Monday, August 21, 2017

Cellar Doors and Trolleys - the History of Playground Slides

Everett Bird Mero, American Playgrounds, their Construction, Equipment, Maintenance and Utility, Boston, Massachusetts, The Dale Association, 1909, page 66.


In friendly feats of skill we vie
As o’er the Maypole rope we fly,
Or balance in the tossing swing,
Or on the see-saw lightly spring.

We cluster on the giant stride,
And gaily coast on Kelly’s slide,
And, upside down, we face the stars
Upon the horizontal bars.

. . .

Playground fun and playground ways
Make for children merry days.
So we sing our playground song,
Happy as the day is long!

     -G. F. P., in the Philadelphia Record

Playgrounds and playground slides were both well established features of pop-culture when the poem was published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1911.[i]

Things were different in Brooklyn two decades earlier when electric trolleys first plied the streets of Brooklyn:

Little Zetta Lumberg, aged four, was this morning said to be dying at St. Mary's Hospital, Brooklyn.  She was knocked down by trolley car No. 118, of the Fulton street line, last night.

As the child crossed the street at Saratoga avenue there was a maze of trolley cars and vehicles.  She dodged behind an uptown car just as another trolley car came flying down the other track.

The Evening World (New York) October 3, 1893.

The World (New York), February 27, 1895.
The new-fangled vehicles brought speed and danger to the streets, a place that previously had been a relatively safe space shared by horse-drawn wagons, pedestrians, and children at play.  The Los Angeles Dodgers’ nickname, shortened from the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers (first used in 1895), is a lasting reminder of those dangers. See my earlier piece, The Grim Reality of the “Trolley Dodgers.”  [ii] 

One solution to the problem – playgrounds:

Those children of Brooklyn who survive the attacks of the remorseless trolley car will at least have pleasant play-grounds next summer.

New York Tribune, October 8, 1893, page 6.

As the electric trolley spread to other cities, playgrounds were never far behind: 

[I]n the spring of 1895, the trolley system was adopted in Philadelphia, and many accidents to children playing on the streets stimulated the public sentiment very greatly in favor of playgrounds were “the poor little urchins could play, free from danger to life and limb.”

Stoyan Vasil Tsanoff, Educational Value of the Children’s Playgrounds, a novel plan of character building, Philadelphia, 1897, page 136.

In 1899, the Mayor of Toledo, Ohio waxed philosophical about the need for more playgrounds and better playground equipment:

I want to give them places where they may play free from the electric cars and the temptations of the street, where they may get together and learn to love each other.  It is true that in many of our cities certain parts of the parks have been designated as playgrounds for the children: but, as a rule, they have not been equipped with apparatus and are nothing more than places where children might romp and play ball, etc.  But, with the closing years of this century, we catch glimpses of the new civilization that is to characterize the twentieth century.  We are looking forward and thinking of a larger life that refuses to be satisfied with the sordid scramble or possession of property and demands opportunity for expression of men’s spiritual nature that has been in danger of being crushed out by the fierce warfare of competition that is now giving way to a more sensible order of combination, which, in turn, is to be succeeded by a co-operation that will lead to brotherhood, a brotherhood that is to make it its business to see that the possibilities of happiness be within the reach of every man, woman and child – in short, to see the kingdom of heaven set up and realized on earth.

The North Adams Transcript (North Adams, Massachusetts), August 12, 1899, page 2.

A bit overwrought, perhaps, but the kingdom of heaven on earth sounds like a worthy goal, regardless of one’s religious bent.  But Mayor Alanson Wood was a man of his time, and his time was defined by the progressive movement, which swept the country from the 1890s through about the 1930s.  The progressive movement, in part a reaction to industrialization and urbanization, was marked by broad efforts to improve living conditions, public health and safety, and working conditions.

