King's Ransom: Autograph Of 19th-Century Baseball Icon 'King' Kelly Could Fetch $100K
T'was a grand occasion, the Boston Beaneaters' 1887 home opener and the first chance for fans to watch newly acquired star Mike "King" Kelly, whose batting and baserunning exploits were exceeded only by his élan.
He'd been purchased from the Chicago White Stockings for the unimaginable sum of $10,000 after leading the league with a .388 batting average and 155 runs. He'd invented the hook slide and the hit-and-run play, and stole as many as 84 bases in a season. He liked to address the crowd between pitches, banter with the umpire and bait the opposition, blurring the lines between baseball and performance art.
After the game, Kelly was off to the Boston Theatre, then to a banquet in his honor at the Elks Lodge. Mayor Hugh O'Brien presented him with a gold watch and chain. The 5˝-by-9˝ rigid card-stock program given to guests was festooned with red velvet ribbons. Its edges were gold leaf, its centerpiece a studio cabinet-style photograph of the striking, mustachioed Kelly.
He'd made fashionable the notion of signing an autograph when he rose to stardom with the Chicago White Stockings under legends Cap Anson and Albert Spalding. The post-Civil War era produced the first wave of American celebrities, from Mark Twain to Buffalo Bill, from John D. Rockefeller to John L. Sullivan.
Kelly was the first larger-than-life pro baseball player, and many of the Elks had him autograph their programs as the evening progressed, whiskey flowed and toasts became grandiose.
He dipped a black fountain pen into an inkwell, and signed, "Truly Yours, M.J. Kelly." One of the programs surfaced 124 years later, and it's in mint condition. Kelly's autograph is a rarity, and this one is perhaps the most valuable ever for a baseball player...
...All the while, one of the autographed programs from the Elks tribute dinner in 1887 was preserved in mint condition, buried in a trunk beneath newspapers, letters and some other Elks mementos in the attic of a wealthy family in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. When the matriarch died in 1985, the family had yard sale. The trunk of mostly junk sold for $25...
...liked the way the program looked behind glass in his home office, and there it stayed for 25 years.
A couple years ago the man's 12-year-old nephew was hanging around his office, picking up and setting down Elks memorabilia. He saw the autograph and said, "That's King Kelly! He's in the Hall of Fame!"...