Sports Legends: Van Kelly got the most out of his time in the majors

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 4, 2020

By Mike London

SPENCER —  As San Francisco Giants superstar Willie Mays rounded the bases on his 600th home run, a pinch-hit blast that broke a 2-all tie and decided a tight September game, Van Kelly found himself applauding along with the rest of his San Diego teammates.

The Padres were an expansion team in 1969 and were on their way to 110 losses, but at least they owned a slice of history.

“You had to clap for Willie,” Kelly said. “Six hundred home runs. That’s just an unbelievable feat. No one had done it since Babe Ruth.”

No one had done in the National League – ever — until Mays connected.

On a less grand scale, as he rounded first and headed toward second, Kelly received quiet, polite claps from Cincinnati’s smiling second baseman Tommy Helms after Kelly socked a solo homer in the fourth inning against the Reds on July 7, 1969. That was the second of Kelly’s four MLB homers.

“Tommy knew me — we were both from Charl0tte,” Kelly said. “It was his way of saying, ‘Way to go, hometown kid.’ ”

Kelly, who has lived in Spencer since 1985, enjoyed a substantial pro baseball career, even though he was only in the big leagues for parts of the 1969 and 1970 seasons. He made his time, those seven precious months, count. It was a Forrest Gump-like tour for Kelly. Besides sharing fields with Mays, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Roberto Clemente, he conversed with Mickey Mantle, was brushed back by Bob Gibson, was whiffed by Tom Seaver, roomed with Tony La Russa, was a minor league teammate of an up-and-coming catcher named Gary Carter and managed 20-year-old Andre Dawson, who was making his pro debut in the Canadian Rockies.

“I wish I’d gotten to play in the majors longer,” Kelly said. “But I’ve got a lot of fond memories.”

Anyone who made the majors is an amazing athlete. Kelly certainly was. He was at least as good in football as he was in baseball.

At Charlotte’s Garinger High (Class of 1964), Kelly was a .400-hitting shortstop in baseball, co-captain of the basketball team and a devastating two-way football player.

When Garinger came to Salisbury to play Boyden High in the fall of 1963, Kelly caught a touchdown pass and made the gamebreaking play with a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown.

He was chosen to play in the 1963 Shrine Bowl.

“I loved football, loved it even more than baseball,” Kelly said. “I believe I was the only guy on the North Carolina team who played on both sides of the ball in the Shrine Bowl, at halfback and defensive back. I was one of five or six guys on that team who had football scholarships to go to N.C. State.”

In high school baseball and with Charlotte’s Post 9 Legion program, Kelly played with a talented group of players. Kelly’s last Legion season was in 1963. In 1964, Post 9, with future MLB pitchers Garry Hill and Dave Lemonds, was national runner-up (Rollie Fingers beat them in the final). In 1965, Post 9 won it all.

“Myers Park was our big rival, and Garinger had really strong baseball teams,” Kelly said. “I’d always been a shortstop growing up, played shortstop in the Colt League World Series and in the Babe Ruth League World Series. Garinger had Mike Martin (the future Wingate and Florida State star and legendary Florida State coach) at shortstop when I got up to the varsity. Our coach, Joe Tomancheck, who also was our football coach, asked me if there was another position that I wanted to try out for because we already had a shortstop, but I told him I’d really like to take a shot.”

Kelly proved to be such a good shortstop that Martin moved to center field.

Kelly had a couple of baseball offers — $10,000 from the Braves, who were still in Milwaukee in 1964, and $8,000 from the Minnesota Twins, who had a Double-A team in Charlotte. Ray Hayworth, who had been a teammate of Ty Cobb’s, made the sales pitch for the Braves.

“I was 5-foot-10 and 168 pounds,” Kelly said. “When I went up to  N.C. State and saw how big those guys were, that’s when I thought it would be smart to give baseball a try and I took the money from the Braves. For a kid who came from not much, $10,000 was a lot of money. When the story came out in the paper that I’d signed with the Braves, Coach Tomancheck called me in and said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ He wanted his guys to play football and get a college education — and he was right about that. He told me that there were about 10 other teams that had shown interest in me for baseball, but he’d always discouraged them by telling them I was going to play college football.”

