Cub, Redleg & Indian: Bob Kelly
"He was one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived and probably the worst manager."
When you ask a baseball fan who his favorite player was growing up, you can always bank on hearing certain answers. You’ll usually hear names like Ken Griffey, Jr., Derek Jeter or David Ortiz. You may hear the names of some of the great stars from the 1970’s or 80’s and for some more “experienced” fans, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are always at the forefront.
When BallNine asked Bob Kelly who his favorite player was growing up, his answer was far from the typical baseball fan response.
As a youngster, Kelly’s favorite players were Lou Gehrig and Lou Boudreau.
Kelly is not your average baseball fan. The fine gentleman turned 93 recently and the former Big League pitcher joins BallNine for this week’s edition of Spitballin.’
It’s not hyperbole to call Kelly a baseball treasure. His minor league career began in 1948, just one year after integration. He served up home runs to Jackie Robinson and Ralph Kiner and had showdowns with Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Monte Irvin.
There are 7.8 billion people in the world today and only four of them can say they were managed by baseball immortal Rogers Hornsby. Kelly is one of them, not that his memories of The Rajah as a manager were fond ones.
The names Kelly rattles off when talking about his career are striking.
What shouldn’t be lost though, is the passion you hear in his voice when talking about the sport, no matter what generation of player he’s talking about.
He may be a nonagenarian but mention any player from Gehrig to Mookie Betts and Kelly is a kid again.
The BallNine Time Machine has ten different decades to cover with Kelly today, so hop in and let’s go Spitballin’ with the great Bob Kelly.
“When you stood on the mound and looked in at home plate, you felt like you could urinate on home plate from the mound. It seemed so small.” – [On Ebbets Field]
Thank you so much for joining us Mr. Kelly and a happy 93rd birthday to you! It’s an absolute honor to talk with someone who has such an incredible history with the game. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning to start. How did you develop your love for baseball?
That’s a very profound, interesting story. As far as I can remember as a child, I always wanted to be a ballplayer. My parents’ friends or my relatives would ask me what I would want to do when I grew up and from the get-go, I said, “I want to be a ballplayer.”
I had an Uncle Carl who pitched professionally, and he must have grabbed me out of the playpen and played catch with me, because that’s all I ever wanted to do. I didn’t have an interest in anything else, which made it tough when I was done with baseball.
Who were your favorite players growing up?
My favorite player growing up was Lou Gehrig, I always admired him. A little later, Lou Boudreau too. I must have had a thing for the Lou’s in baseball. Then later on, I kinda disliked Cal Ripken for breaking Lou’s record.
You had this dream to become a Major League player and obviously were a talented pitcher. Was there a coach or somebody who you credit for teaching you to learn how to pitch?
You know what the horrible answer to that question is? I didn’t learn how to pitch until I was done pitching. I’m afraid I was just a thrower and not a pitcher all through the Major Leagues.
The question I always had was, “What kinda stuff am I gonna have today?” Not, “Am I going to make great pitches today?” I don’t think I had any idea where I wanted to throw the ball. I just wanted to throw the ball as hard as I could and have the best curveball I possibly could. I’ve learned since then, that isn’t how you pitch.
The Cubs signed you on August 1, 1947 and you began your path to achieving your dream of making it to the Majors. How did you end up with the Cubs?
That’s an interesting story. I was in the Army and that’s where I got my chance to show my ability to the world. We had a complete schedule in Camp Lee, Virginia and got to play all up and down the East Coast.
I was set to sign with the Boston Braves. My parents were there, and they were ready to give me a pretty good bonus for signing. I came up to Andrews Air Force Base the night before with my coach. We spent the night in Allentown, Pennsylvania. That was where my coach was from and where I was currently in touch with a girl that I had met and had been communicating by mail.
We spent the whole night long just talking, and I want to emphasize “just talking,” about the future and what we wanted to do. I didn’t get any rest at all. The next day I went out to Andrews Air Force Base and even though I shut the team out, I remember standing out on the mound and it felt like I was pitching from right field. Consequently, the scouts there called Boston and they didn’t recommend signing me. They sent my parents home without a contract and there went my chance to play for the Braves.