One aspect of the progressive movement were so-called “settlement houses,” a worldwide network of charitable, neighborhood social work institutions, hundreds of which were scattered across the country and throughout the world at the turn of the century:

Settlements were organized initially to be “friendly and open households,” a place where members of the privileged class could live and work as pioneers or “settlers” in poor areas of a city where social and environmental problems were great. . . . The idea was that university students and others would make a commitment to “reside” in the settlement house in order to “know intimately” their neighbors. The primary goal for many of the early settlement residents was to conduct sociological observation and research. For others it was the opportunity to share their education and/or Christian values as a means of helping the poor and disinherited to overcome their personal handicaps.[iii]

One such “settlement house” was Washington DC’s “Neighborhood House,” where an anonymous janitor designed and built the first known children’s playground slide sometime between its opening in April 1902 and August 1903, when the earliest known reference to a playground slide appeared in print:[iv]

“Shooting the Chutes.”

One of the most delightful sports in this playground is “shooting the chutes,” a piece of apparatus invented and installed by “Uncle Richard,” the colored janitor of Neighborhood House, who takes as great delight in the pleasures of the little folks as they do themselves.  The “chutes” consists of a long, smooth plank, the lower end about twelve inches from the ground and the other placed at an elevation of about twelve feet.  There is a platform at the top of the chute, which is reached by means of a ladder.  The children climb up the ladder and seating themselves on the smooth, sloping board, slide to the bottom with greater or less speed, holding onto the slide railing which has been erected along the course to prevent accidents.  It is a thrilling slide and one greatly enjoyed, even by older people.
Evening Star (Washington DC), August 1, 1903, page 7.

And if playground safety was the goal, some playground equipment of the period seems to have missed the mark, at least as viewed from the perspective of our more safety conscious era, with our plastic “play structures” and rubberized playground surfaces. 

One early example of retrospectively obviously dangerous playground equipment appeared in Boston a few months before Washington DC’s more conventional playground slide – the sliding bars.  

Boston Post, May 3, 1903, page 7.

A description of the use of similar sliding bars in Washington DC a year later illustrates the potential for injury:

At one place where there are sliding poles – that is, two long smooth poles set a couple of feet apart and forming the base of a right angle between the ground and a platform about twelve feet high – some feats were performed that were truly spectacular.  One favorite “stunt” seemed to be the trick of standing on the platform and jumping out about six feet into space, catching by arms and legs on the pole, the body between, and sliding swiftly to the bottom.  This was done time and again, but, curiously enough, without mishap.  One of the boys had a trick of sliding halfway down and continuing the descent by means of a series of somersaults.  He would land on his head two times out of three, but a small matter like that did not seem to feaze him.

Washington Times, September 11, 1904, part 3, page 9.

The national reach of the “settlement house” and playground movements made it possible for a good idea in one city to be copied in another city; but which slide was first?  Boston’s “sliding poles” fell squarely within the range of time during which “Uncle Richard” could have designed the first conventional playground slide in Washington DC, thereby complicating the question.  The appearance of another type of slide during the same period of time complicates the question even further.  

And, in a touch of irony, the dangerous trolleys that a decade earlier had prompted the need for more playgrounds for children of poor and working class families, and thereby resulting in the invention of the playground slide, also provided easier access for those same poor and working class families to visit “the biggest playground in the world,”[v] Coney Island, where increased attendance spurred the creation of more and better attractions – including “Kelly’s Slide.” 

Amusement Park Slides

On opening day of Coney Island’s new Luna Park attraction on May 16, 1903, visitors were mesmerized and enthralled by its electric lights – and thrilled to its new rides, including a slide:

They have created a realm of fairy romance in colored light, so beautiful that the rest of Coney Island will have to clean up and dress up, if it is to do business. . . . [T]he beauty of the place under its extraordinary electrical illumination scheme is its primary feature.
. . .

In one corner of the grounds is a quaint old Dutch windmill, and here was discovered one of the most popular contrivances for amusement ever seen.  It consisted of a bamboo chute with a good sharp incline, but with many devious turnings, and just broad enough for a good-sized boy.  It was not an hour before an unnumbered host of boys had discovered this wonderful slide, and before many minutes boys were shooting down this chute at the rate of about three a second, and fairly smoking as they slid down the curves.  The chute has not yet been worn smooth as glass, as it will be soon, and last night it was estimated that something like 3,000 pairs of trousers were more or less damaged within the short space of an hour.  It was great fun.

