Arguably one of the most overlooked players from the early days of baseball, Johnny Kling was the game’s premier defensive catcher in the first decade of the 20th century and a key member of the great Chicago Cub teams of 1906 to 1910. Nicknamed “Noisy” for the constant stream of chatter he maintained behind the plate, Kling was admired by teammates and opponents for his ability to defend, handle pitchers and engage in the mental aspects of the game during the “dead-ball era.”
Kling was born in Kansas City on November 13, 1875, where his father, John Kling Sr., owned a bakery. As a boy, Johnny helped out by driving the horse-drawn wagon and delivering bread to customers. He became an avid baseball player at an early age. Starting at age 15, he played with several amateur teams in Kansas City, including the Haverlys, the Schmeltzers and a team sponsored by John Siber, a butcher. With the Schmeltzers, Kling pitched, played first base and managed. From 1896 to 1900 he played with minor league teams in Kansas City and St. Joseph, as well as in Texas and Emporia, Kansas.
Kling made his major-league debut in 1900 with the Chicago Orphans (as the Cubs were known for a time prior to 1902). Kling, along with Frank Chance, Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker, formed the nucleus of a team that would dominate the National League later in the decade.
From 1902 through 1908, Kling was the dominant catcher in the National League and led the league in fielding percentage four times, putouts six times, assists twice and double plays once. In the 1907 World Series, in which the Cubs beat the Detroit Tigers, Kling had a fifty percent success rate in throwing out runners and completely shut down Ty Cobb, the league’s stolen-base leader. Though he was not one of the team’s top hitters, he was an important contributor to the Cub’s offense. He hit .312 in 1906 and ended his career with a very respectable batting average of .272.
The Cubs won the World Series again in 1908. After this Kling won the world pocket billiards championship, and then invested some $50,000 in a billiard emporium in Kansas City. He was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the Cubs for the 1909 season to pursue his business interests, a hiatus that proved costly for both Kling and the Cubs. It was the first year since 1906 that the Cubs did not win the National League pennant and Kling was defeated in his attempt to retain his billiards title.
Kling returned to the Cubs for the 1910 season, but played only part time. In 1911 he was traded to the Boston Rustlers (renamed the Braves in 1912). He played and managed for Boston in 1912, then finished his baseball career in 1913 with the Cincinnati Reds.
Kling returned to Kansas City after his retirement from baseball and pursued a successful career in business, primarily real estate. In 1933 he bought the minor league Kansas City Blues and immediately eliminated segregated seating at Meuhlebach Field, which was also the stadium used by the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.
Since his death on January 31, 1947, there has been considerable debate over Kling’s ethnic heritage. Some historians claim he was among the first Jewish baseball stars, a claim Kling’s wife, Lillian, went to great lengths to refute. His biographer speculates that Lillian Kling feared anti-Semitism would keep her late husband out of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The debate continues, although membership records of Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City, as well as testimony of close family members, support the claim that Kling was Jewish. Kling himself was exceptionally private and during his lifetime shed no light on the question of his ethnicity.
A version of this article previously appeared at http://www.kchistory.org/content/biography-johnny-kling-1875-1947-baseba...
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