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Francis Kelly of Mansfield PA
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The Postman, Francis Kelly, Always Delivered

Mansfield’s Longest Serving Postmaster and Branch Rickey
By Steve McCloskey

On a Friday evening in late January of 1927, Branch Rickey, then the General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, was huddled in a small room off the auditorium in old Alumni Hall on the campus of Mansfield State Teacher College waiting for a nervous young man to arrive.

In an hour’s time Rickey would deliver a rapid-fire lecture on sportsmanship, strong morals and clean living to an overflow audience of students, faculty, area citizens and baseball fans. An acknowledged complex personality possessing what many described as a brilliant mind, Rickey enjoyed speaking to groups of young people. He was, and would always remain, a difference maker in the lives of others as well as someone who would leave an indelible mark on history.

 As he opened the door to meet with Rickey, Mansfield native Francis Kelly must have surely been nervous. Few people of Rickey’s national stature had ever been to Mansfield before and Rickey was no ordinary baseball man.

Long before he was responsible for breaking the incredibly unjust color barrier in major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to a professional contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers – an act that would forever change professional baseball and start a renewed demand for civil rights for all – Branch Rickey was shaking up the national pastime.

Two years prior to his trip to Mansfield, Rickey moved up from field manager to team general manager of the Cardinals early in the 1925 season. In his first full season at general manager in 1926, Rickey put together a team that stunned baseball by capturing the National League pennant after finishing fourth the season before. Better yet, the Cardinals shocked the nation winning the World Series by besting the Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehring led New York Yankees by a 4-3 margin.

But that was 1926.

Despite winning four more games during the recently completed 1927 season, the Cardinals finished second to Pittsburgh. The Pirates then lost in four straight games to the New York Yankees in the World Series just three months before Rickey came to Mansfield. That 1927 Yankee team, by the way, is still considered by many as the greatest baseball team in history.

Rickey liked speaking to groups but he was on the prowl for talent and determined to return to the Cardinals to the World Series.

Kelly, who would prove to be one of the top three athletes in Mansfield’s history, wanted to be a major league baseball player. His hopes got a huge boost when that World Championship New York Yankee team of 1927 included a former Mansfield State Normal School standout in Mike “Gazook” Gazella. If Gazella could do it, he must have figured -- why not Kelly.

Written history doesn’t record what Rickey and Kelly talked about in that almost hour-long, one-on-one session but it’s a good guess that baseball, morals and responsibility dominated the conversation. The Flashlight, the student-paper of MSTC, reported -- without providing evidence -- that the Cardinals offered Kelly a contract on the spot.

That might or might not be so. What is factual is that Rickey, always the innovator, had come up with the concept of the farm system recently. It was a revolutionary idea that within a short period of time would be adapted by all major league clubs. The farm system concept involved major league organizations buying minor league teams and then signing the best amateur talent and placing them on those teams until they were ready for the major leagues. It was – and continues to be – incredibly successful.

In addition to being on a mission to save souls, improve morals and espouse temperance, Rickey was perhaps even more motivated to corral the best amateur baseball talent in the country and Kelly certainly was one of them.

Prior to matriculating up the hill to the college, Kelly, born into a family of 10 in Lambs Creek in 1904, was a standout during one of the most successful eras’ a Mansfield High School athletic history. In the Roaring Twenty’s Mansfield athletics roared like never before.

Many of those same high school players joined Kelly to form the core of what is still one of the best periods of athletic success in Mansfield University’s 161-year history. Kelly, along with former high school teammates Leo Allis, Harold “Skeeter” Brace, Paul Miller, Earl Mudge and others won two state titles in basketball for MSTC while the football teams fell just once in 1928 while posting winning seasons throughout their tenure.

Kelly, who was a real star on the football team at halfback, gave up the sport after suffering an arm injury during his sophomore season. Perhaps the meeting with Rickey had something to do with the decision to concentrate on baseball.

Kelly continued to draw professional attention on the diamond where he played third base or shortstop while batting cleanup during his four-year career at MSTC. The Cardinals sent a Mr. Welchner to watch Kelly play during his 1927 season. At the conclusion of the 1928 collegiate season Kelly is reported to have had a tryout with Connie Mack and the Philadelphia A’s.

That tryout in the late spring of 1928 must have been something for a Tioga County kid. Mr. Mack’s 1928 A’s had seven future Hall of Famers on the roster including Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Eddie Collins, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons and Tris Speaker along with the legendary Connie Mack himself. It was common at the time to schedule tryouts prior to a game. If that was the case that day, then all the A’s players would have had the chance to watch Kelly strut his stuff. Both Mansfield historians Karl Van Norman and Chester Bailey would cite Kelly as being signed by the A’s. 