The New York Times, May 17, 1903, page 2.

Young boys were not the only people who enjoyed the “Helter Skelter” or “Kelly’s Slide”:

Colliers , Volume 33, August 27, 1904, page 20.

“Kelly’s Slide” was so successful that they installed a new slide the following year – this time with bumps:

Gov. Odell Bumps the Bumps and Shoots the Chutes at Coney Island
Evening World (New York), July 22, 1904, page 3.

New York Times, June 12, 1904, page 25.

Although it is uncertain whether Boston’s sliding poles, Coney Island’s “Kelly’s Slide” or “Uncle” Richard’s “chute the chutes” was first, there may have been some earlier slides.

A brief notice in a St. Louis newspaper from 1901 refers to two attractions that sound like slides:

Summer Garden Arrangements.

New attractions on the Midway will be seen. . . .  The moving stairway, Kelly Slides and cellar door will be included among the other features.[vi]

There may even have been some sort of children’s slide in the Children’s Pavilion of the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, the fair that put the “Midway” in fairs :

One of the charming sights seen here [(the Children’s Pavilion)] was a little red-cheeked English miss, whose stockings reached half way to her bare knees, and who, after long persistence, succeeded in “placing the cart before the horse,” rumbling her wagon in front of her, as she slid down the shining “cellar door.”[vii]

So what was this “cellar door”?

The quotation marks suggest that it was something other than a literal cellar door.  The description of the “cellar door” as “shining” may refer to something “polished smooth as glass,” as was the “Kelley’s Slide” at Coney Island several years later.[viii]  One chronicler of the fair described the Children’s Pavilion as “the biggest playhouse in the world” with “toys of all nations, from the rude bone playthings of the Eskimo children to the wonderful mechanical and instructive toys of modern times,”[ix] which suggests that this “cellar door” may well have been something purposefully designed for children to slide on. 

The truth is out there, but we may never know the answer.

It is also possible that the “cellar door” at the Children’s Pavilion was an actual, typical American cellar door, installed with the express purpose of having children to slide on it, as generations of American children had been doing for decades.

The Herald Los Angeles, June 21, 1896, page 13.

Cellar Door Nostalgia

Early playground slides and amusement park slides were frequently compared with inclined cellar doors, like the one Dorothy tried getting into to escape the twister in The Wizard of Oz.

This fall he is going to have an entirely new list of attractions.  Chief among these will be a tobogganless toboggan slide.  It is a contrivance similar to the one known as “bumping the bumps” at Coney Island. . . .  No cars are provided for the slide, the venturesome passenger merely sitting down in it and sliding over the route, just as we used to do in childhood’s happy days on the old cellar door.

The L’Anse Sentinel, (L’Anse, Michigan), September 17, 1904, page 1.

American children were sliding down cellar doors as early as the summer of ’42 (1842):

But there is one grievance which clearly demands the concentrated energies of the whole civil – and, if it must be so, in the last resort, military – power of our city for its eradication – we mean the “rowdy boys,” from three to ten years of age, who “deface our fences” with chalk and pencil, “injure our palings,” by riding on them, drag their miniature engines [(wagons)] upon our sidewalks, play “tag” up and down our alleys, perch themselves upon our stoops, and slide down our cellar-doors.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 16, 1842, page 2.

The joys of sliding on cellar doors inspired  a popular song entitled “Grimes’ Cellar Door” and a stage play of the same name that ran for decades.

The popular song “Grimes’ Cellar Door” debuted in 1870:

“Old Grimes’ Cellar Door”[x] (sometimes simply called, “Sliding on the Cellar Door”[xi])

For I would give all my Greenbacks,
For those bright days of Yore,
When Sallie Brown [(or Billy Brown[xii])], and I slid down,
Old Grimes’ Cellar Door.

