Kelly led Minnesota to two World Series titles
By CRAIG MUDER
November 21, 2009
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – At 59 years old, Tom Kelly is in the middle of what – for many – are often the prime years of a major league manager.
For the two-time World Series winning skipper, however, things always came a little quicker than expected. When he was hired as the Minnesota Twins’ manager near the end of the 1986 season, he was just 36 years old – the youngest field boss in baseball.
|Tom Kelly is one of twenty finalists for election to the Hall of Fame Class of 2010 by the Veterans Committee.|
“(Twins owner Carl Pohlad) was a little apprehensive to have two young people running their company,” said Kelly of his pairing with general manager Andy MacPhail, who was just 33. “But our teams here have functioned without too many incidents, and the players conduct themselves as professionally as they possibly can.”
That professional conduct – fueled by Kelly’s workmanlike drive and baseball savvy – resulted in a legendary run in Minnesota.
Kelly, who managed the Twins from 1986-2001, is one of 10 finalists on this year’s Veterans Committee managers/umpires ballot at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. The Veterans Committee will vote on Dec. 6 at baseball’s Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, and the results of the vote will be announced Dec. 7. The results of the Veterans Committee election for executives will also be announced on Dec. 7.
The 10 candidates on the managers/umpires ballot are: Charlie Grimm, Doug Harvey, Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Billy Martin, Gene Mauch, Danny Murtaugh, Hank O’Day, Steve O’Neill and Kelly. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all ballots cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2010.
Jay Thomas Kelly was born Aug. 15, 1950 in Graceville, Minn. After starring on the baseball field at the College of the Holy Cross, Kelly was drafted by the expansion Seattle Pilots in the eighth round in 1968. The Pilots became the Brewers in 1970, and Milwaukee released Kelly in the spring of 1971. But he hooked on with the Twins, and the 5-foot-11, 188-pound first baseman worked his way through the minors before making his big league debut on May 11, 1975.
In two months as the Twins’ everyday first baseman, Kelly hit .181 with one homer and 11 RBI. And though he impressed observers with his defense, he was returned to the minor leagues and never appeared in another big league game.
But for Kelly, the journey was just beginning. He quickly turned to managing, and in his first full season was named the California League’s Manager of the Year with Visalia. By 1986, Kelly was the Twins third base coach – a step away from his destiny.
On Sept. 12 of that year, with the Twins in last place in the American League West, manager Ray Miller was fired and replaced by Kelly. A year later, Kelly and the Twins would be in first place in the AL West en route to their first division title since 1970.
But the fun was just beginning. Kelly’s Twins dispatched the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in five games in the American League Championship Series, then defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games to give the Twins their first World Series title. The franchise, formerly the Washington Senators, had not won a World Series since 1924.
The next season, Kelly and the Twins proved they were no fluke by finishing second in the AL West with 91 wins – six more than they recorded the year before. But by 1990, the injuries and player turnover had pushed the Twins back to the AL West basement.
Time for another turnaround. In 1991, Kelly took the Twins from worst to first, winning 95 games – a career-best for Kelly – en route to a second AL West championship. Minnesota defeated the favored Blue Jays in five games in the ALCS, then faced the Atlanta Braves – another worst-to-first team – in the World Series.
As in the 1987 Fall Classic, the Twins won every game at home – giving Kelly his second World Series title in five years.
“It’s one of those things where you’re lucky to win a couple times,” Kelly said.
Lucky once, maybe. But twice? Baseball veterans know better.
“If you looked at his teams,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, “he always got the most out of his ballplayers.”
The Twins began a decline after the 1991 title, finishing below .500 for eight straight years from 1993-2000. But in 2001, Kelly led a new generation of players to a record of 85-77 and a second-place finish in the new AL Central.
Then, at age 51, he walked away. By that point, he was the longest-tenured manager or head coach in the four major team sports.
“I’m not coming back. I’ve managed my last game,” said Kelly, whose 16-year managerial reign remains the longest in Twins history.
He kept his word, finishing with a record of 1,140-1,244 (.478), two World Championships and the respect of nearly everyone who played for him.
“He did his job, and he let us play,” said former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who played for Kelly for nine seasons. “It seemed like TK was always a step ahead of the other manager. He made the other guy walk up and down the dugout steps a little more.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum