When Milton J. Kelly entered the Memphis Red Sox dugout between innings, he wouldn’t let anyone touch his baseball glove. And when he left the dugout to take his position on the baseball field, he made sure to never touch the white foul lines.
And more than 60 years after leaving the baseball diamond, Kelly’s former Negro League teammates describe the second baseman as notoriously fast and fiercely competitive.
Kelly died on Nov. 28 at the age of 91. Services were Wednesday, Dec. 11 at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood. He is survived by his wife, Nellie, and their two sons, Milton C. Kelly and Derrick.
And while Kelly leaves behind a wife and two sons, he also leaves stories of his baseball career and good memories on the golf course.
The Memphis Red Sox began play in 1923 and have recorded history up until 1950. However, the franchise continued until the early 1960s, when Jackie Robinson paved the way for black players to play in Major League Baseball.
Only a handful of Kelly’s former teammates are still alive – among them, Ollie Brantley, and Charley Pride – yes, the Grammy-award winning country singer. Brantley remembers Kelly as an exciting player on the diamond.
“He was pretty quick,” Brantley said. “He could get to a lot of balls other second baseman couldn’t get to.”
Rev. Earnest Patterson, Kelly’s best friend of 60 years, agreed. “He was a very fast guy,” Patterson said. “He could really run.”
The slick-fielding second baseman was just one of many players who played a role in a very successful franchise. The Red Sox won the 1938 First Half Championship, and were a consistent force during their time in the Negro Leagues.
“We were one of the three most popular teams along with the Kansas City Monarchs and Birmingham Black Barons,” Brantley said.
Not only was Kelly pretty good at baseball, but he also was very good at several other sports and hobbies. Golf, billiards and playing card games were the three that family and friends remember the most.
“He was one of the best players in Memphis in billiards,” Patterson said.
After the dissolution of the Negro Leagues, Kelly continued his professional baseball career into the early 60’s before hanging up his glove for good. It was after baseball that he met and married his wife of 54 years, Nellie. By that time, he was still an avid golfer, among other things. But he always made time for her, she said.
“He was a very good and compassionate husband,” she said. “I just let him do his thing, but when it came to ‘me time,’ everything better be about me.”
And even with baseball behind him, Kelly’s toughness and competitive nature stayed.
“We were a competitive family,” Kelly’s eldest son Milton C. Kelly said. “We were always competing indirectly with everything.”
Milton C. Kelly remembers his father’s unique skill as a golfer and can’t remember many times he came home a loser. He was a member of The Duffer’s Club, an African-American group of golfers in Memphis.
Milton J. Kelly wanted to teach his son some of his golf skills, but the younger Kelly didn’t want to learn at the time. But as he got older, the younger Kelly learned to love golf, steadily improving his game.
But for all his improvement, the younger Kelly still had yet to beat his father. After a streak of losses, the younger Kelly decided to change that. He put together one of his best days on the golf course, and finally beat his dad.
And while the father fully expected his son to gloat when they got home, that’s not how it played out. Instead, the younger Kelly causally strolled into the home as usual, and allowed his father to tell it on himself.
“He told (my mother) that I beat him, I didn’t,” the younger Kelly said. “I said ‘I’m not going to say anything, I’ll let him do it.’”
But whether it was playing golf, games or taking them to drive-in movies every Sunday, his father taught life lessons that stayed with his boys. “One thing he told me that will always stick with me is view each individual as an individual,” Milton C. Kelly said.
Patterson remembers his lifelong friend fondly. “We could call each other whenever needed,” he said. “He was like a brother to me. He treated my family well.
“I don’t think you can meet a better friend,” Patterson said.