The play made its debut at Proctor’s Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware in August 1890.  Grimes Cellar Door ran continuously, in one form or another, for more than a decade; frequently put on by small touring companies playing small towns. 

Pittston Gazette (Pittston, Pennsylvania), December 23, 1910, page 3.

By 1897, sliding down the cellar door was considered one of those nostalgic pleasures of lost youth:

But of all sliding places the most delightful, beyond a doubt, is the cellar door.  There are many reasons for this, which will appear upon a moment’s consideration.

In the first place, the cellar door stays put; you don’t have to be forever fixing it, as you do the chair and the ironing board.  It is outdoors, in the open air, an added delight.  It draws other children, who come to play with you, to slide on your cellar door, or it may be that you go to slide on theirs; the cellar door is perhaps the scene of your first introduction into youthful society.

There are cellar doors everywhere, but the outside, inclined cellar door, of the kind that you slide on, is peculiar chiefly to smaller cities, to towns and villages and to houses in the country; to localities where there is room. . . .

Blessed is he among whose earlier recollections is a cellar door, with the bright blue sky above and green grass to roll upon all around.

The Salt Lake Herald (Utah), August 1, page 14.

The expression “cellar door,” and its association with childhood play, was used idiomatically in circumstances where we might use “plays well with others” or “takes his ball and goes home,” as the case may be. 

What the Monroe Doctrine Means.
Burlington Hawkey.]

The Monroe doctrine simply and explicitly declares that no foreign nation shall come over here and slide down our cellar door. . . .

Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), April 12, 1880, page 2.

The Pittsburgh Times mustn’t let its Washington correspondent speak of “a man named Miller” in connection with the Internal Revenue Commissionership.  He doesn’t slide on our political cellar-door, and we have at times refused to spin tops with him for keeps; but he isn’t altogether unknown in Washington and is very far from being a nobody.

Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia), March 16, 1885, page 1.

Now that Prince Bismarck has apologized and declared that the Samoa incident was all a mistake, we freely forgive him, and he may slide down our cellar-door whenever he chooses, just as if nothing had happened. – Chicago News.

The Vermont Watchman (Montpelier, Vermont), May 1, 1889, page 4.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), November 6, 1895, page 6.
Semi-Weekly Independent (Plymouth, Indiana), April 22, 1896, page 5.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), October 12, 1902, page 41.

 A few years later, the expression “cellar door” first became known as the most beautiful expression in the English language.    

Coincidence? Cause and Effect?  You be the Judge.

See, for example, “Cellar Door”, Grant Barrett, The New York Times Magazine, February 11, 2010 (tracing the idea that “cellar door” is an inherently beautiful, sonorous or euphonous expression to 1903) and “Slide Down My Cellar Door,” Geoff Nunberg, LanguageLog, March 16, 2014 (speculating that the perceived special beauty of “cellar door” may have been influenced, in part, by the “cellar door” songs and their romantic, nostalgic associations).

I will save that question for another day.

More Slides

But as popular as cellar door-sliding was before 1903, it quickly gave ground to the modern playground slide.

There were playground slides in Chicago by 1905:

Webster Playground – Thirty-third and La Salle Streets (Chicago). “Shooting the Chutes;” a Line-up of Little Ones. A Plea for Playgrounds, Issued by the Special Park Commission, Chicago, W. J. Hartman Company, 1905, page 6.

St. Louis had a new “Slide, Kelly, Slide” in 1908:

A constant line of youngsters stood awaiting their turn at the “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” a contrivance constructed on the principle of the shoot-the-chutes.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), June 15, 1908, page 4.

The new “Kelly Slide” was front-page news in Kansas in 1913:

The Junction City Daily Union (Kansas), April 28, 1913, page 1.

 Soon, you could buy your very own “Kelly Slide” so that your children wouldn’t have to mix it up with the riff-raff down at the public park:
Springfield Missouri Republican, June 15, 1919, page 7.

