Statistics 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.

George Lange Kelly was born on September 10, 1895, in San Francisco, California. (Click 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.

Growing 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 clubs.

George 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.

George 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.

George 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."

George Kelly
 


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.

After 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 Black Sox.

In 1920, 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.

The Giants 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.

Time and 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.

George 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.

John McGraw,
Black Book Partners archives
 

In 1921, 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
.

Unlike 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."

The Giants 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.

The Giants 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.

In the 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 1–0.

George 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.

The bang-bang 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 veteran

George 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.

New York 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.

The Polo 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.

For the 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.

The Giants 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.

New York 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

Casey Stengel,
Black Book Partners archives
 

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.

The Giants 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.

George 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.

Cincinnati 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
 


George 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.

Cincinnati 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.

The 1931 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 average.

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.

George 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.

George 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.

Stengel, 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..

In 1971, 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 Twins.

In 1973, 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.

Some have 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 great.


George Kelly, Signed postcard
 

 
 

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