How good was George “High Pockets” Kelly?

Big League Brew card by Helmar featuring Hall of Famer George Kelly

“Kelly was a traffic cop. Whether he was playing second or first, he would rush into the outfield on a deep fly, to position himself to make the relay throw, and throw people out at third and home.” — teammate Art Nehf

“With the ball flying toward him and a runner pounding down the path, he could stretch like a rubber band, saving that precious fraction of a second that made the difference between a putout and a potential tally on base.” — Baseball Digest 

We are in the Age of Comparison. Everywhere you look there’s a list, a ranking, a Hot 100, a debate about a GOAT. This is who we are, we like to compare and rate things.

One of the most heated conversations in sports is “Who should (or shouldn’t) be in the Baseball Hall of Fame?” No one seems to care much about who gets into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Football Hall of Fame has so many members, who knows which guys are in and out?

But Cooperstown is mythical, magical, and it’s forever. Once you get a plaque on the wall at the Baseball Hall, you’re a legend. Even if you played many moons ago, and even if your accomplishments seem to pale in comparison to iconic players. That’s where George Kelly comes in. He’s one of the Hall’s most controversial borderline members.

But how good was George Kelly? Does he deserve the ridicule as one of the weakest Hall of Fame members? What prompted his election? Was there anything special about his baseball career?

Who was High Pockets Kelly?

Originally a pitcher, George Kelly was tall, well-muscled, with dark, deep-set eyes. He had an outstanding throwing arm, but he could also hit the longball. He was a teenager when the legendary John McGraw groomed him to join the mighty Giants, paying $1,500 sight unseen for the tall, goofy-looking 19-year old kid from San Francisco in 1915. Unproven and not fully physically mature, Kelly wasn’t ready for the big leagues, and he spent five years seasoning in pro ball before the Giants were ready to hand him a full-time job.

Eventually, “Long George” proved most valuable as a first baseman, though he was versatile and skilled enough to play almost anywhere on the field. He gained notoriety for his ability to stretch (nearly to the splits) when reaching for a throw.

Kelly had good baseball genes. His mother’s brother was Bill Lange, who batted .330 in seven seasons for Cap Anson’s Chicago team in the 1890s. Uncle Bill was 6-foot-1 and wide-shouldered, and his big frame was passed on to his nephew. George had five older brothers who played semi-pro ball, and a younger brother named Reynolds who pitched in one game for Connie Mack’s Athletics in 1923.

Many words have been written about Kelly and the Hall of Fame. He was one of the Frank Frisch selections, chosen under the crony methods of the old-timers committees of the 1970s. And if you were to call George Kelly one of the lower-tier players in the Hall of Fame, you’d be accurate. His career was brief and he didn’t even reach 1,800 hits. There are contemporary first basemen who had better careers: Wally Pipp for example. Kelly’s 2,700 career total bases are one of the puniest figures for any Hall of Famer. 

Kelly batted .297 in a 16-year career, but he was only a regular for about a decade. His 148 home runs are modest, but we must remind ourselves that power hitting was new in the 1920s, and when Kelly retired after the 1932 season, he ranked eighth all-time in the National League in home runs. He won the home run title in 1921, and four times he finished in the top five. He was even more impressive as a run producer: Kelly led the league in RBI in 1920 and 1924, and in a five-year stretch in his prime he finished no lower than fourth in the category.

In his era, Kelly was regarded as one of his league’s most feared sluggers. In 1924 when he drove in 136 runs and had a .324 batting average, the tall first sacker finished sixth in ML Most Valuable Player voting. But he ranked third on his own team, behind Frank Frisch and Ross Youngs. The following season, even though he had a far less impressive campaign, George finished third in MVP voting, behind Rogers Hornsby of the Cardinals and Kiki Cuyler of the Pirates. That was the year “High Pockets” played second base, and he drove in 99 runners with 20 home runs, which ranked fourth.

His career figures are unimpressive in light of today’s big power numbers, but Kelly had several seasons where he was a major factor in the pennant race and a formidable slugger. He was in a sense, sort of like Tony Perez and Fred McGriff, albeit for a shorter period. When he retired, Kelly’s .452 slugging percentage, which seems modest by today’s standards, ranked 15th in league history.