The common names, “Slide, Kelly, Slide” or “Kelly Slide,” refer to an earlier pop-culture phenomenon, the song, “Slide, Kelly, Slide.” The song, one of the first big hit songs recorded on a phonograph, was itself a reference to an earlier sports and pop-culture icon, “the Only” Mike “King” Kelly, a popular vaudeville performer and professional baseball’s first $10,000 man.

Mike Kelly was an aggressive base-runner and known, along with his other Chicago teammates, as a good slider.  The hook slide, or “Chicago slide,” originated in Chicago while Mike played there.  However, the “slide” of “Slide, Kelly, Slide” fame may be more of a dig at his leaving Chicago for Boston, and later breaking a contract to go on an Australian baseball tour with the Chicago team (“sliding” being a euphemism for breaking a contract or getting out of an obligation), than it is a reference to base sliding.  The timing, circumstances, and lyrics of the song suggest as much.  He may have only become famous for his sliding retroactively, in the afterglow of the song that firmly associated his name with sliding.

Slide, Kelly, Slide!

Mike Kelly is a hall of fame catcher who played seventeen seasons of professional baseball.  He first rose to prominence as a member of the Chicago White Stockings in 1880.  He played for seven seasons, much of that time under owner Albert Spalding; yes, that Spalding, who is now better remembered for is sporting goods company which is still in business today. 

Following the 1886 season, Kelly announced that he would never play in Chicago again.  He claimed to have been improperly fined $275 for “intemperance” (drinking too much).  He and his brother were doing well in the horse business at Hancock Park, Chicago, and he didn’t need his baseball money.  To recoup on his investment, Spalding sold Kelly’s contract to the Boston Beaneaters for a then unimaginable sum of money for a baseball player - $10,000. 

In 1888, Albert Spalding organized an Australian baseball tour in which his Chicago White Stockings played a series of exhibitions against a team of all-stars from other teams.  He called the all-star team the “All-American Baseball Team,” which is believed to be the origin of the now common expression or designation, “All-American”.  The teams left Chicago in late-October and played a series of games across the country, en route to its port of departure, San Francisco.

Mike Kelly initially agreed to join the “All-Americans”.  His image appears on promotional material and was prominently mentioned in the pre-tour publicity campaign. 

“The All-American Team” (Mike Kelly, top row-center),  Outing, Volume 13, Number 2, November 1888, page 160.
His team was glad to see him go on tour, for reasons that lend credence to Spalding’s reasons for fining Kelly two years earlier:

President Soden of the Boston club says he is glad Kelly is going to Australia this winter, for he will have no opportunity to carouse with his Boston friends.

Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1999, page 13.

But as the day of departure grew near, Kelly was nowhere to be seen – and rumors started circulating that he was not going to make the tour. 

St Louis Post Dispatch (Missouri), October 11, 1888, page 8.

Tiernan and Mike Kelly still say that they are not going to Australia.  The two Kellys - $10,000 Mike and Umpire John – are to open a saloon in New York this winter.[xiii]

Despite the rumors, numerous newspapers ran articles assuring that Mike Kelly was on his way, would be there in a few days, or would catch up with the team soon.  The news of his imminent arrival followed the team on its cross-country tour from Chicago to San Francisco, in a kind of running gag that would have done Chevy Chase (and his “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead bit[xiv]) proud.

When Kelly’s name showed up on pre-printed scorecards in Minneapolis, the backup catcher pretended to be Kelly.  But they still expected him in Cedar Rapids.

The boys have been having a laugh about it ever since, and will have lots to tell Kelly when he joins us.

Evening World (New York), October 23, 1888, page 1.

Or at least in Salt Lake City a week later.

The absorbing conundrum with Mr. Spaulding, Mr. Anson and the Australian contingent last week, was: “will Kelly go with us to Australia,” as rumor had it that Kelly was about to jump his contract at the last minute.  Mr. Spaulding was confident, however, that the “great beauty” would show up at the eleventh hour, and latest accounts have it that Kelly is now with the team, and will surely be here on October 31st and November 1st.

The Salt Lake Herald, October 24, 1888, page 5.

