Sunday, November 1, 2009

Comiskey On The 1886 World Series: Kelly's $10,000 Error

During the year before we had won the American Association pennant, and played out the post season series with Anson's White Sox of the National League for the world honors. Although the deciding game was called a tie. I have always maintained that the honors should justly have gone to the Browns. As a result of the discussion, when we were arrayed against the White Sox the next season for a similar series, we agreed that the winning team should take the entire gate receipts, half of which was to go to the players. In some ways I think it was the most exciting duel in the history of Baseball. There was a cool twenty thousand dollars hinging on the result.

Of the first three games, played in Chicago, the White Sox won two, and came down to St. Louis, confident of an easy victory, only to run into two straight defeats, which left the odds one game in our favor when the sixth contest of the series was called. Realizing that it was their last chance of evening the score and forcing an extra game, Anson's men opened the battle with such a display of ginger that for seven innings they led us 3 to 0. In the eighth inning with three of our men on bases Dalrymple misjudged a fly, and we tied the count.

With a small fortune hinging on the result, the game went into extra innings, while a special train waited on a siding to carry both teams to Cincinnati for the deciding contest if the White Sox forced over another run. It was one of the few times of my life that I realized I had nerves.

In the tenth inning Curt Welch got around to third. When Bushong went to the bat, we knew that if he made a safe hit twenty thousand dollars and the world's championship were ours. Curt did not have his superior as a base stealer, either in those days or these. With the first ball thrown he was well off third. I saw that he didn't intend to wait for Bushong, but that he was going to risk a dash for home at the first chance offered him. "King" Kelly, behind the bat, saw it also, and motioned to Clarkson in the box for a high one inside, with the intention of snipping Welch with a snap throw.

It was then that the costliest blunder of the diamond occurred, Kelly's famous ten thousand dollar passed ball. Clarkson followed his instructions and Kelly extended his hands for an easy catch. I saw the ball settle between his fingers, saw Kelly's arm go back, and knew that if he made connections with third Welch was doomed. It was as though the breath of every person in the bleachers had suddenly been shut off. And then we saw the ball roll from Kelly's fingers behind him and the "King" scrambling wildly after it. Just how it happened I have never been quite able to understand. Probably Kelly was suffering from over-strained nerves like the rest of us, and at the critical moment they broke.

In the same instant, Welch, grasping the situation, sprinted like an escaping convict for the home plate. When a dozen feet away, he threw himself flat on his face in a desperate head foremost slide. A cloud of yellow dust settled over him, and when it cleared we saw him still on his face with the tips of his right fingers touching the plate, and Kelly thumping his shoulders. But the decision was ours.

I still have that ball, with the score on it in gilt letters, among my trophies. Perhaps I am unduly sentimental. but you must pardon a veteran!
-Charles Comiskey, Thirty-Seven Years of Baseball (Pearson's Magazine, Volume 31)

This is as good and concise an account of what Bill James called the most famous play in 19th century baseball I've ever read. Of course, according to Comiskey, twenty-eight years after the fact, the $15,000 slide was actually worth $10,000 (or $20,000, depending on how you look at it). He also seems rather certain of the fact that the play was a passed ball rather than a straight steal. Maybe we should start calling it Kelly's $10,000 error rather than Welch's $15,000 slide.

Comiskey's Thirty-Seven Years of Baseball is a nice little article and worth a read. There's some good stories about Cap Anson and King Kelly in it that you might find interesting.

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