Upstate N.Y. Sports Lore: First Heisman winner’s area connections
In 1935, a private social and athletic club located in lower Manhattan called the Downtown Athletic Club recognized the best college football player east of the Mississippi River.
The recognition included a trophy called the “Downtown Athletic Club Trophy”, which was a bronze figure of a football player created by well-known sculptor Frank Elisco.
The winner that year was University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger. Berwanger would subsequently go on to become the first player to be drafted by the National Football League in the inaugural 1936 NFL draft.
The following October, the club’s athletic director and college football coaching legend (and eventual College Football Hall of Famer) John Heisman passed away.
In his honor, the award was renamed the “Heisman Memorial Trophy” and was turned into a national award, going to the most outstanding college football player across the entire country.
Voters were (and still are) made up of media representatives throughout the country and now former recipients of the award.
The very first Heisman Trophy (and national honor) would be awarded to a player from Yale University named Larry Kelley 80 years ago this month in 1936.
Kelley, born in Conneaut, Ohio, and raised in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was a three-sport star for Yale University from 1933-37.
As a senior at Yale, he was the captain of both the football & baseball teams and also lettered in basketball. At 6-2 and 190 pounds, he played the End position and was Yale’s biggest offensive threat with great speed and could catch any pass thrown near him. He also had a knack for stretching the rules and coming up with big plays when Yale needed them most.
In a close game in 1936 against Navy, Kelley went to recover a fumble by Navy and the ball bounced off of his foot all the way down to the Navy two-yard line where he recovered it. This set up a Yale touchdown two plays later when Clint Frank scored to give the Yale Bulldogs a 12-7 win.
The play would become known as the “Kelley Kick” and new rules would be put into place stating that “a player shall not deliberately kick a free ball or otherwise illegally kick the ball.”
Another trick he liked to employ would get him down field untouched by blockers.
At the onset of a kick off or punt, he would run out of bounds and down sideline, and then slip back onto the field and make a play.
The rules have since been changed to make a player leaving the field of play ineligible for the rest of the play to prevent this sort of strategy.
Over 25 games in his career for Yale he scored 15 touchdowns (considered a lot for an end in that era), and was an integral part of the 1934 Yale “Iron Men” who upset college football’s perennial national champion Princeton Tigers as he scored the lone touchdown of the game to end their 15-game win streak that spanned over two seasons.
With his play in 1936, Kelley propelled Yale to a record of 7-1 and earned unanimous All-American honors.
In December 1936 when the votes came in from media representatives across the country for the Downtown Athletic Clubs newly named “Heisman Trophy,” seven players received votes including; Kelley, Sam Francis (Nebraska), Ray Buivid (Marquette), Sammy Baugh (Texas Christian), Clint Frank (Yale), Ace Parker (Duke) and Ed Widseth (Minnesota).
Kelley received a landslide share of the votes with 213, while the second-place winner received only 47, to be named the 1936 Heisman Trophy winner and put the city of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on the map a few years before Carl Stotz organized the first youth baseball games to create Little League Baseball and Softball.
With the exception of Clint Frank (who was only a junior and would win the Heisman in 1937), all five of the other players receiving votes for the award were drafted in first two rounds of the 1937 NFL draft.
And of that group, all but Kelley would go on to play in the NFL, including eventual NFL Hall of Fame inductees Baugh and Parker. Kelley would play in two more football games with the first being Jan. 1, 1937 ,in the all-star East-West Shrine game in San Francisco. He would make a game saving interception to set up a field goal to enable the East to win 3-0 and be named the Most Valuable Player of the game.
He would suit up one more time in the following September for the College All-Stars against the New York Giants in the Herald Tribune newspapers Fresh Air Fund Game to raise funds to provide free summer vacations around the country to New York City children.
In addition to the Detroit Lions offering him an $11,000 football contract, New York Yankees scout Paul Krichell and Branch Rickey of the St. Louis Cardinals both offered him contracts to play professional baseball. He also received a Hollywood offer of $15,000 to play himself in a film called “Kelley of Yale.”
While his athletic prowess and having won the nationally acclaimed Heisman trophy meant an instant ticket to professional sports stardom and Hollywood fame, Kelley chose to pursue a life in academics following graduation in the spring of 1937.
In the fall of 1937 he returned to the Peddie School, a prestigious college preparatory school in Hightstown, N.J., that he had attended before enrolling at Yale University after high school. There he taught history and mathematics and coached sports, while pursuing graduate work at Princeton University.
When WWII began, he was kept out of service due to a punctured ear drum (football injury).
To contribute to the war effort, he left the Peddie School in 1942 to join the defense industry and worked as a service manager for the Lawrence Aeronautical Corporation in Linden, New Jersey, which produced auxiliary engines for military planes throughout the war.