Evening Bulletin (Maysville, Kentucky), October 25, 1888, page 1.

The Sunday Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), November 4, 1888, page 6.

But surely he wouldn’t miss the boat, even after missing a game in San Francisco:

Mike Kelley, the beauty, will arrive in this city in a few days.  He will accompany Spalding’s players to Australia.  It looks as if Mike was afraid of a California audience.  Perhaps he has recollections of his work in San Francisco last season.

Oakland Tribune (California), November 14, 1888, page 3.

One day before his ship sailed out of San Francisco, some papers were still reporting his imminent arrival.
Fisherman and Farmer (Edenton, North Carolina), November 16, 1888, page 3.

The joke followed him into the next season.  At the end of the 1889 season, Boston treated Kelly to a big party at which he was presented with a Charlotte Russe (a type of cake) in the shape of a giant tureen:

On the cover was the inscription “Slide, Kelly, slide!” and below this on the other side of the tureen were the words, “Where is he?”

The Evening World (New York), October 11, 1889, page 1.

The song “Slide, Kelly, Slide” was first performed in Chicago in early November, 1888, less than two weeks after he missed the train out of Chicago with his Australia-bound, All-American teammates, and about two weeks before the ship sailed for Australia.  Although the song would later be associated with (and the sheet music dedicated to) the singer, Maggie Cline, the song was first performed by its writer, comic actor J. W. Kelly (no relation), the “Rolling Mill Man.” 

Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1888, page 3.

This first notice refers to a “great hit,” which at first blush might suggest the song has been around for awhile.  But a paper trail of his performances in and around Chicago during the weeks leading up to this earliest notice never mention the song.[xv]  An advertisement for his performance at the Park Theatre just two days earlier also does not mention the song, suggesting that the song was new, or least relatively new, in early November 1888; in the same place and time where Mike Kelly was skipping out on his Australian tour commitment. 

And what’s more, some of the lyrics arguably relate to Mike Kelly’s life and career, while curiously avoiding any praise for Mike Kelly and his purported sliding skills.

In the first verse, Kelly strikes out, but has a chance to get on base when the catcher muffs the ball.  The chorus encourages him to:

Slide, Kelly, slide,
Your running’s a disgrace,
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Stay there, hold your base! 

If someone doesn’t steal you,
and your batting doesn’t fail you,
They’ll take you to Australia!
Slide, Kelly, slide!

In the second verse, Kelly goes into the game to replace a catcher who “went to get a drink.”  Poor Kelly can’t see the ball and gets his “muzzle” broken. Cue the chorus. 

In the third, they send him out to center field despite his rapidly swelling nose.  It doesn’t go well, and he doesn’t’ remember what happened.  When he regains consciousness as they carry him home, he learns that they lost the game 62-0. “Slide, Kelly, Slide! etc.”

So the song is largely nonsense and isn’t clearly about Mike Kelly.  The song was written and first performed by a singer named Kelly, so perhaps it was merely eponymous. 

The lyrics do not reflect a great baseball player or runner.  The words of the chorus encourage him to slide, but he is always in trouble and never quite succeeds. 

Some aspects of the lyrics, however, arguably relate to Mike “King” Kelly.  There is a catcher who drinks, his “running is a disgrace,” and “if someone doesn’t steal him” they might take him “to Australia.”  The song debuted during the week in which Mike Kelly, a professional baseball catcher and notorious drinker, famously skipped out of his contractual agreement to go to Australia in the city and with the team from which he was famously “stolen” by Boston two years earlier.

A slang dictionary of the time reveals that the verb, “slide,” then as now, could be used to mean leave, skip, shirk – all words that a Chicagoan might have used with respect to Kelly’s leaving Chicago and skipping his promised trip to Australia.
John S. Farmer, Slang and its Analogues, Volume 6, 1903.

To my mind, the circumstances suggest that the song was at least as much about his leaving Chicago and skipping the trip to Australia, as it is about his prowess as a base-runner.  And in any case, there is very little contemporary evidence that he was widely known or regarded as a particularly skillful base-slider. 

