The Worst of the Best: High Pockets Kelly

Editor’s note: Please welcome the latest from Alex Putterman.


He hit fewer career home runs than Earl Torgeson, collected fewer hits than Jermaine Dye, and slugged worse than Jay Gibbons while reaching base less often than Ron LeFlore. He posted a lifetime OPS+ equal to that of Lee Mazzilli and Rob Deer and was worth fewer Wins Above Replacement than Ossie Bluege, Bing Miller, Chief Zimmer, and a legion of other guys with funny names you’ve probably never heard of. His top similarity score on Baseball-Reference is Bob Watson, followed closely by Frank McCormick.

Yet George “High Pockets” Kelly is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted by the Veterans Committee in 1973. He was praised as a brilliant defensive first baseman, the finest Frankie Frisch had ever seen, and considered particularly apt at driving in runs, but his résumé certainly doesn’t suggest him Cooperstown-worthy. Most who saw Kelly play didn’t seem to think so either; he received a single vote his first time on the BBWAA ballot in 1947, and in ensuing years would only once collect more than two (five in 1960).

Nor do statistics support Kelly’s case. He had neither tremendous peak nor longevity, playing in 1,622 games over 16 seasons and only once cracking a .900 OPS or 130 OPS+. He had no MVP-caliber season and never led the National League in any of the three slash line categories (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage).

In fact, Bill James, in his 2001 book The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, called High Pockets “the worst player in the Hall of Fame,” and I happen to agree, at least as far as hitters are concerned (starting pitcher Rube Marquard gives Kelly a run for his money.)

Only four Hall of Fame position players have worse career WAR totals than Kelly’s 23.6. And while Tommy McCarthy, Ray Schalk, Rick Ferrell and Lloyd Waner certainly don’t belong anywhere near Cooperstown, their candidacies are all slightly more defensible than Kelly’s.

McCarthy played before entirely accurate statistical records were kept, so we’re evaluating him using potentially incomplete data. Plus, the outfielder is regarded as a pioneer of the hit-and-run play and an overall excellent base-runner. Waner hit .317 lifetime (albeit while almost never walking and playing during an offensively-dominant era), and at least his lackluster offensive production came at a high-value position, center-field, as opposed to first base, where Kelly played. Schalk and Ferrell were both well-regarded catchers, providing some value at the scarcest of positions.

So I can’t argue with James that Kelly was the worst of the “best.” But how did such a pedestrian player achieve the game’s highest honor?

In Kelly’s election to the Hall of Fame, it was Frisch’s opinion that mattered most. Frisch, Kelly’s former New York Giants teammate, was, at the time of the first baseman’s induction, chairman of the Veterans Committee (another of those former-Giants, Bill Terry, was also on the committee), and cronyism has understandably been assumed as the explanation for the induction of Kelly and many other former-Frisch field-mates. Essentially, High Pockets reached the Hall because he had friends in the right place. It’s an accusation Frisch is not around to answer to (he died in March, 1973, before Kelly was even officially inducted), but it seems as if the former second baseman is responsible for Kelly’s place in Cooperstown. In other words, he is responsible for the worst position player in the Hall of Fame.

5 Replies to “The Worst of the Best: High Pockets Kelly”

  1. Hello, I am writing to you as a relative of George “Highpockets” Kelly. As a 28-year-old female, the relation is rather distant. However, I am partial to support Kelly, as he is a blood relative. That being said, I think that you neglected to analyze his defensive ability and the relevant statistics, which are the very things that make him stand out as an exceptional ballplayer.

    Note this analysis, which compares his defensive stats to some of the best-recognized defensive first basemen of all time. “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.”

    Kelly ended his career as a 2× World Series champion (1921, 1922). And – although he is most notable for his defensive statistics, he also holds a number of significant offensive records, which are worth noting:

    National League home run champion (1921)
    2× National League RBI champion (1920, 1924)

    Generally, it is much less common for a player to be recognized on the basis of defensive prowess, despite that defense and offense are equally critical. The very team that Kelly is affiliated with in Cooperstown won the World Series this year (2012) because of their exceptional defense. It seems this an appropriate time to recognize Kelly’s outstanding defensive ability.

  2. Happened across this years later but have to respond to the defensive value argument. Putouts are a poor measure to grade defense relative to era. There are far more strikeouts in today’s game so fewer balls in play

  3. I believe he was elected into the HOP because he has a very cool baseball name, “High Pockets!” Doesn’t get any cooler than that. I expect “Oil Can” Boyds to be a HOFer. His plate would look great next to High Pockets’.

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