Kelly had only modest success from 1964-66 in the minors, but he had a breakthrough in 1967 with Kinston. As a 21-year-old, he was leading the Class A Carolina League in hitting.

“I got drafted that season, but one of the biggest supporters of the Kinston Eagles was a colonel in the National Guard and I was hitting so well he didn’t want me to leave,” Kelly said. “He worked things out, so I got to finish that season, and then I reported for six months of National Guard duty. Then there were a lot of National Guard weekends after that.”

In Spring Training in 1968, Kelly encountered his boyhood hero — Mantle — when the Braves took on the New York Yankees in an exhibition game. Mantle was a limping shadow of the great player he had once been and had been moved from center field to first base. Kelly, a lefty hitter, whipped a single into right field. made the turn and heard Mantle talking to him.

“He told me that I’d hit that ball pretty good,” Kelly said. “I’m sure my eyes must have been big as saucers and I answered, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Mantle.’ He told me, ‘None of that Mr. Mantle stuff, we’re playing on the same field. You call me Mick.’ ”

Kelly moved up to Triple-A Richmond in 1968 and had a decent season.

Then there was more National Guard duty. When the 1969 season began, Kelly again was a member of the Richmond Braves, but he was working to get back in baseball shape after that National Guard obligation and struggling to find his timing.

“I wasn’t playing that much, and then I got the word one day to report to the manager’s office,” Kelly said. “Mickey Vernon was the manager, and I thought I was going to get the pink slip, thought sure were going to release me.”

They didn’t. Kelly was informed he’d been traded to the Padres, who were desperate for infield help.

“I almost passed out,” Kelly said.

He was one of three players who went to the Padres. The Braves got a solid veteran outfielder, Tony Gonzalez, in the exchange. Gonzalez helped the Braves in their division. The trade was announced on June 13. Kelly was pinch-hitting for the Padres that same night in a home game against Philadelphia. He was 0-for-1 in his MLB debut.

The Padres made the bus trip to Los Angeles for their next series, and on June 16, Kelly had one of his best days in the major leagues.

It was a doubleheader. Kelly won the first game for the Padres with his first big-league hit — a 13th-inning double off Los Angeles reliever Al McBean.

In the second game, Kelly launched his first major league homer. It came off Bill Singer in the fifth inning. That homer gave the Padres a 3-0 lead, but they wound up losing, 7-3. Singer was a very good pitcher, who won 118 MLB games and was a cover boy for the 1970 Street & Smith Yearbook.

“After that game, a guy comes to out dugout and tells me Vin Scully wants me to be the guest for his postgame radio show,” Kelly said. “They told me I’d get something — and I did. It was a gift certificate for a men’s store, $25,  something like that.  I went there and got a couple of blazers. I needed them. In the big leagues, your wore a coat and tie on the road.”

In July, Kelly homered off future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry in the eighth inning as the Padres tried to stage a late rally, but the bottom line was another tough loss.

San Diego was an expansion team, “a revolving door,” as Kelly puts it. There were legit power hitters on the roster — Nate Colbert, Ollie Brown, Cito Gaston — but manager Preston Gomez conducted open auditions to figure out second base, shortstop and third base. The losses piled up. So did the memories.

“We’re playing St. Louis, and Bob Gibson is pitching a great game against us, as he always did,” Kelly said. “We’re down a run late, we get the leadoff man on base, and Gomez calls me over and tells me that we’re going to try to bunt the guy over, but if Gibson gets two strikes on him, I’m going to pinch-hit.”

That didn’t sound like a great plan to Kelly. Gibson was the game’s most intimidating pitcher in 1969. Sure enough, the count got to 0-and-2. Then Kelly was sent to the plate.

“Make sure to pull it,” Gomez barked.

Kelly tried not to laugh out loud. Gibson threw an inside fastball. Kelly took his mightiest rip and fouled it off. Gibson wasn’t thrilled with someone taking a swing like that against him with two strikes, and catcher Tim McCarver knew it, as well.

“McCarver warned, ‘Step, lightly, young man,’ ” Kelly recalls.

The next pitch was in the direction of Kelly’s head and sent him sprawling. Kelly wound up striking out, but he had a story for a lifetime.