I could not find any contemporary evidence that he was particularly well-known for sliding before 1889. But in May of 1888, a mere five months before the song first appeared in Chicago, a newspaper published a two-column, page-length analysis of the dangers of baseball sliding, including an analysis of the distinct sliding styles of several players.

He must sprint away when opportunity offers, and by throwing himself head foremost or feet foremost to the earth, slide along the ground towards the goal, over pebbles and through mud and dust, only to be greeted with laughter if unsuccessful, and with mingled laughter and applause if successful.  Barked shins, torn scalp, bruised limbs and body he gets for his daring, and very little else. . . .

The best sliders . . . prefer the headlong plunge, Johnnie Ward, Ned Williamson, Fogarty, Ewing, Sunday, Mulvey, Nash, Brown of Boston.  Latham, Dave Orr, McClellan and others equally as well known go in head foremost, while “the only” Kelly, Gore, Connor, Smith, Robinson, Bastian, Anson, Hanlon and others prefer jumping feet foremost.”[xvi]


The article details the base-running idiosyncrasies of several players, including Orr, Easterbrook, Williamson, Ward, Ewing, Latham, Connor, Hanlon, Fogarty, Sunday (Billy Sunday who, decades later, famously couldn’t shut Chicago down) and Brown; with no mention of anything peculiar or particularly interesting about Mike Kelly’s slide. 

I could find only one oblique reference to Kelly’s slide from his time in Chicago; a humorous anecdote originating in Chicago used the expression, “Chicago slide”, idiomatically in reference to a disheveled person. 

In the story, a bloody passenger boards a train.  His “trousers looked as if he had made a Chicago slide for third base through a briar patch.”  When pressed about why he looks so bad (had been in an railroad accident? – no; was he a runaway? – no; was he a baseball player? – no), he responds with a passive-aggressive threat; “I tried to stick my nose into another man’s business.”
The Woodstock Sentinel (Woodstock, Illinois), August 27, 1885, page 6 (reprinted from the Chicago Herald).

Years later, “Chicago slide” and “Kelly’s slide” appear more regularly in print with reference to the hook-slide in baseball.

John J. Evers, Touching Second; the Science of Baseball, Chicago, Reilly and Britton, 1910, page

The best evidence that Kelly was, in fact, known for developing a unique style of sliding appeared a couple decades later.

Kelly invented the “Chicago slide,” which was one of the greatest tricks ever pulled off.  It was a combination slide, twist and dodge.  The runner went straight down the line at top speed and, when nearing the base, threw himself either inside or outside of the line, doubled the left leg under him (if sliding inside, or the right, if sliding outside), slid on the doubled up leg and hip, hooked the foot of the other leg around the base and pivoted on it, stopping on the opposite side of the base.

Every player of the old Chicago team practiced and perfected that slide and got away with hundreds of stolen bases when really they should have been touched out easily. 

Los Angeles Herald, June 10, 1906, page 8.
The same article claimed that only one man could still do the “Chicago slide” to perfection; Bill Dahlen, then of the New York Giants.  A few years later, when he was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Dahlen wrote an article in which he explains that he learned the slide directly from Kelly’s old teammates in Chicago:

Another thing they taught me was sliding to bases, not only so as to avoid being touched, but also to avoid getting hurt or hurting anyone.

That slide known as the “Chicago slide” was the invention of Kelly and adopted by Burns, Williamson, Pfeffer and the great players of that day.

The Akron Beacon Journal (Ohio), June 8, 1910, page 5.

In 1924, sports columnist and sports historian, Frank Menke, similarly credited Kelly with developing the “fade-away” slide:

Kelly was first to use the “fade-away” slide – and no man since then, except Ty Cobb, has been able to duplicate it in its remarkable entirety. . . .  Before “King Kel’s” day, base stealing was almost an unknown art.  Batters who could not hammer their way to second or third either were advanced by another hitter – or died there.

Kelly would start his slide about ten feet from the bag with a high leap into the air which shot his body downwards at the bag with tremendous speed. . . .

