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The 1891 Kelly's Killers

When the Reds jumped from the American Association to the National League, they were replaced by a team like nothing Cincinnati had seen before or since

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The current incarnation of the Cincinnati Reds began its existence as a member of the American Association baseball league in the 1880's. After the 1889 season, the team jumped from that league to the National League, where it has been competing ever since. However, the American Association felt that Cincinnati could support two major league teams, and they considered Cincinnati to be an American Association city anyway. So it was decided that a new team should be placed there for the 1891 season to replace the defectors.

Enter Kelly's Killers. The team was founded by American Association President Ed Renau and St. Louis Browns owner and the person who truly drove the American Association, Chris von der Ahe. They were officially known as the Cincinnati Reds, the same as their National League counterparts. However, with the appointment of the legendary Michael Joseph "King" Kelly as manager, the Kelly's Killers name has stuck. Kelly was one of the most famous ballplayers in the country when he took the job managing Cincinnati's new team. He had started his major league career with the earlier, now defunct National League version of the Reds (the one that existed from 1876 to 1880), but his best years came playing for Cap Anson on the Chicago White Stockings (now Cubs) and then the Boston Beaneaters (now Atlanta Braves). Even though he was now in the twilight of his career, he could still play, and besides that, he was just as well-known for his off field antics as he was for his playing ability, so ownership likely believed that his name alone would help bring out the crowds.

It is believed that the concept of asking celebrities for their autographs originated with Kelly. He favored fine clothes and was considered one of the best dressed men in the country. He was the first baseball player to write a memoir of his playing days, the probably ghostwritten Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field. His liquor consumption, however, was truly legendary. He allegedly once played right field with a mug of beer in hand, supposedly making a great catch without spilling a drop. There is a famous story of Anson paying a private detective to tail Kelly to keep tabs on his nighttime behavior. The detective reported back that Kelly had been spotted drinking lemonade at 3:00 in the morning. When asked to explain this behavior, Kelly angrily replied "It was straight whiskey! I never drank lemonade at that hour in my life!" He also performed often in vaudeville, occasionally reciting a version of "Casey at the Bat" that he composed, called "Kelly at the Bar."

Kelly's Killers played an even 100 games in 1891 and went 43-57. Outfielder Emmett Seery seems to have been their best offensive player, leading the team in most categories. Kelly himself played pretty well also. However, for the players, the games themselves may have been an afterthought to the party-like atmosphere the team existed in. Kelly's Killers acted less like a major league professional baseball team and more like a beer-league intramural softball team. According to Lee Allen's excellent 1948 history The Cincinnati Reds, "On any given day, it was by no means certain that nine players would show up. After each game, the King would hold court, sitting with his players at a long, white table that groaned with food and drink. Far into the night the players would remain to talk over each game with their admirers." The exception was on Sundays, when after the game, the entire team would go as a group to the police station so they could be arrested and each pay the two dollar fine for violating the recently-passed city law banning baseball on Sundays. The ban was lifted in 1902.

The players switched positions more or less at will, with position players pitching if the mood struck them. Eleven different players pitched for the team over the course of the season, which does not sound like much now but was very unusual for an era when most teams carried only three pitchers. Despite the fact that they seemed to have an attitude toward the game that could be described as lackadaisical at best, they did prove themselves to be a true Cincinnati professional baseball team by getting into a brawl with the St. Louis Browns (the team now known as the Cardinals) on Opening Day. That game ended in a forfeit in favor of St. Louis.

Unfortunately for Kelly's Killers, as the season wore on they could not compete financially with the crosstown National League Cincinnati Reds. Some of this may have been due to the poor location of the ballpark, which was located in Pendleton, Ohio, and was not easy to reach at the time. Eventually, in August, things got so bad that the team was moved to Milwaukee, although it could be argued that the team folded a new team was established in Milwaukee to take its place. Only a few of the same players played for both teams. Either way, Kelly's Killers finished its run in seventh place, some 32.5 games out of first.

1891 turned out to be the American Association's final year of existence. Like Kelly's Killers, the league just didn't have the financial resources to compete with the National League. King Kelly played for two more seasons before retiring. He died of pneumonia only a few years later in 1894. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945, in only the second vote of the Hall's existence and remains one of the most colorful characters ever to play pro ball in Cincinnati, or anywhere else for that matter.