Palladino: Red Kelly’s extraordinary baseball life
copyright BY JOE PALLADINO REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
They called him Red. He answered to nothing else. Red was vintage before vintage was cool. He was old school before we knew what it meant. Only Norman Rockwell could have painted his portrait. Only Damon Runyon could have dreamed him up.
James “Red” Kelly died last week at the age of 73, leaving behind, as Jim D’Agostino said, “More stories than we can ever tell.” Red Kelly was a living link to a forgotten era of baseball. His memory of city amateur games was encyclopedic. When you saw Red in the dugout, with that glorious mustache, in a well-worn uniform, you wondered if he had just come back from a 19th century re-enactment game. When you think Red Kelly, you think Twi-Met baseball, and you think Timers. Red didn’t start the Twi-Met or the Timers, but he was the energy source that kept both alive for a half century. “He devoted his entire life to that team,” said former Timers star Bobby Guerrera. “It is who he was.”
When we were kids, we heard the old timers talk about the City Amateur league and its legendary stars from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Red is at the core of our baseball memories in the second half of the 20th century. From the formation of the Waterbury A.A. in the 1960s to his association with Dick Yuskas, Paul Silas and the Timers, Red’s was a baseball life like no other. “Our relationship with the Timers goes back many years, to 1971 to be exact,” said Yuskas. “After three years of playing Twi-Met baseball as Napp’s, we changed the name to the Waterbury Timers, with the consent of Duke Delpo, who had been associated with the old Waterbury Timers for many years.” When Yuskas gave up managing, he handed the Timers over to Kelly. “It was only fitting to say to Red that the team is yours, and the Timers truly became Red’s team.” Through five decades, Red’s Timers won more than 800 games. Silas, who sponsored the team for 35 years, couldn’t count the number of Twi-Met titles, but he listed the state championship total at 17, plus a national championship in 1984. Silas handled the finances, and that left Red free “to wheel and deal,” Silas said, and no one could wheel or deal like Kelly.
“We were playing an undefeated Bristol team at Waterville Park,” Silas recalled, “and we were one game behind them. It’s the summer, and who’s not coming, and who’s on vacation, and we are short of players. Red sees this guy running in the outfield, so we go out to see if he can play baseball.” The “guy” is Wade Rowdon, who was playing third base for the Double-A Waterbury Reds at the time. Red asks if he can play ball. Rowdon says sure, “I’m playing in town for the (Reds) minor league team.” Kelly and Silas exchange glances, and Silas said, “If anyone asks, your name is Rich Lombardi.” Rowdon, Lombardi I mean, goes 3-for-4, the Timers win, “And we never see Wade Rowdon.” Maybe because he went on to play five seasons in the big leagues with the Reds, Cubs and Orioles.
That was Red Kelly.
Red’s love of baseball was all-consuming. He would quit a job rather than miss a game, and very often, he did just that at the start of the season, then look for work in the fall. “He’d come to games driving a delivery truck, wearing his Timers’ uniform,” remembers Frank Forcucci, who confirms many a story about playing under an alias, against other teams playing under other aliases, with Red saying, “Who cares. Let’s go beat them.” What Kelly did, for decades, was keep amateur baseball alive. This baseball-mad region produced some prodigious talent, and the Timers featured more than 80 players who went on to play professionally. Kelly’s great gift was providing a place to play. “He gave us all the chance to continue to play baseball after college,” said Steve Baldwin, who played for Kelly. “It never cost us a penny. He took care of everything. All he cared about was giving as many people as possible a chance to play. At the end of the day, he cared more about us and more about baseball than anything else.” Kelly put up his own money, and later Silas’ money, to get teams to games and tournaments, said Danny Zailskas, himself a Boston College Hall of Famer. “It was guys like Jim Spann and Allie Vestro Sr. who kept the games going, and in the 70s, it was Red. He is the last in the line. There will never be another like him.”
Kelly was the last great baseball man in a city that once teemed with baseball men. Though gentle and soft-spoken, Kelly could start an argument with anyone, about anything. “I never saw anyone more devoted to baseball than Red,” Zailskas added. “He literally gave his life to the game. Right now, I cannot picture a world without Red Kelly.” Nor can I. The stories and images that will remain a part of baseball in this city usually include Red, like the time I walked down the runway to watch a Twi-Met game at the Stadium — once, a Twi-Met game was better than anything you could watch on TV — and there was Red, asleep on the table, next to the cash box, snoring, with the muffled sound of a baseball game floating beneath the grandstand. It was like a lullaby for Red.
And of course, when the Timers were short of players, especially in the later years, there was Red, in his 50s, on the mound, throwing a junk curve ball that baffled batters. “I remember one time Red pitched a doubleheader,” said Pudgie Maia, “and he won both games.” Maia played for Red, played against him, and correctly said, “When you think of amateur baseball in Waterbury, you think Red.” As Eddie Hill noted, “Red gave up his life to coach. He gave up his marriage. When baseball came around, he gave up whatever job he had.” When spring arrived, and the grass grew, the bases came out, they lined the fields, and there was Red, summoning another season. “It was something we took for granted,” said another former Timer, Elmer Deschaine. “He was always there. His love for the sport was unparalleled. He became a part of your life, and then he became a part of history.”
Kelly battled endless health issues, including four heart operations, but there he was, always at a ball game. Kelly had a brilliant baseball mind, his former players said, but his legacy is his baseball passion. Kelly handled all the details. He kept the league alive. He made sure baseball was played. When the Twi-Met league finally folded, in 2005, “It was the end of a golden era of baseball in Waterbury,” Guerrera said. It was a baseball epoch. “It was something kind of magical, the way he kept us in,” added D’Agostino, a longtime friend and Timers player. “We were all being pulled in different directions, but Red kept us in the pot, and he would stir it, like no one else in this city could do.” Red’s greatest gift may have been the ability to bring out the best in others, D’Agostino said. “He’s in Heaven now,” he added, “and he’s probably arguing with someone.” Or forming a team. He has only eight men. He’s looking for an Angel who can play, “But from now on,” Red might say, “your name is Smith.” Yuskas hopes that Kelly “will be long remembered for his promotion of semi-pro baseball, and for his kindness and friendship to the many people and players that crossed his path.
“Sleep well, Red, and God bless.”
Twi-Met Commish James 'Red' Kelly
Palladino: Red Kelly’s extraordinary baseball life