“I got to play against unbelievable players,” Kelly said. “Roberto Clemente was something to see, full speed all the time, in everything he did. I saw Philadelphia’s Richie Allen hit a ball (500 feet) over the Philco sign on the upper deck at Connie Mack Stadium. He swung a heavy bat and was incredibly strong.”

Shortly after the final game of the 1969 season in San Francisco, Kelly boarded a plane for Charlotte. On that trip, he sat next to Dennis Byrd, the first two-time All-America in the history of N.C .State football.

“The first time we’d talked since we were Shrine Bowl teammates,” Kelly said.

Kelly batted .244 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 222 plate appearances for the Padres in 1969, so they continued their search for a third baseman. Gomez told him to lose weight before Spring Training, to trim down from 180 pounds  to 170 or risk a $500 fine.

The Padres still had veteran Ed Speizio on hand and had traded for Bobby Etheridge, who had shown promise with the Giants. But Kelly reported at 168 pounds, much to the surprise of Gomez, and was hitting line drives all over the place.

“I really wasn’t supposed to even make the team in 1970, but then I had the best Spring Training of my life,” Kelly said. “I believe I led the team in hitting and won the third base job. I was in the starting lineup on opening day.”

The Padres roughed up Atlanta and Phil Niekro in thezg 1970 opener — Kelly had a run-scoring double against the knuckleballer — but it went downhill pretty quickly.

There was game two weeks later in which Seaver struck out 19 Padres, including the last 10 batters in a row. Kelly was Seaver’s first strikeout victim, as the second batter in the first inning. He also struck out in the third and the ninth. He popped up in the sixth — a moral victory.

On May 8, Kelly whacked his only homer of the 1970 season and drove in four runs to lead an 11-1 romp against the Montreal Expos.

An injury wrecked most of that season, however. He batted .169 in 38 games.

“I got hurt diving for a ball, tried to brace myself, but busted my hand up pretty bad,” Kelly said. “After that, it was tough to grip a bat. And it’s tough to hit in the majors if you can’t grip a bat. I got sent back down to the minors.”

He was traded back to the Braves after the 1970 season.

He never made it back to the majors, although he came close to making the Braves’ opening day roster in 1971.

“The Braves had Clete Boyer (a veteran of several championship teams with the Yankees) to play third base, but I had a good spring and actually broke camp with the team,” Kelly said. “But then they decided they needed another pitcher more than an extra infielder. They made a trade. I was the last cut.”

The horsehide adventures continued for many more years in the minors. He roomed with La Russa, who became a Hall of Fame manager, at Richmond in 1972.

In 1973, Kelly played with Bucky Dent in the Chicago White Sox farm system. In 1974, he played with Carter on the Memphis Blues, the Expos’ Triple-A team.

In 1975, Kelly batted .305 in 32 games for Quebec in his final season as a player. He managed the Lethbridge Expos and Dawson later that summer.

“You could see Dawson had a future,” Kelly said.

The Expos liked Kelly as a manager and farm director Mel Didier offered him a job at West Palm Beach (Fla.) for the 1976 season, but he was ready to move on from baseball.

“I know La Russa made it pretty big, but it’s a long road to the majors as a manager,” Kelly said. “The pay wasn’t great — the most I ever made in a year was $15,000 — and you get tired of all the travel and living out of a suitcase.”

He took a sales job with National Starch, worked in Charlotte, and then Atlanta. He relocated to Spencer in 1985 after a plant disaster.

Kelly’s daughters, Stephanie and Erin, graduated from Salisbury High and the University of North Carolina.

“I tried my best to talk them into N.C. State,” Kelly said with a laugh.

Kelly, who is 74, and his wife, Joy, don’t get a lot of love from major league baseball. During the years from 1947-79, you  needed four years on an active roster to qualify for a full pension, and Kelly didn’t come close to that.

Under the pension and health insurance rules that are in play now, Kelly would qualify for a a great deal more.

He’s one of the players included in a book written by Douglas J. Gladstone and entitled, “A Bitter Cup of Coffee,” but he doesn’t have much bitterness in him.

He doesn’t regret that baseball-over-football decision that changed the direction of his life long ago.

“I do get a little stipend from baseball,” Kelly said. “It’s not much, but it does pay for my golf at Irish Creek.”