This little story about Shipwreck Kelly is part of a
series I've been working on for a few years: Bluegrass Baseball. Now that my book is wrapped up and at the publisher (on track for a May 5, 2015 release), I returned to this hardball tribute to my adapted home. While there aren't dozens of Hall of Famers that hailed from Kentucky, there are quite a few interesting characters that played a significant part in the history of our National Pastime. Over the past couple of years I've featured a few of them: Happy Chandler, Fred Toney, Casey Stengel, Mickey Stubblefield, Pee Wee Reese, Humpty Badel and Bob Bowman.
Hailing from Springfeld, Kentucky, John Simms Kelly was the University of Kentucky’s first star running back. He earned the nickname “Shipwreck” because of what he did to the opposing team’s defensive line. Kelly won the All-Southern Conference honors in 1929, 1930 and 1931 and still holds the university record for most yards gained in a game (280). Before one game he called a press conference to predict a 50 yard touchdown run (he did!).
Besides a gridiron star, Kelly was one of the Wildcat’s varsity outfielders from 1929 to 1931. When UK dropped their baseball program in 1932, Kelly and many of the other Wildcats hired themselves out to the various semi-pro teams around Lexington.
After graduation Kelly played professional football in the NFL’s New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. His larger than life personality and wealth made him one of the most popular sports stars of the 1930’s. After his playing days Kelly bought the Dodgers football team. During World War II he worked with the FBI as a spy tracking the movements of Nazi agents in South America and the Caribbean. A charter member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, Kelly later became both a champion golfer and world-class big game hunter and is a relative of Giants quarterback Phil Simms.