Kelly began his professional career following his senior year at Mansfield in 1929 and reported to the Fort Wayne Chiefs of the Class B Central League for the 1930 season. Interestingly Fort Wayne had been one of the first teams Rickey and the Cardinals purchased to develop their farm system.

Despite being a rookie, Kelly immediately broke into the starting lineup at shortstop where he batted .306 for the Chiefs, rapping out 181 hits in 591 at-bats. He hit well all season long even after the grandstands at League Field in Fort Wayne burned to the ground in July of that season, taking Kelly’s uniform and equipment with them.

Kelly struggled a bit in the field – perhaps still hampered from the arm injury suffered in college – committing 49 errors. However, his hitting and hustle earned him a promotion to Dallas of the Class A Texas League for the 1931 season. He was now close enough to smell the majors.

He was undoubtedly excited about the promotion. However, the world had changed dramatically since Kelly’s senior year in college. One of the nastiest breaking ball of all-time - The Great Depression hit everyone hard, including professional baseball.

The number of minor league teams began a dramatic decline as did attendance for major league clubs. The odds starting going against Kelly in his quest to make the major leagues. For one, Kelly was 27 years-old in his first season at Dallas in 1931, His batting average – always a strength – fell to .253 while playing in just 90 games. Instead of adding players, professional baseball was now slashing rosters, payrolls and operating budgets.

Rickey’s masterplan of development had taken a backseat to survival.

He returned to Dallas for the 1932 season where his batting average improved to .274 but his playing time dropped by almost half. Released after the 1932 season, Kelly hooked up with the York White Roses of the New York-Penn League in 1933, ending his professional playing career with the local Williamsport Grays later that year.

Kelly, like everyone, struggled as the depression continued to ravage the country and world. Finding work was a full-time job and the search was unproductive for most.

He caught the break of breaks in 1936 when he was appointed the postmaster at Mansfield. The steadiest - at least for four years - and most sought after of all local federal positions, the opportunity must have seemed like a godsend to Kelly.

He responded by providing Mansfield with exemplary service for the next 34 years as our postmaster. In addition, Kelly served as a borough councilman, was an officer for the Mansfield Businessmen’s Association, served on the Public Library Board and fittingly coached the Mansfield town baseball and Babe Ruth League.

After retirement Kelly also served as an executive officer for the National Retired Postmasters Association before passing away in 1986.

It seems Francis Kelly took more than baseball advice away from that meeting with Branch Rickey so many years ago. And like Rickey, the baseball playing postmaster always delivered for his community. 

Note – Francis Kelly was an inaugural member of the Mansfield University Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983. He conceived the plan for the Tioga County Athletic Hall of Fame and was honored when selected as one of the five original legends in 1986. The baseball field on Smythe Park is named in his honor.

Francis Kelly, Postmaster, at right, during 1957 Centennial Pony Express delivery.

See Also: History of Mansfield Post Office and Postmasters.

Obituary from the History Center files:

KELLY, Frances J. [SRGP 16111] - The funeral was held Monday, Jan. 13, for Francis J. Kelly, 81, of 195 South Main St., Mansfield, a former postmaster in the borough for 32 years, who died Saturday, Jan. 11, 1986, at home. Born at Lambs Creek, April 26, 1904, he was a son of William H. and Margaret Kerwan Kelly. Mr. Kelly was a member of Hold Child Roman Catholic Church. He was a graduate of Mansfield High School and the former Mansfield State University. Mr. Kelly was a former borough councilman. He also was an officer of the Mansfield Businessmen's Assn. and a member of the Mansfield Public Library Board and the National Assn. of Retired Postmasters. Mr. Kelly was a former professional baseball player and a long time manager of Mansfield's town team and Mansfield Babe Ruth Baseball teams. He was a charter member of Mansfield University's Sports Hall of Fame Board. Surviving are his wife, the former Lucile Palmer; three step-sons, Richard Kaley, of Camillus, NY, John Kaley, of Houston, Texas, and Robert Kaley, of Milwaukee, Wis.; a sister, Regina Mudge, of Mansfield; and five nieces and four nephews. The funeral was at Hold Child Roman Catholic Church, Mansfield. Burial was in St. Andrew's Cemetery, Blossburg. The Rev. John J. Tamalis, his pastor, officiated. Memorial contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society or the Holy Child Roman Catholic Church, Mansfield. Arrangements by the Kuhl-Wilston Funeral Home, Mansfield. - Wellsboro Gazette, 15 January 1986, p.12

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 13 OCT 2018
By Joyce M. Tice
Email: Joyce M. Tice