Few basemen then had the nerve to try to block off Kelly.  He never went into the bag twice the same way.  He always threw himself with cyclonic force and seeming more vicious.  Yet spiking by Kelly were rare happenings.

The Lincoln Star (Nebraska), July 11, 1924, page 14.

It is therefore believable that “Slide, Kelly, Slide” could have been an homage to his sliding acumen, but the lyrics, context and timing of the release of the song suggest a different reason, or at least a double-meaning, as a knock against Kelly for skipping out on Spaulding’s Australian baseball tour and leaving Chicago for Boston.


An anonymous janitor named “Uncle” Richard designed and built the first known playground slide sometime between April 1902 and August 1903.  Boston’s “sliding poles” and Coney Island’s “Kelly’s Slide” (or “Helter Skelter”) show up in the historical record in May 1903. 

But the playground slide was not imagined from whole cloth.  It was part of a continuum of gravity-powered sliding entertainments including the good-old cellar door.  Other predecessors include “Shooting the Chutes,” “water toboggans,” “water slides,” “toboggans” and the roller coaster, each of which has its own fascinating history – but that’s a story for another day.

Evening Star (Washington DC), June 4, 1922.
Washington Post (Washington DC), July 2, 1905.

[i] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 11, 1911, page 22.
[ii] When the automobile made streets even more dangerous a few years later, it became necessary to develop traffic codes with new violations, like jaywalking, to live in harmony with the new technology. See my earlier piece, Jaywalkers and Jayhawkers - a Pedestrian History and Etymology of "Jaywalking."
[iv] The report of “Uncle” Richard’s “shoot the chutes” slide disproves earlier stories about the purported “first playground slide.”  On April 17, 2012, the BBC and The Daily Mail  published stories online with images purporting to be the “World’s first children’s slide.”  The slide, they reported, was invented by a man named Charles Wicksteed, who, they claimed, installed the first slide in Wicksteed Park in Kettering, Northamtonshire in 1923.  Paige Johnson of Play-Scapes playground blog quickly refuted the claim with images of slides at the Russian Tsar’s summer palace (1910), Coney Island (1905) and a recent image of a restored slide in Philadelphia believed to have been installed in 1904.  The Play-Scapes post also included an image of a slide on a rooftop in New York City dated to “circa” 1900, although the fashions shown the photo almost certainly date that image to at least a decade or two later.
[v] Blue Grass Blade (Lexington, Kentucky), June 2, 1907, page 3.
[vi] The St. Louis Republic, April 17, 1901, page 8.
[vii] Mrs. Mark Stevens, Six Months at the World’s Fair, Detroit, Michigan, Detroit Free Press Printing Co., 1895, pages 210-211.
[viii] Colliers , Volume 33, August 27, 1904, page 20 (“One of the things which the crowd likes best is a sort of winding inclined trough, made of bamboo and polished smooth as glass.”).
[ix] Benjamin Truman, History of the World’s Fair, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, H. W. Kelley, 1893, page 194.
[x] Image from
[xi] Dan de Vere’s Comic and Sentimental Song-Book: Hudson’s Californian and North and South American Circus, Quebec, “Le Canadien” Office, 1873, page 20.
[xii] Dan de Vere’s Comic and Sentimental Song-Book: Hudson’s Californian and North and South American Circus, Quebec, “Le Canadien” Office, 1873, page 20.
[xiii] Wichita Eagle (Kansas), November 22, 1888, page 8.
[xiv] Chase’s Franco joke resonated with audiences at the time, because rumors of the strong-man dictator’s impending death were reported for several weeks before he actually died.  In a typical report by the UPI, a headline read, “Brain test shows Franco is still alive” (Traverse City Record-Eagle (Michigan), November 14, 1975, page 2).  After his death, Chase parodied such coverage with repeated reports that he was still dead.
[xv] He performed at a benefit for newsboys on October 11, an Elks Club benefit on October 28, and took a side-trip to Springfield, Missouri on October 31.
[xvi] The Sunday Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), May 27, 1888, page 6.