“Kelly Now Catching”: King Kelly and Baseball’s Substitution Rules

King Kelly routinely bent or broke the rules of the game. (via Library of Congress)

King Kelly routinely bent or broke the rules of the game. (via Library of Congress)

Michael Joseph “King” Kelly (1857-1894) was a star outfielder/catcher and well-known personality of the late 19th century. He played, captained and managed for many teams throughout his Hall of Fame career, including a brief stint in the short-lived Players’ League. Kelly’s Hall of Fame plaque declares him to have been a “Colorful player and audacious base-runner,” and there exist hundreds of stories–of varying degrees of veracity–of his exploits both on and off the field.

While he was managing in the Players’ League in Cincinnati, Kelly and his ballplayers were regularly arrested for attempting to play baseball on Sundays, violating the city’s blue laws. Once, while playing with Boston, Kelly instructed his teammates, “Let us dress up as old men and beat [Cap] Anson’s colts.” Kelly himself was “made up as an English dude, with flowing [false] whiskers,” while others donned long blouses and clown noses. The Chicago crowd loved it, and Boston indeed was victorious.

Throughout his career, Kelly bent (or straight-up broke) the rules, by, for example, using his revolutionary “hook slide,” or skipping bases on his way home when the umpire wasn’t looking. But then there’s this one oft-repeated Kelly tale, a fanciful display of cleverness and quick thinking that could exist only in the pre-modern era of baseball; one which, supposedly, changed the rules of the game forever. The story is fascinating, but what parts of it–if any–are true?

The Story

The specific details differ based on which source you are reading, but the general outline remains essentially the same. During a game he did not start, Kelly was sitting on the dugout bench when the opposing team’s batter hit a high foul ball that drifted his way. Noticing his team’s catcher had no chance of getting to the ball, Kelly called out something to announce he was coming into the game; usually, this is reported as some variation of “Kelly now catching” (sometimes “for Boston,” other times “for Chicago”). Kelly then made the catch to record what he believed was a legitimate out under the rules of the day.

Variants of the story have shown up in numerous 20th century sports columns, baseball encyclopedias, and even a 1940s novel (The Looking Glass, by William March). Some writers specify it was the final out of the game, or Kelly’s team had a one-run lead over the opposition, or the opposing team had runners on second and third when Kelly made the self-substitution. Some claim he grabbed a glove, while others say he made the catch bare-handed. A substantial number of these descriptions conclude by saying that Kelly’s putout was legal according to the baseball rules of the era, but that the rules changed soon thereafter to prevent others from exploiting the loophole.

One of the more intriguing discrepancies is the Boston/Chicago one. A considerable number of sources exist for both cities, though the “Boston” version is more common. The accounts that say Kelly was with the Boston Beaneaters (later the Boston Braves and today the Atlanta Braves) generally do not identify an opponent, but a majority of those that do claim it was Cincinnati. Nearly every such retelling of the incident that provides a year lists it as 1889. (It should be noted there was no Cincinnati team in the National League in 1889.)

The accounts that say Kelly was with the Chicago White Stockings (today the Chicago Cubs–yes, the Cubs) almost all name St. Louis as the opponent. One thing is clear: Even if the incident happened, it’s definitely been embellished over the years, if not flat-out mis-told.

Most of the written retellings of the story were published some time after 1900. Available online records include two accounts from the 1890s, both from other ballplayers. The earliest explicit mention of the event comes from Charlie Bennett, catcher and Kelly’s teammate in Boston. In November of 1894, not long after Kelly’s untimely death from pneumonia, The New Castle News (out of New Castle, Pa.), printed the story from Bennett’s perspective:

During a game one day, [Kelly] sat on the bench and [Charlie] Ganzell [sic] was behind the bat. A foul fly was popped up, out of Ganzell’s reach, when quick as a flash Kel ran forward, ordered Ganzell out of the game, caught the ball, and then ordered the umpire to declare the batter out. He maintained with a great deal of force, that he had as much right to order Ganzell out of the game, while a ball was in the air, as at any other time during the progress of the game. However, the decision went against him.”

Apologies, Chicago fans–this seems like pretty strong evidence for Team Boston.

The other such account comes from William “Kid” Gleason, a pitcher and second baseman whose 24-year career spanned from 1888 until 1912. Gleason also was the manager of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal (although Gleason himself was not involved with fixing the series). The St. Paul Globe ran this blurb in September of 1899:

Kid Gleason told a story of Mike Kelly the other day which illustrates further the inexhaustible fund of tricks which that great player had. Kelly was on the bench one day not playing, while Ganzel was catching for the Bostons. One of the opposing batters raised a foul fly which was out of Ganzel’s reach. Seeing that this was so Kelly quick as a flash jumped up from the bench and, crying, ‘You’re out of the game, Ganzel,’ caught the foul fly himself. The King insisted that he had a right to take the foul and then get into the game, but the umpire decided against him.”