The Cubs must have saw something in you though.
Yes, there was another Cubs scout there named Jimmy Payton. A couple of weeks later he took me and my parents to Eagles Nest, Virginia in the mountains. He convinced us that was the place to play ball. Instead of giving me a signing bonus, they gave me a pro contract which came with an invite to Spring Training in 1948. I went to Spring Training on Catalina Island and that’s how I got to be in the Cubs organization.
When you got to the Cubs, were there any guys you became close with right away?
One of the very first roommates I had during Spring Training was Andy Pafko, who was a famous Cubs outfielder. I remember one night, Andy got on the phone with his wife and they called each other “Pushka.” I thought that was so neat and when I came home, I started calling my wife Sandra, “Pushka.” Andy was a really nice guy and a good ballplayer.
In my first season I roomed together with Ransom Jackson in Des Moines and later on with the Cubs. I was close friends with Wayne Terwilliger for many years and Cal McLish. We lived in the same house as Turk Lown. Those were some of the guys I was particularly close with.
On the Reds there was a reliever Frank Smith. Now he was crazy. There was a time when he tied his left shoe real loose. When he went into his windup, he kicked his shoe off to distract the batter. The batter didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed him too.
I want to ask about a couple of the managers you played for. First, what can you say about your first manager, Frankie Frisch?
I can’t any anything negative about Frankie, he gave me my chance at the Majors. There’s a funny story involving Frank. I had retired from baseball for quite a few years and we had moved to Connecticut. We put the family out in the car and were driving out to the ocean, East Beach, Rhode Island.
I got off of Route 1 and we drove by a house. I looked at the guy taking care of his garden. The more I looked at him, I thought, “My God, that’s Frankie Frisch!” Much to the dismay of my family who was so anxious to get to the beach, I stopped the car, got out and came into the yard. I yelled, “Frankie! Frankie! How are you doing?” He put down his shears, took one look at me and said, “Bases on Balls Bob!” After all those years, he remembered me as “Bases on Balls Bob.”
We talked for a while and that was the last I saw him. I really liked him.
I always hear he was quite a character. Your first year was his last season managing. He had been in the game since 1919. It’s incredible that you had him as a manager.
I’ll tell you one more funny story about him. We were playing in New York and staying at the Commodore Hotel. It was a U-shaped building and me and some of my teammates were several floors up. It was always a habit when we checked into the hotel to see who was in the rooms directly across from us out the window. One night, and I won’t mention his name, but one of the umpires was across from us and he left his window shades open and he had a guest for the evening.
We followed his “progression” and remembered it the next day. During the game we started calling out to him, “Window Shades, so-and-so.” He took about as much as he could before he turned to us and said, “OK, all you guys, get out of here!”
This was in the Polo Grounds, where the clubhouse is in centerfield. Frankie Frisch looked at us and said, “You guys line up and walk slowly across the infield, slowly across the outfield and into the clubhouse.” It took us a long time to do because that was a long walk. We walked so slowly it was great.
You also played for Rogers Hornsby in Cincinnati. He’s one of the game’s iconic players, but how was he as a manager?
I’m sorry you mentioned his name. He was one of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived and probably the worst manager. He had no idea how to react with fellow ballplayers or how to conduct himself. I didn’t enjoy playing for him at all.
Ebbets Field in all its glory
I can’t say I’m surprised to hear that. I guess there’s a reason six different teams got rid of him as their manager.
We were in Philadelphia one time and a few of us took a cab to the ballpark early. We were up in the grandstand watching the Phillies take batting practice before we went down to get changed to take our own batting practice. Lo and behold, we look down at the batting cage and there was our manager, Rogers, down at the cage giving the Phillies instruction on how to hit.
We couldn’t believe it! Our own manager was talking to the opposition to help them hit against us. That was the way he was. He was an egoist, just so wrapped up in himself.