But for all the talk of his bat, long legs, and great nickname (“High Pockets”), there are more complicated reasons that Mr. Frisch and his pals plucked Kelly from history. Kelly was a fine all-around player. He was a good defender, was a dangerous power hitter, and he possessed, by (numerous) eye witness accounts, an exceptionally strong throwing arm. In the 1921 World Series that arm made a fantastic play that ended the season in dramatic fashion. 

The throw that may have gotten George Kelly into the Baseball Hall of Fame

In 1921, the World Series was a nine-game series, and entering Game Eight, Kelly and the Giants were one win away from clinching. The team went into the ninth inning leading the Yankees by one run, but Aaron Ward reached base with one out and Frank “Home Run” Baker followed with an apparent single to right. But Giants’ second baseman Johnny Rawlings stretched out and snagged the grounder to rob Baker of a hit, in what came as a surprise to Ward, who was aggressively rounding second base. Kelly took the toss at first base from Rawlings and quickly pivoted to throw a dart to third base, nabbing Ward for the final out of the Series. Frisch said of the play: “God, that was a throw.” People talked about that play for a long time.

“He had a better arm than any of today’s stars,” Frisch said in 1973 when George was elected to the Hall of Fame. Pitcher Waite Hoyt said of Kelly: “He was some first baseman. He was the first one ever to be ordered to go to the outfield to relay throws to home plate. That’s the kind of arm he had.”

Well there you have a contemporary telling us that Kelly changed the way defense was played. The Polo Grounds had a famous horse shoe shape that resulted in expansive real estate in center field. Kelly was the first guy many people had seen run far into the outfield to get relay throws. That must count for something? 

Kelly certainly had a strong arm, because there are at least a dozen stories about his right wing that floated around for years. Teammates like pitcher Art Nehf, loved having Long George play behind them for his range and arm. Want more proof? Even though he was 6’4, Kelly played more than 100 games at second base in 1925, and he was good. His strong arm was well-suited for mid-diamond play, and his defensive stats are excellent. He was nimble and agile for his height. That season, he also belted 20 homers, drove in 99 runs, and hit .300 for the Giants. The Gotham Skyscraper finished third in Most Valuable Player voting in 1925. In the 1924 World Series, McGraw used Kelly at first, second, and center field. In his career, George played every position but shortstop and catcher, and even pitched (and won) a game.

In the 1923 World Series, Joe Dugan was on third base for the Yankees when Babe Ruth smacked a sharp grounder to first. Kelly, who was playing deep, played the ball off his chest, retrieved it, and pegged a throw home to get Dugan. Ruth was furious, confronting Dugan. “Didn’t you know that Kelly has the strongest and most accurate arm in the league? And besides that, you beat me out of a hit.”

Streaky power hitter

Kelly was a streaky home run hitter. He hit three homers in one game twice, he hit seven homers in six games, a homer in three straight innings, and he drove in eight runs in one game. Every year he would get white-hot for a week and slug the ball all over the park. Doing it with long legs made him stand out even more. He was the same size as Cal Ripken Jr., but in the 1920s, he was a circus freak in baseball cleats.  

It’s safe to assume that those batting feats, as well as his defensive prowess and exceptional athletic ability, were still stuck in the memories of the old timers who negotiated Kelly’s entry to Cooperstown. Weak candidate by the numbers, yes. But Kelly inserted himself into many crucial moments in the game in the 1920s. McGraw said, ““Kelly got more important hits for me than any player I ever had.” A lot of managers say that (see Tony La Russa on Harold Baines), but there must be some truth to it.

Post-Playing Career

Kelly managed briefly in the Pacific Coast League for the Oakland Oaks. “He was like a father to me,” Billy Martin said. “He took me under his wing, taught me how to throw a ball correctly, and his approach to my shortcomings made it possible for me to learn and get to the big leagues.”

On the day he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in July of 1973, Kelly was philosophical about his days in baseball. “I had great teammates and the luck to play for the greatest manager in baseball,” Kelly said. “We had some battles against the Yanks, and I’m proud that we usually came out on top.”

In retirement in San Francisco, neighborhood kids would knock on Kelly’s front door to catch a sight of a baseball legend. Long George would reportedly offer two pieces of advice to the little ones: “Don’t ever make a one-handed catch, and when you hit the ball, don’t watch where it goes. Just run like hell!

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