can tell you a lot about a baseball player. In the case of
George Kelly, they don’t say nearly
enough. The first baseman for the New York Giants when they
dominated the National League in the early 1920s, he was a
clutch hitter par excellence and an astonishing defensive
player. A quick-wristed slasher who could also crank out 400-foot
homers, George made the winning play in back-to-back world
championships and left a legacy as one of the most admired
men in the game.
Lange Kelly was born on September 10, 1895, in San Francisco,
here for today's sports birthdays.)
He was the product of a baseball-playing family. His mother’s
brother, Bill Lange, was one of the best all-around players
in professional baseball during the 1890s. George's brother,
Reynolds (aka “Ren”) Kelly, played pro ball for
many years on the West Coast and pitched a game for the Philadelphia
A’s in 1923.
up in San Francisco, George watched the city blossom in the
years after the earthquake of 1906. He rooted for the top
pro team, the Wasps, who were champions of the California
League in 1901. The Pacific Coast League, formed when George
was nine, displayed the talents of several future major leaguers,
many of whom played for the hometown Seals. Ping Bodie was
among the many memorable hitters on those early San Francisco
was long and lean. He stood 6-4 as a teenager and could pitch,
hit and field with strength and grace that was unusual in
a boy of his build back then. George was good enough on the
diamond to drop out of high school and make a buck playing
semipro ball around the city and across the bay.
experienced his first year of organized professional ball
in 1914 at the age of 18. He manned first base and played
the outfield for Victoria of the Northwest League, playing
his home games on Vancouver Island. George batted a modest
.250 but showed flashes of power. A slashing hitter with moderate
speed, he was known for going on tears where he hammered inside
pitches against—and occasionally over—the faraway
fences of that era.
returned to Victoria in 1915 and collected 44 extra-base hits
in just 94 games—enough for an August call-up from the
Giants, who purchased his contract. The team was rebuilding
at the time, and George was eyed as a possible replacement
for Fred Merkle. However, he rode the pine for two seasons
in New York and showed little at the plate, failing to hit
.200 either year. He became the object of derision on the
part of the fans. John McGraw once recalled that he was “laughed
out of the ballpark."
And in a sense he was. The Giants were back in the first division
by 1917, and McGraw, impatient with George's lack of progress,
placed him on waivers. The Pittsburgh Pirates picked him up
to spell 43-year-old Honus Wagner at first base, but George
failed to hit again and was placed back on waivers. McGraw
decided to give him another chance. He reclaimed George and
optioned him to Rochester, where he redeemed himself somewhat
with a .300 average in 32 games.
spending 1918 in military service, George returned to baseball.
He began the year at Rochester and mauled International League
pitching at a .356 clip with 15 homers—quite a feat
in the Dead Ball days. He was then promoted to the Giants
after first baseman Hal Chase was suspended for his myriad
misdeeds and gambling connections. George played 32 games
at first and hit a robust .290 with good power. The Giants
finished well behind the Cincinnati Reds, who would go on
to capture a tainted World Series against the infamous Chicago
the Giants were primed to seize control of the National League.
McGraw had a veteran pitching staff led by Art Nehf, Fred
Toney, Jesse Barnes and Phil Douglas. The lineup was balanced
between up-and-coming players like George, Frankie Frisch
and Ross Young and established hitters such as Larry Doyle,
George Burns, and Dave Bancroft, who was acquired from the
Philadelphia Phillies for old-timer Art Fletcher.
battled the Brooklyn Robins all year but, despite a trio of
20-game winners, New York fell short by seven games. Perhaps
the team’s best hitter, George was one of four players
in the league to reach double-figures in doubles, triples
and homers. He also led the N.L. with 94 RBIs.
again, George delivered clutch hits for McGraw. He fielded
his position brilliantly as well, showing off his rifle arm
when opponents tried to advance on infield plays. He regularly
went far into the outfield for cutoff throws, wheeling around
to nail surprised runners at home plate. It was George's positioning
and footwork on long hits that became the blueprint for all
future first basemen on relays.
led the N.L. in assists and putouts in '20 and would do so
again a year later. The addition of the sure-handed Bancroft
at shortstop created a startling number of chances for George.
In fact, his 1,759 putouts in 1920 established a new league
record, and he would be consistently at or near the top of
these categories throughout his career. Amazingly, from the
first day he took the field for the Giants, George used the
first baseman’s glove—a thin piece of leather
that looked positively prehistoric by the time he retired
in the 1930s.
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the Giants were the class of baseball. Their offense had learned
the art of hitting the new livelier baseball, with five regulars
topping .300 and catchers Frank Snyder and Earl Smith combining
for a .325 average and 18 home runs. Frisch, Youngs and Burns
set the table for George, who socked a league-leading 23 homers
and drove in 122 runs to lead the team. Only Rogers Hornsby
had more RBIs that year.
In just his second full season, George had distinguished himself
as one of baseball's best clutch hitters. Over the years,
McGraw would say time and again that there was no player on
his roster that he would rather see at the plate in a big
situation than the man fans called “Highpockets.”