You pitched in both leagues in the 1950s, which means you pitched in so many of those great historical stadiums. Did you have a favorite stadium where you liked to pitch?
Pitching in Ebbets Field was a joy. The grandstand felt like it was right in your back pocket and it was so loud. They had a jazz band that played in the stands that played during the ballgame. That added a lot of enthusiasm. When you stood on the mound and looked in at home plate, you felt like you could urinate on home plate from the mound. It seemed so small.
Of course, I loved playing in my home ballpark, Wrigley Field. It was daylight baseball and just like anybody else, you woke up in the morning and went to work and played the game and went home at night.
Now you mentioned Ebbets Field and pitching against the Dodgers. Looking up the stats, you had great success against guys like Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. You held them all under a .200 batting average against you. I’d love to ask about some of the legends you faced off against. Let’s start with them.
I was very fortunate. Pee Wee, I didn’t have an idea what to do with him. He sprayed the ball and was a darned tough hitter for me. He didn’t offer a big target to get the ball over the plate either. Jackie and I had our ins-and-outs. He got his hits against me and I got him out, but we treated each other with a great deal of respect.
I wanted to ask you about that. When you came into the Majors, the league still wasn’t even fully integrated. Did you see some of the racial things that Jackie and others had to deal with? Did you cross paths with him a lot?
During those days when he joined the Dodgers, he received so many jibes and heard so many slurs, even from his own bench. I have a good story about Jackie.
We were at Ebbets Field and I got traded to Cincinnati, who was down in Philadelphia. The manager, Phil Cavaretta, called me in and said, “Bob, I have bad news for you. We just traded you to Cincinnati.” That certainly was bad news for me because I hated leaving Chicago and my teammates.
I had a dejected appearance as I gathered my bags and started to leave. I left the clubhouse to go catch a train to head down to Philadelphia to meet the Reds there. As I was leaving the stadium, I walked by the Dodgers clubhouse and the door opened. Out came Jackie. He took one look at me and said, “Kell, what’s going on?” I said, “Jackie, I’ve just been traded.”
He backed me up against the wall he took time to talk to me, a white guy who was the opposition. He took time to give me confidence and get me out of my slump. He offered me encouragement and success.
That’s another story I am not surprised about and is just incredible to hear. It just really is amazing for a baseball history fans like our readers to hear from someone who has had interactions with people like this, especially Jackie Robinson.
I had never joined in the chorus of antagonizing him the way others did and we had a mutual respect for each other. I thought that was so wonderful for him to take the time to talk to me like that based on some of the things he heard from my white teammates and his white teammates. It was awful.
He was not only a wonderful player, but he was a great human being also. I will always remember him as such.
That’s amazing. I want to ask you about a few of the other legends you faced. Let’s start with Stan Musial. What was your approach against him?
That was a perplexing problem! He had such a weird batting stance and no one on our pitching staff knew how to pitch him. Finally, we just figured to throw it right down the pipe and have him hit it to the farthest part of the ballpark.
Sure enough, if you pitched him inside, he hit that ball out into right field for a hit and if you went outside, he served it into left field for a hit. He was a tough hitter and the best way to get him out was to serve it right down the pipe and let him get himself out.
I don’t envy you or anyone who had to pitch against him. You didn’t face this next guy much, but how did you approach Ted Williams?
The one time I pitched against him I was with Cleveland and we were in Boston. I was out of the Majors for a few years but got back. While I was gone, I developed a palm ball, which was a very effective change up. It got me back to the Majors.
The first time I faced Ted I got ahead of him and threw him that palm ball. He got way out in front of it and the best he could do with it was pound it into the dirt right in front of home plate. It went up over my head and stopped between the mound and second base and got a single out of it.
The next time up, I’m concentrating on the guy at the plate and I became aware of someone staring at me. You know that feeling you get when someone is staring at you? You feel that presence? Well I looked around and Ted was in the batting circle just scrutinizing me.