In 1946, at the age of 30, Kelley and his second wife (Anne Goodwin) and her young son moved to Fulton County, New York.
Through a Yale University connection, he was hired by the Daniel Hays & Co, manufacturers of gloves in Gloversville (175-185 W. Fulton Street across from what is now Harold’s Restaurant), as the organizations Secretary and director in charge of fabric glove production. He and his family resided on First Avenue in Mayfield and settled into the community. In 1946, he was an assistant coach to Duke Miller for the Gloversville High School varsity football team, and was the guest speaker at the program’s annual football dinner.
While he no longer played football, to stay in shape he bowled for Mayfield bowling teams and also played semi-pro baseball for the Mayfield Pirates for two seasons.
Kelley often stated that he was a better baseball player than football player and Fulton County fans got to experience that first hand.
In 1948 he finally suited up professionally, and was one of the league’s top players and led the Pirates to the Bi-County League Championship. In 1949, the Pirates joined the newly formed New York League League and Kelley served as the team’s player/manager.
He was also an active member of the Gloversville Elks Lodge, which was located next to what is now the Leader-Herald offices on Fulton Street.
According to Gloversville attorney Michael Geraghty, “in the 1930s through the 1960s, all of the local business professionals would have lunch at the Gloversville Elks Lodge, and Kelley would walk up from his office at the Daniel Hays & Co to join us for lunch each day. He always drew a crowd and obliged anyone who wanted to talk about football.”
He was also very in demand as a speaker at local sporting events and social functions.
The Leader-Republic newspaper (predecessor of the Leader-Herald) put on a 3-day long football skills clinic each year at Darling Field in the 1940s and 1950s, and Larry Kelley was asked each year to be one of the presenters. Local fraternal organizations also called upon him to be their celebrity speaker at fundraisers.
In March of 1948, he spoke to the sports fans at the Catholic War Veteran’s smoker and boxing matches at the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church hall in Gloversville. The Kelley family would reside in Fulton County until 1952 when he took a job with another fabric glove producer in Reading, Pennsylvania.
In 1958 Kelley left the business world and returned to academia as a math teacher and alumni director at the Cheshire Academy college preparatory school in Cheshire, Connecticut. He remained at Cheshire until 1970 and then returned to the Peddie School in New Jersey as the school’s alumni director until retiring in 1975.
In 1969, Kelley was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Throughout his life he had remained a dedicated member and director of the Heisman Trophy Foundation and was present in New York City each December for the Heisman Trophy presentation and dinner.
The Heisman Foundation produced two replicas of the 1936 Heisman Trophy for Kelley and he donated one to Yale University in 1981 where it now sits on display in a trophy case in the athletic office and the other to the Peddie School in New Jersey.
For 12 seasons (1997-2008), Johnstown native (and former Glove Cities Colonial player) Jack Siedlecki was the head football coach for Yale.
According to Siedlecki “Kelley’s Heisman sat in a trophy case between my office and the conference room in the football office. It was strategically placed there as a recruiting tool, and I myself could not help but look at the trophy each and every day I was in my office.”
The second replica currently sits in the alcove of the athletic complex at the Peddie School and is used by their football program to teach their players about the school’s history and to inspire them to strive to be great athletes.
The original trophy, presented to Kelley in 1936, was put up for auction by him in 1999.
It sold for $328,110, nearly $100,000 more than O.J. Simpson’s 1968 Heisman Trophy grossed in a similar auction about a year earlier.
The Kelley trophy was purchased by The Stadium Bar and Restaurant in Garrison New York and now sits on display along with other notable historic pieces of sports memorabilia for patrons to enjoy.
According to owner James Walsh, “the trophy is a big attraction at our place and it still sits where he placed it when he hand-delivered it back in 1999.
He was a large man, not only in physical size, but also in stature. I have spoken to many other Heisman winners and football icons, and they all speak of him with great reverence. He was considered the ‘God Father of the Heisman World’ and people hold him in the same esteem as the baseball world holds Joe DiMaggio. He was a well-spoken man, who had a great family and a beautiful wife and we are proud to now be the keepers of his ‘holy grail’ of the football world.”
Several months after handing off the “First Heisman Trophy” to the Walsh Family, Kelley passed away at his Hightstown N.J., home where he resided with his fifth wife Ruth, at the age of 85.
Kelley is a nominee for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame.
Plans are also in the works to raise funds to create a historical road marker to be placed at the site of the former Riceville Baseball Diamond (corner of Route 30A and Second Avenue in Mayfield) where Kelley played and managed semi-pro baseball in the late 1940s for the Mayfield Pirates.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com or at 725-5565.