which is how a young Ted Williams became a Minneapolis Miller in 1938 before he joined the Red Sox). He soon found himself as one of the last owners of an independent minor-league team.

He celebrated 50 years in professional baseball in 1944. The Millers beat St. Paul 9-5 on a day set aside to honor him, and Kelley was presented with a boat to use at his summer home in Afton, Minn., as well as numerous other accolades. He finally sold the Millers to the New York Giants on April 12, 1946. He remained with the ballclub as an honorary president for the year before retiring.

Mike Kelley died on June 6, 1955, at the age of 79 in Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis. He had been hospitalized on May 26 after fracturing his hip in a fall. He underwent surgery for the fracture but suffered congestive heart failure. He is buried in Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery.

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