Until Frankie Frisch, the chairman of the veterans committee, engineered George Kelly’s induction to the Hall of Fame in 1973, hardly anyone considered him a serious candidate. They still don’t.
Kelly and Frisch were teammates on the New York Giants during the 1920s, and that was apparently Kelly’s main entrée into the Hall. But in the club-like atmosphere of Hall of Fame veterans committee voting in the 1960s and ’70s, good connections went a long way. Sometimes all the way, in fact.
Not that Kelly wasn’t a valued journeyman player. He had a fine 16-year career and helped the Giants during their string for four straight World Series appearances from 1921 to 1924. He fielded and batted well, and was at or near the top of runs batted in and home runs during the first half of the 1920s. He was highly regarded enough that the Giants, who put Kelly on waivers in 1917, retrieved him from Pittsburgh a few months later.
But outside 1920 to 1925 (or 1926, if we want to be generous) he was just good or even average. As a result, he lands squarely outside the top 100 in every major career batting statistic. He ended with 1,778 hits and a .297 batting average, and barely drove in more than 1,000 runs.
Kelly’s fielding was considered sharp, and yet his career fielding percentage is almost exactly average for all first basemen in the league during his era. He did, however, contribute to an extraordinary number of putouts and assists — an average of nearly 11 per game during his career. He best season was 1920 when he averaged an astonishing 12.01 putouts plus assists per game. That means that he was involved in 44% of all outs in a full nine-inning game, an amazingly high figure and very close to double the league average for first basemen.
Kelly had 1,759 putouts in 1920 alone. Steve Garvey, who hardly ever missed a game during the 1970s and ’80s, never surpassed 1,606 putouts in one season despite playing a longer season than Kelly. Another iron-man first baseman, Lou Gehrig, only reached as high as 1,662 putouts during the remarkable 1927 season. Gehrig played the same number of games as Kelly, 155.
Just what do those impressive defensive numbers really mean? A first baseman is able to amass putouts by playing regularly, getting to difficult ground balls, pulling down poorly thrown balls from other infielders and having pitchers who force batters to hit a lot of ground balls. Outfielders with strong arms also help, especially in larger fields such as the Polo Grounds; beginning in 1923 the center field fence was 483 feet away.
Most importantly, those kinds of numbers are impossible to post without a lot of help from an outstanding infield. Frankie Frisch, the Giants Hall-of-Fame second baseman and sometime utility infielder, had amazing range and routinely amassed 400 or more assists per season. The shortstops, Dave Bancroft and Travis Jackson (and sometimes Frisch), also had better-than-average fielding stats. The third baseman, Heinie Groh, was a highly regarded fielder who rarely committed errors. The meant that the Giants infield was able to get the ball to Kelly at a higher than average rate, resulting in copious amounts of outs.
Sadly, Kelly’s breathtaking defensive display lasted only six seasons. Except for an Indian Summer of defensive prowess in Cincinnati in 1929, he just couldn’t keep up the pace. Proof of the additive effect of the entire Giants infield on Kelly can be easily seen by looking at his numbers when we wasn’t with the Giants. They drop markedly.
And therein lies the problem with Highpockets Kelly. He lacked staying power, at least while he was in the upper tier of position players. Batting over .300 six consecutive times is very good batting, but it’s not enough for the Hall of Fame. During the same general era that Kelly was batting over .300 for the New York Giants, other National League first basemen doing similar feats were Jack Fournier (four times), Babe Herman (five times) and Jake Daubert (six times). None are in the Hall of Fame, or are even viable candidates.
Kelly led the National League in several different major batting categories during his Giants years, including home runs in 1921, but no definite pattern emerges. In those days, 20 home runs in a season was considered big stuff.
If we take away his seven full Giants seasons in the 1920s, he played a grand total of 136 games before 1920 and 568 after 1927. That’s an average of 88 games per season (not counting two missed seasons, 1918 and 1931), not even enough to qualify for batting titles. In his entire career, he played in at least 100 games only nine times, so he doesn’t even have a full decade’s worth of useful comparative batting statistics.
Fielding is just as murky, despite the spectacular numbers. He had only four full seasons with the Giants playing exclusively first base, plus a fifth season with 125 games at first base. Beginning in 1924 the Giants shuffled Kelly around the infield and even tried him in the outfield. In 1927 he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Edd Roush (a future Hall of Famer) and was again shuffled around. So any inference of fielding greatness must be diluted by a distinct lack of long-term statistics at any one position, or even overall.
One set of statistics is certain: The baseball writers gave Kelly only a scattering of votes before he dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot for lack of interest. It was his old buddy Frankie Frisch who led the veterans committee when it voted to allow Kelly to join their club.
George Kelly was a fine first baseman who would have been a distinct asset to any clubhouse, except the one in Cooperstown.