To this day, I think he was trying to pick up that pitch. When he came up the second time, I threw him that palm ball and he just shuffled his feet and served it into left field and trotted into second base for a double. He either guessed right or he picked up something when he was staring at me. He was no dumb guy.
No, he wasn’t at all. Now how about a different kind of hitter, Ralph Kiner.
Well, he had trouble with my curve ball. One Wednesday afternoon my aunt and uncle were driving from Cleveland to see me pitch in Chicago. One at bat, I got ahead of him with two curve balls. But then, I tried to sneak a fastball by him up and in, and out it went. He creamed it.
The manager came out and said, “What the hell was that?” I said, “I thought he’d be looking for the curve ball, so I tried to throw the fastball by him. He said, “Kell, quit thinking, you’re gonna lose the ballgame.” Sure enough, my aunt and uncle showed up to the game and I was already in the shower.
Shifting gears a little, I want to ask about your own hitting. Do you have any great memories from your times up at bat?
I remember hitting against Don Newcombe, that was an experience. He was big and threw hard. One hit I remember was against the Red Sox and I hit a good shot into right center. Boy, was I elated! I thought for sure it would roll out to the wall and I would trot into second. But that darn jerk Jimmy Piersall went over and made a hell of a play and got me out.
My only experience coming close to a home run including high school, college, Army ball, came against Bill Lee, who threw an eephus pitch. He’d wind up and it came in like a slow pitch softball. It really had an arch to it. I was able to wind up and swing with all my might. I hit a line drive down the left field line in San Diego. This jerk out in left field jumped up over the wall and robbed me of a home run. That player was Minnie Minoso, who was quite a ballplayer.
These stories are just amazing. I wanted to ask if you continued watching baseball after your career and what players did you enjoy watching?
Oh yeah, I love watching. I watch the pitchers and try to figure out how they’re going to pitch to the hitters. That’s why I say that I didn’t learn how to pitch until I retired. The game became very simple looking from that centerfield camera. You feel like you can put the ball right where you want it. You forget how hard it is, but it looks so easy to do watching now. I find myself second guessing people.
Tom Seaver was a real pitcher with real sound mechanics. I enjoyed him. The guy I pitched against and enjoyed watching was Robin Roberts. He was the epitome of good mechanics. Other guys too like Warren Spahn and Carl Erskine – it was so fun to watch them pitch and see how the game should be played.
Those aren’t some bad guys to enjoy at all. Did you watch this season? What did you think of all of this craziness of the 2020 season?
This doesn’t feel like a real season without people in the stands, but I watched. It feels like a season that should have an asterisk next to it. I am anxiously awaiting the people to get back in the stands and get the game back to normal.
This next question comes from our correspondent Ken Constantino: What do you think of the way the game is played now with the Moneyball theory and analytics as opposed to when you played?
It’s a very interesting question. How many times during a ballgame do you see a player take a card out and look at some information of what a player is liable to do this at bat. Not only the pitcher, but the position players too. The systems analysis things they have now are very interesting.
In my day, before every game we would sit down with the whole team and go over every batter in the lineup and how we were gonna pitch him. It was always the same thing, up and in then down and away. It never really varied. Make them hit the curve ball, take two and hit to right. All the sayings.
I think now though, they have a pretty good idea of what a hitter is going to do with a pitch in a particular situation. It’s got to help.
I can sit here all day and night and listen to your stories, Mr. Kelly. This was such a great experience to be able to talk to you. We wish you the best of luck and health and it’s great that there are people like you who keep this history alive. Before we leave, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave for our readers?
Well, I can’t thank God enough for allowing me to have my dream come true by becoming a professional ballplayer and making it to the Major Leagues. It’s something I’ll always be thankful for.
It’s such an honest game. I never known anybody, well, I hate to say this, but except Pete Rose, that didn’t treat the game right. The game is so legit that it’s a great game to watch. Every hitter is a challenge to the pitcher. It’s a little battle between the two of them and it’s so much fun to watch. I still enjoy it.