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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Allentown's First King

I often refer to Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski as King Edwin, but his monarchy pales in comparison to the original King of Allentown. King Kelly ruled in the summer of 1894. This is the story of his brief reign, which involves battles against towns all over Pennsylvania. Especially that dreaded Easton. Fishtown.

Mike "King" Kelly, the most popular baseball player in America, had just retired from Boston. Was he a great hitter? Good, but not great. Golden glove? Nah. He was fast as hell, able to round the diamond in 15 seconds flat. He's often credited with the hit and run and is the first catcher to give a pitcher signals. But his real specialty was cheating. In that category, he has no equal, not even to this day. Even his opponents had to admire his nerve.

His favorite subterfuge? Stealing, of course. Kelly style. He would have teammates distract the ump, and then dash from first to third, right across the pitcher's mound. Some fans cheered while others jeered.

He was one tricky Irishman. After sliding into third on a double by another player, he decided to steal home - stopped half way - and then ran towards the catcher. As the catcher tagged the King out, the second base runner slid between his legs and scored to win a game. That prompted a rules change.

In his final season, he leaped from the dugout to catch a foul ball, "Kelly now catching," he shouted. As you probably have guessed, that prompted yet another rules change.

After his final season in Boston, King Kelly came to Allentown, with his pet monkey perched on his shoulder. Only the baseball gods know why he chose Allentown, not a very tough town. It's hard to get a rep in a town with a nickname like Peanutville. What's worse, Kelly's very first game was scheduled against Easton, a thuggish river town known for its violence, on and off the field. Kelly had a few names for his team - Kelly's Killers, the Buffaloes, even the Peanuts. Easton coined its own name for Kelly and his aging ball players - fossils.

Easton at that time was populated mostly by convicted felons and lawyers. In a game against Hazleton that summer, about 500 fans poured onto the field, upset at an ump's call. After that confrontation, the ump decided he had made the wrong call, and things started going Easton's way. "South Easton roughs" began brawling anyway, and it spilled onto the playing field. Fists and knives went to work, and the result was a riot. Cops hid. But Judge Reeder, who happened to be passing by in his carriage, somehow ended the violence. It didn't matter. Hazleton players took off as soon as they were untied, even though that meant they would lose the game. When The Express Daily News condemned the violence, newspaper reporters began getting threats and jeers themselves. That still happens to this day.

Easton's biggest fights were always saved for Allentown. During a July 4, 1888 double-header played in both Peanutville (morning) and Fishtown (afternoon), Allentown's team was beaten twice - literally - by the fans. They sure as hell weren't playing by Little League rules.

But as the baseball gods surely knew, King Kelly was himself no stranger to violence. He would prove that later in the summer, knocking a Reading base runner down with a not-so-friendly closed fist. Whoops! What's even worse, the King believed in playing baseball on Sunday, a blatant violation of our blue laws. Like Satan, he even corrupted some Easton players to go along with this notion. A horrified Easton Daily Express thundered, "If the Honorable 'Mike' Kelly and his minions want to knock flies on the first day of the week, they had best do so in Jersey or Kalamazoo. If they try the Continental Sunday racket in Allentown, they will get hit by their own boomerang."

When Kelly's Killers faced Easton's sluggers on May 3, 1894, no one could be sure whether there would be a game or a riot. God himself might even hurl a thunderbolt at the blasphemous King. Naturally, everybody came. There were 1,500 people at what was then Easton's fairgrounds. Before the game got underway, the Phillipsburg Cornet Band played a few tunes. Every now and then, a fish horn tooted, a portent of a sound we now hear in sporting contests all over the country.

There were no riots that day. Just baseball, at least from Allentown. Here's how The Easton Daily Express lyrically sums up the 9 - 0 slaughter:

"Defeated! And by Allentown! ... Not only defeated, but whitewashed! Completely shut out without a run. Not even a base hit! King Kelly's 'centurions' proved a veritable band of gladiators. And the king was happy. So were the Allentown sports who bet their money on the result. But the Easton cranks? Their 'sonnies' were sick, their 'shiners' were gone, their 'shad'-ows kept shrinking, and many looked as though they had been scooped up as 'suckers.' It was a bad day for Fishtown."

Easton's days of diamond domination were over, as noted by The Allentown Critic in its coverage of a double header later that season.

"'King' Kelly's aggregation of ball tossers met the strengthened Easton team twice yesterday and whipped them so badly on the base-ball diamond that the Shadtowners are now willing to cry 'quits' on Peanutville. The Eastons must have had an attack of rheumatic gout, or perhaps they had blind staggers. Anyhow, they were crushed terrifically."

Not long after these repeated humiliations by Kelly's Killers, Easton did in fact call its quits. Not enough money, probably because owners refused to listen to the King and play on Sunday. King Kelly did slay the Dragon of the East.

Would this lead to a new era of Allentown domination, led by King Kelly? He never got his chance. That Fall, he developed pneumonia during a boat ride from New York to Boston. As he was carried off in a litter, he was accidentally dropped.

"That was my last slide," joked the King. And so it was. He was dead a few days later, and now is a long-forgotten hero of Allentown. In the meantime, the Dragon of the East has risen again.

Blogger's Note: I waded through newspaper archives to research this story, and can also recommend King Kell's autobiography, the first ever written by a professional baseball player. You can read it here.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this immensely. Nice change of pace from the politics of the day.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks. It's actually one of my favorite stories.

Anonymous said...

I love old time baseball. That was a fantastic post. Thank you.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks. The old news clippings reveal that this was quite a big topic back in those days.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post. Thank you, Bernie.

I've already written that my dad and his baseball team would travel from Allentown to Easton on the train in the 40s. They were always leery of the Easton kids whom they swore ate nails for breakfast. He remembers being run off of Heil field and chased to the train station after beating Easton. Some things don't change.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 11:02,

Thanks. I'm considering putting together a series of local baseball stories, perhaps even weaving them into some sort of book. I'd love to hear your grandfather's story. My email is BOHare5948@aol.com.

Anonymous said...

FANtastic story, Bernie. As an avid fan of America's pastime I would buy your book in a heartbeat. Consider collaborating with Joe Garerra of Lehigh Co. Historical Society in researching the local game further. They had a great baseball exhibit there last year.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Mr. O'Hare. Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see that some people still know how to tell a story.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a baseball fan but I love that you put these little historical posts in every once in a while. THey're a nice break from the catfighting and a nice service to the public. I hope you continue and expand with other historical stuff, not just baseball.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I'll try and do that. It's a nice break for me, too. It's time consuming, but fun.