Nothing about Gleason’s recounting of the story tells us whether he was there (which might have provided a hint about the opponent), but it does affirm Boston for us.

What’s most interesting about these two accounts, however, is that both claim the call went against Kelly. Nearly every 20th-century telling of the event claims some befuddled umpire found himself forced to accept Kelly’s argument and to rule the catch an out.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Now, let’s examine the substitution rules of the late 19th century, as published in Spalding’s annual Constitution and playing rules of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.

The Rules

Bennett, Ganzel and Kelly were teammates in Boston in 1889, the latter part of 1891, and all of 1892, which already narrows down the scope of years during which the story could have taken place. Still, it’s important to know that from 1881 through 1888, the National League playing rules prevented player substitution at any time, “unless such player be disabled in the game then being played, by reason of illness or injury.”

Prior to the start of the 1889 season, the rule changed substantially:

Rule 28, Sec. 2. One player, whose name shall be printed on the score card as an extra player, may be substituted at the end of any completed innings by either club, but the player retired shall not thereafter participate in the game. In addition thereto a substitute may be allowed at any time in place of a player disabled in the game then being played, by reason of illness or injury, of the nature and extent of which the Umpire shall be the sole judge.”
(Bolding for emphasis mine, as is true throughout the rest of this article.)

Substitutions were now permitted at the close of a frame. While this was laxer than previous versions of the rule, it wouldn’t have been quite lax enough for Kelly’s purposes.

The rule continued to evolve over the next few seasons. In 1890, it read:

Rule 28, Sec. 2. Two players, whose names shall be printed on the score card as extra players, may be substituted at any time by either club, but no player so retired shall thereafter participate in the game. In addition thereto a substitute may be allowed at any time in place of a player disabled in the game then being played, by reason of illness or injury, of the nature and extent of which the Umpire shall be the sole judge.”

Now the inning didn’t have to be over for a player to be replaced. There was also nothing in the rule requiring that the ball be dead (as there is in today’s rules), nor is there anything about the umpire needing to acknowledge the substitution was being made.

The rule changed yet again in 1891:

Rule 28, Sec. 2. Any [present, uniformed] player may be substituted at any time by either club, but no player retired shall thereafter participate in the game.”

This is similar to the 1890 version of the rule, but now the number of substitutes a team was allowed to have available on the bench was no longer limited to two.

Did Kelly inspire a rule change?

The substitution rule remained effectively the same for the next 19 years, albeit with some slight changes in phrasing. It was not until 1910 that this new section was added:

Rule 28, Sec. 4. Whenever one player is substituted for another, whether as a batsman, base runner or fielder, the captain of the side making the change must immediately notify the umpire, who in turn must announce the same to the spectators. A fine of $5.00 shall be assessed by the umpire against the captain for each violation of this rule, and the President of the League shall impose a similar fine against the umpire who, after having been notified of a change, fails to make proper announcement. Play shall be suspended while the announcement is being made, and the player substituted shall become actively engaged in the game immediately upon his captain’s notice of the change to the umpire.”

Now, the umpire had to recognize a substitution for it to be legitimate, lest the team captain be fined an exorbitant $5. But 1910 was 16 years after King Kelly’s death, so it is highly unlikely the rule change could have had anything to do with him.

With that much of the legend debunked, one big issue still remains: When was the fateful game that Bennett, Gleason, and so many others described?

The Game

Other historians have tried in vain to track down this game. I’m not sure why I thought I’d have different fortunes in my quest to find it. But I spent hours upon hours combing through newspaper archives, looking at box scores and recaps (from exhibition games, regular-season games and postseason games alike), just to find one that might sort of meet the criteria.

I had only two things to work with: a team and a time period. Thanks to Bennett and Gleason, we know it was with Boston (and not Chicago); any other detail from other accounts about the opponent did not seem particularly useful. In spite of those claiming it happened in 1889, it is much more likely it would have happened in 1891 or 1892, as there does not appear to be any way someone could have interpreted the rules prior to 1891 as permitting a player to be substituted into a game mid-play.

This leaves a general window that had been whittled down from the entirety of Kelly’s playing career to about 200 games. However, working within that limited framework, I came up with nothing close to definitive. Not a single recap mentioned the event specifically. It was disheartening, but that’s the nature of historical research. It’s like being on a treasure hunt, only time has ripped your map to shreds, and even if you think you’re putting the scraps together properly, following the right trail, and looking in the most logical of places, there’s no guarantee of a reward at the end of it all.

So…What Really Happened?

It seems our biggest piece of evidence, the story from Kelly’s teammate, Bennett, has no earlier primary sources to corroborate it. Lack of evidence is not proof Bennett made the whole thing up, of course. If the out really was disallowed, perhaps no journalists found the incident worth mentioning in their game recaps.