He was especially proud of the work that had gone into developing
George, and the dividends paid by his uncharacteristic patience
with the young slugger.
the home run champion, Babe Ruth, who shared his stadium (the
Polo Grounds), George was a quiet, businesslike player who
did not yearn for public attention. This would earn him much
respect and many friends in the game over the years. His baseball
acquaintances simply called him “Kell."
trailed the Pirates for much of the '21 season but swept a
five-game series in August to seize control of the pennant
race. In what was perhaps the key at-bat of the season for
New York, George faced control artist Babe Adams in the nip-and-tuck
opener and worked the count to 3–0 with a man on. When
he peered into the dugout for the expected take sign, George
was surprised to McGraw signal him to swing away. Adams laid
one in, and George hit it into the railroad yard behind the
left field bleachers.
finished with 94 victories and a four-game cushion in the
N.L.. It was a nice piece of managing by McGraw. Almost the
entire team had turned over since the 1917 pennant-winner.
World Series, the Giants faced their Polo Grounds tenants,
the Yankees, in a best-of-nine format. The Yanks shocked fans
with shutouts in the first two games, but the Giants rebounded
to win five of the next six. The last two games were close,
exciting affairs, won by McGraw’s men 2–1 and
had a difficult series at the plate but made up for it in
the ninth inning of the final game. With one out and Aaron
Ward running on the pitch from first, Home Run Baker drilled
a grounder toward right field. Johnny Rawlings made a sprawling
stop and threw to George from his knees to nip the runner.
Ward never stopped, and George, ever attentive, gunned the
ball across the infield to Frisch, who took the throw as the
Yankee runner crashed into him. Flat on his back, Frisch held
the ball high so that the umpire could call the final out.
play was a fitting end to a thrilling contest. The game’s
lone run had come in the first inning, when sure-handed Roger
Peckinpaugh was unable to handle a hit by George.
New York got off to a fast start in 1922, and the rest of
the league never caught up. George was at the heart of the
offense again with 17 homers and 107 RBIs to go with a .328
average. Irish Meusel, picked up in a trade the previous season,
had a career year at the plate, and the team got a boost from
Kelly, Perez Steele
Casey Stengel, who won the center field job at mid-season.
The Giants were hard to stop with the bats in their hands.
In one game against the Boston Braves, Youngs hit for the
cycle and George added a pair of inside-the-park home runs.
easily outdistanced the Reds, Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals
to win the pennant again. The World Series, again against
the crosstown Yankees, was exciting but one-sided . The A.L.
representative had leads in three games only to see the Giants
comeback to win each time. The Giants won another game with
a 3–0 shutout. Another game ended in darkness a 3–3
tie. With the series returning to a best-of-seven format,
the Giants were repeat champions. Once again, George was in
the thick of the winning play. He knocked in the tying and
winning runs in Game 5 with a bases-loaded single in the eighth
inning. The Yankees, leading 3–2, had walked Youngs
to get to George.
Grounds got a facelift in 1923, as the Yankees moved across
the river to their shiny new stadium. With more seats added
to the Giants' park, more fans watched the team prevail in
a spirited race with the Reds. Once again, George hit triple-digits
in RBIs and batted over .300. He also tied a record when he
accepted 22 chances in a nine-inning game that April. A potential
crisis developed in New York when Bancroft fell ill late in
the year, but teenager Travis Jackson filled in at shortstop
and the team didn't miss a beat.
third straight fall, the Giants and Yankees met for all the
marbles. This time, the pinstripers got the better of George
and his teammates. The series see-sawed back and forth for
four games before Bronx power provided the winning margin
in Games 5 and 6. George was one of several Giants who was
stifled at the plate. He collected a mere four hits.
regrouped to win the pennant in 1924. George was the man,
slamming 21 homers and knocking in 136 runs to lead both leagues.
He did much of this damage during an eye-popping stretch that
July when he hit home runs in six straight games. Earlier
in the season, he had the second three-homer game of his career.
edged the Pirates and Robins in the final week but were denied
a chance to face the Yankees again, as the Bronx Bombers faltered
down the stretch and were beaten for the pennant by the Washington
Senators. As the Fall Classic approached, a scandal broke
that involved several Giants. Jimmy O’Connell, a reserve
outfielder, and coach Cozy Dolan were accused of offering
a Phillies player money to "lay down" in a late-season
game. When questioned by the commissioner's office, O’Connell
suggested that George and Frisch had
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known about the plot.
Both players were quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, but O’Connell
was banned from organized ball for life.
The World Series started under this cloud, but when it went
the distance, the scandal was mostly forgotten. The Giants
appeared to have the upper hand late in Game 7, until veteran
Walter Johnson took the mound and shut New York down. The
championship was decided in the 12th inning when a bad-hop
grounder plated the winning run for the Senators. George led
all batters in the series with seven runs.
failed to repeat as N.L. champs in 1925, a season that saw
George log most of his games as the team’s second baseman.
