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'Our Jackie Robinson':

The man who broke Peoria's

baseball color barrier in 1950

kk6.png

Dave Eminian

Journal Star

 

PEORIA — Jackie Robinson opened the door for African Americans in Major League Baseball in 1947, and three years later Keith Kelley walked through it in Peoria.

 

Kelley, a Black right-handed pitcher with a blazing fastball, broke the color barrier in the now 108-year Peoria Sunday Morning League in 1950 when he pitched a game for Cohen Furniture.

 

"He loved baseball," said Kelley's son Ken Kelley. "I'm the one who ended up with all the old photo albums. The pictures, the stories, we still have them all. In spring training he met Jackie Robinson. He took a picture with Jersey Joe Walcott. He joined the Air Force and led its baseball team to the Japan League championship in 1956, he was so

proud of that.

 

"He used to visit schools in the Peoria area and tell kids about the game, and his travels and the things he experienced."

 

The Peoria native pitched in the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system, and spent spring trainings with Dodgers greats.

 

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But Kelley got his start in the Peoria Sunday Morning League, which is recognized by Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame as the oldest amateur baseball league in America. Over a century-plus, it has seen countless future and former major leaguers and elite local players on its fields, from Jim Thome to Joe Girardi, Mike Dunne, Zack Monroe and more.

 

"Keith Kelley was our Jackie Robinson," Sunday Morning League President Tim Cundiff said. "We're researching him and preparing to honor him as we start our 108th season in May."

 

As Black History Month wound down and MLB spring training ramped up, Kelley's family remembered the legacy their late father created in Peoria.

 

The Saurs family had a hand in it — Ed, then-president of the PSML, and his son, Bruce, the Peoria High School and Cohen Furniture manager and in later years beloved longtime owner of the Peoria Rivermen hockey team.

 

"Bruce managed Cohen, and his father managed the league at the time," PSML historian and former league President Daryl Klusendorf said. "They would meet with key leaders in the league and friends and then afterward go to play cards downtown.

 

"One day, during one of those card games, Bruce told his father and the rest of his people, 'I'm not asking permission, and it's going to happen — Keith Kelley will be on the mound Sunday morning.'"

 

Jackie, Larry and Keith

 

Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, in the National League. Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier on July 5, 1947, with the Cleveland Indians.

 

In the summer of 1950, Keith Kelley became the first Black player in the history of Peoria's Sunday Morning League.

 

The 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-handed pitcher had starred at then Peoria Central High School in 1950, where he went 13-3 with 154 strikeouts in 106 innings. He received Central's Jack Koch Award asthe school's most outstanding athlete.

 

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Kelley took the hill for that historic appearance with Cohen Furniture, pitching 4⅔ innings in his debut, allowing two runs on five walks and four strikeouts. He came back in 1956 and pitched for Becker Lumber Co., working 21 innings with a 2-0 record, 2.33 ERA and 12 strikeouts against 10 walks.

 

That left him with a career pitching record in Peoria of 3-0 with a 2.46 ERA, 15 walks and 16 strikeouts.

He played one more time, in 1957, as a first baseman for Becker, and in his three-year PSML career as a hitter he batted .177 with four RBIs, two steals and eight runs scored.

 

In between those Sunday Morning League bookends, Kelley played for the Brooklyn Dodgers farm clubs, joined the Air Force, and hung out at Dodgers spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., with legends like Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Maury Wills and met renowned boxer Jersey Joe Walcott.

 

He roomed with Johnny Roseboro — a catcher who played 14 years in the majors and hit 104 home runs — and Charlie Neal, an infielder who played 970 games and was a three-time All-Star.

 

"Robinson was a great second baseman … but he wasn't that friendly," Kelley said in a 1992 Journal Star story. "He was under a lot of pressure."

 

Branching out with the Dodgers

 

An area businessman wrote to Brooklyn Dodgers team President Branch Rickey in 1950 about Kelley and urged him to take a look. Rickey flew into Danville — where the Dodgers had a farm club — and had Kelley meet him there for a tryout. What he saw moved him to dispatch Dodgers chief Midwest scout Bill Schweppe to Peoria with a contract. Kelley's father signed it for him on June 12, 1950. He was sent to the Dodgers' Class D team in Hazelton, Pa., in the North Atlantic League, where he went 8-6 with a 2.98 ERA.

 

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Equipped with an elite fastball and a curve that he could throw nearly at his fastball velocity, Kelley went on to the Class B Lancaster Dodgers in the Interstate League in 1951.

 

There, he threw a no-hitter in his debut with the Red Roses, a 2-0 decision over the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks at Wilmington Park. He went 15-6 that season with three one-hitters and the no-no. The headline on a newspaper account of the game: "Negro matches boss pitching season's first no-hit, no-run game."

"The crowd was yelling a lot of racial slurs throughout the game,"Kelley recounted in a 1992 Journal Star story. "It got pretty bad. "They went on to play their first game in North Carolina and a near-riot ensued. "They didn't want me there," Kelley said. "They called me names and threw beer at me. After an hour delay we played the game.  There wasn't much I could do about the racial stuff. It came with the territory back then. And it wasn't just the South. There were places in Peoria I couldn't go in because I was Black."

 

His son Ken heard a lot of those stories from his father and read about them, too.

 

"On road trips, he couldn't stay in the hotel with the team, he had to go to a rooming house for Blacks," Ken Kelley said. "He couldn't eat with the team either, he had to eat in the kitchen or sometimes stay on the team bus."

 

The U.S. Air Force and a force named Kelley

His minor league career went on hold the next season. Fearing he'd be drafted by the military, he instead joined the Air Force, where he was assigned to the special services division and played baseball and basketball.

 

His baseball team won the 1956 Northern Japan League title and the 315th Airborne Division tournament and the 1956 Far East Air Force Tournament. The latter qualified the team for the World Baseball Championship in South Carolina. He hit .380 with 34 home runs that season.

 

After his military service, Kelley returned to the Dodgers farm system, playing briefly in 1956 for Great Falls (Mont.) at the Class C level, but he was sore-armed and could not break through to the majors. He went to work as a mail sorter in Peoria's downtown post office for 17 years, and later the Journal Star, where he spent 28 years as a circulation department assistant manager while raising his four sons. "Most of the vivid memories I have of him were from the farm teams, and we got a lot of stories from his Air Force days," Ken Kelley said. "He was so proud of the Air Force championship in Japan."

 

Keith Franklin Kelley

Keith Kelley died at age 75 in August 2007. He had four sons — Frank,Ken, Gregory and Don. Frank Kelley died in August 2022. Kelley left behind a huge family, including 20 grandchildren and 20 greatgrandchildren.

 

He attended Illinois State University and Bradley University, and served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict.

 

"He was also a heck of a sketch artist," said Ken Kelley. "Very few people knew that about him. I always thought he'd go into baseball as a coach. I think he just came along at the wrong time. People ask me how hard he threw. I remember one time he was pitching, I was at bat and one of my brothers was catching.

 

"He threw a pitch so hard, it went off my elbow, went through a chainlink fence and landed in the grill of his Bonneville. I just stood there frozen, sucking for air."

 

Keith Kelley marveled at the size and athleticism of today's baseball players but didn't think they were any better than those of his era. He marveled at the money today's players make, too.

 

"I guess I was born at the wrong time," he told the Journal Star.

 

Maybe. But he was the right man at the right time for Peoria.

 

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter@icetimecleve.

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