Nevertheless, lack of evidence does still raise suspicions. One theory is that the incident happened, but with someone other than Kelly. Just as Yogi Berra famously said (or, perhaps, did not say) “I really didn’t say everything I said,” maybe Kelly never did some of the things he was claimed to have done. That Bennett was Kelly’s teammate and would have been there casts some doubt on it being a case of accidental misattribution, but that possibility does remain–as does the possibility of purposeful misattribution.

Another theory is that the story is apocryphal–that is, it didn’t happen at all, or was highly embellished to begin with. It’s not at all unusual for people to craft tales to exemplify certain famed aspects of an individual’s disposition. Think of the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree, meant to showcase the Father of the Country’s trademark honesty. It’s possible that’s what Bennett was doing here with Kelly, attempting to honor his friend and teammate by helping to further Kelly’s already larger-than-life public perception. Even though there are scores of other Kelly tales we know to be true, perhaps Bennett felt none of them thoroughly encapsulated the kind of player and person Kelly was, and hence he came up with this one instead.

Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. If nothing else, it’s something King Kelly’s contemporaries apparently believed, which speaks volumes about the man’s character.

References & Resources

  • Marty Appel, Slide, Kelly, Slide: The Wild Life and times of Mike King Kelly, Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999, 161.
  • T.H. Murnane, The Boston Globe, “In New Uniforms,” July 12, 1892, 5.
  • Russ Hodges, Baseball Complete, Grosset & Dunlap, 1952.
  • The New Castle News, “A Talk With Charlie Bennett,” November 23, 1894, 1.
  • The St. Paul Globe, “Baseball Briefs,” September 28, 1899, 5.
  • National League of professional base ball clubs, Constitution and playing rules of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bros., 1888, 33-4 and 45-47.
  • The current version of MLB’s rule book, which states: “A player, or players, may be substituted during a game at any time the ball is dead.”
  • Baseball-Reference.com
  • Baseball Almanac
  • SABR.org

Sarah Wexler is a contributor to Dodgers Digest. She recently earned her master's degree in Sports Management from Cal State Long Beach. She graduated from New York University in 2014 with a bachelor's in History and a minor in American Studies. Follow her on Twitter @SarahWexler32.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

Interesting, enjoyed this. I wonder if it’s possible that Kelly did this during a barnstorming tour or something, as that might explain why players from different clubs would have remembered it. I’m not sure, but I’d expect there would be fewer newspaper accounts of barnstorming games than there would have been from the official “league” games.

Sarah Wexler
8 years ago
Reply to  Luuuc

Thank you! You’re right, that’s a definite possibility. A cursory L.A. Times archive search turns up some box scores and recaps from west coast barnstorming games that Kelly was involved in–I think I’m gonna have to delve deeper into this.

8 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Wexler

Cool! Will be very interested to read what you can find.

Jon Roegele
8 years ago

Interesting story – enjoyed it!

Adam Dorhauer
8 years ago

I’ve always wondered how much truth there was to this story. Really nice article.

8 years ago

But did he violate any unwritten rules?

8 years ago
Reply to  PresidentPunto

(great article Sarah!)

Sarah Wexler
8 years ago
Reply to  PresidentPunto

Kelly would’ve driven folks who cared about “unwritten rules” crazy. 🙂

Baby Cookie
8 years ago

Did you think about reading Ol’ Trumpet Jackson’s recount? It mentioned how Henry Wilson was the one to tell Kelly to go do that.

8 years ago

Good read.

Even great detectives don’t solve all their cases.

John Autin
8 years ago

Thanks for this interesting effort to crack one of baseball’s oldest legends.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

Great piece. Earl Weaver used to pull a clever substitution trick. if he was uncertain about playing a left handed or right handed player who batted in the bottom of the lineup, he would list a pitcher on the lineup card, usually yesterday’s starter or one time, Steve Stone, who was in another city at the time the game started, at that position. When the time came for the player to bat, he would pinch hit the real player and make the substitution. His reasoning was that if the opposing team started a right hander and that pitcher was bounced out of the game by the 2d inning and put a lefty in, he would be able to adjust accordingly. Weaver acknowledged that it was a really low percentage move but if it meant one victory more a year, that could very well make a difference. MLB banned this ploy soon after he used it.

Sarah Wexler
8 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Thanks for this, Dennis. Sounds like there’s a whole article in that story.

Hank G.
8 years ago

I can easily believe that this never happened, but I would be disappointed if someone were able to definitively prove that it didn’t happen (which is even more unlikely than proving that it did). The story is one of my very favorite baseball anecdote, and it encapsulates what people said about King Kelly: quick on his feet, quick of mind, and always looking for an edge.

Dennis Bedard
8 years ago

The anecdote is told by the quiescent one himself in “Weaver on Strategy.” The tactic would only work if you substituted for the DH or for a late batting fielding player if you were on the road. But I was intrigued at the extent he would go to gain even the slightest edge.