McGraw was intent on getting young Bill Terry’s bat
into the lineup, and George agreed to move over when Frisch
injured his hand. He did a fine job at an unfamiliar position,
and also enjoyed another solid year at the plate with 20 homers,
99 RBIs and a .309 average.
played his final season for the Giants in 1926. Reinstalled
at first base, he had a stellar season on defense. He also
led the club in home runs and RBIs. But with the team playing
.500 ball, and Terry languishing on the bench, the Giants
decided to move George, who at 30-years-old still had some
trade value. After the season, he was dealt to the Reds for
veteran Edd Roush.
already had a first baseman, Wally Pipp, and was solid at
second and the outfield, George’s other potential positions.
For the Reds, the trade was more about unloading the taciturn
Roush. George saw just 222 at-bats during the 1927 campaign,
as Cincy finished in the second division.
George Kelly, 1925 Exhibit
got into more games for the Reds in 1928, supplanting Pipp
as the everyday first sacker and batting .296. Cincinnati
won more than half its games but was not a serious threat
for the pennant. The club bottomed out the following year,
losing 88 games. The Reds were good at manufacturing runs,
mostly through singles and steals. George often did the heavy
lifting with runners on base. In fact, he surpassed the 100-RBI
plateau for the fifth and final time of this career in 1929.
But the game favoring power hitting more and more, the Reds
floundered without an abundance of run producers.
released George during the summer of 1930. He played for six
weeks with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association,
and then was acquired by the Chicago Cubs to fill in for injured
Charlie Grimm at first base. He hit a sparkling .331 and got
to witness the tail end of one of history's most remarkable
hitting displays as teammate Hack Wilson clubbed 56 homers
and amassed in 191 RBIs. The Cubs went down to the wire with
the Cardinals, but St. Louis slipped by them in the final
week to cop the flag.
season found George without a major league job. The Millers,
however, welcomed him with open arms, and he rewarded them
by blasting 20 homers and driving in 112 runs. George moved
on to Jersey City at the start of the 1932 and was picked
up by Brooklyn a couple of months into the season. The acquisition
enabled the Dodgers to move first-sacker Joe Stripp to third
base, the team’s weak spot. George was reunited with
Wilson, who teamed with Lefty O’Doul, Johnny Frederick
and Danny Taylor to give Brooklyn a
surprisingly potent attack—and
the Cubs a run for their money. The Dodgers finished third,
and George completed his last big-league season with a .243
George could look back on his career with great pride. His
average stood at .297, and he finished with 1,020 RBIs—great
stats by any measure in the gigantic stadiums of his day.
He also had 148 home runs, and his two three-homer games remained
an N.L. record until Johnny Mize set a new mark more than
20 years later. George’s career slugging average was
only .452, but at a time when first base was not a position
given over to big swingers in the National League, it was
a very respectable number.
returned to California over the winter and was offered a job
as a reserve outfielder with the Oakland Oaks the following
season. He didn't have much left in the tank and called it
quits after 21 games.
stayed in baseball as a coach, and in 1935, he was hired by
his old Cincinnati teammate Chuck Dressen, who managed the
Red. He stayed with the club until 1937, when Dressen was
canned that August.
a nother former teammate, offered George a job with the Braves
in 1938. He coached for Boston until 1943, when Stengel was
relieved of his duties. George wasn't done with baseball.
He scouted for the Reds on the West Coast for a couple of
years and returned to the field as a coach for the team during
the 1947 and 1948 seasons. George did some more scouting after
that, and eventually retired to the town of Millbrae, California..
a distant cousin of George’,s Rich Chiles, played in
his first major league game. He logged six season in the bigs,
bouncing between the Houston Astros, New York Mets and Minnesota
George learned that he had been voted into the Baseball Hall
of Fame by the Veterans Committee, which at the time included
former players who knew him well. He entered Cooperstown along
with Mickey Welch, Billy Evans,Monte Irvin, Warren Spahn
and Roberto Clemente.
George Kelly, 1940 Play Ball
"Highpockets" passed away on October 13, 1984 in
Burlingame, California. Before he died, he was a generous
contributor of memories and recollections to baseball writers
and historians. He had seen it all, from the earliest days
of PCL baseball, through the final days of the Dead Ball era,
to the modern game. When asked to name his all-time all-star
team, he often placed Ernie Lombardi at catcher. He worked
with Lombardi as a coach with the Reds in the 1930s. George
also listed Glenn Wright, with whom he played ever so briefly
in Brooklyn, as the most underrated player of his time.
criticized George’s place amongst the immortals, feeling
he was a notch below Cooperstown quality. Though he had a
flair for hitting dramatic home runs, he was not a classic
slugger. And the fielding prowess of first basemen had never
merited their inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Gil Hodges fans,
for example, have often pointed to George and asked, "If
Highpockets is in, why not Gil?" These are the debates
keep baseball history alive and, ultimately, make the game
George Kelly, Signed postcard
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