By contemporary newspaper accounts, the club was mainly referred to as the Cincinnati Reds, the same name as their cross-town rivals in the National League. This in addition to variants on the informal name "Kelly's Killers". It is the latter name, however, by which they are more broadly known today.
The Cincinnati Kelly's Killers were a response by the American Association to fill the void that the Cincinnati Reds had left when the club vacated the league after the 1889 season and again before the 1891 season. The Reds played in the National League for the 1890 season but was losing money and facing bankruptcy. Reds' ownership sold the club to Players League investor Albert Johnson. Johnson then withdrew his newly acquired Reds club and moved them to the Players League for the 1891 season. After the Players League collapsed, Johnson then committed the Reds to the American Association.
Meanwhile the National League placed a new franchise in Cincinnati which was to be owned by John T. Brush. However, for reasons that are still unknown, Johnson decided to sell his Reds club back to the National League before the start of the season. The National League simply let Brush take control over the Reds as if they never left the league in the first place.
The Association was crushed when the Reds left the league for a second time but maintained that Cincinnati was an Association city. The league placed a new franchise in the Queen City to fill the void that the Reds were to occupy. The new Association club would be owned by Chris von der Ahe, who also owned the St. Louis Browns. His new Cincinnati club would be captained by super star player Mike "King" Kelly, whose major league career began in Cincinnati with the original National League Reds club of the 1870s.
The new Association club was in need of a ballpark. Vacant lots within the city were few and far between so ownership decided to build a ballpark in a picturesque location along the Ohio River that was known as Pendleton Park or Pendleton Grounds. The club secured a lease and built a small ballpark within Pendleton Park, which was dubbed East End Park by the media.
The location of the park was just off Eastern Avenue (now called Riverside Drive), where the Schmidt Recreation Complex is currently located. Many fans attending the games were dropped off by steamboat, coming either from the city or from Coney Island. East End Park was one of only a handful of major league parks to have access by way of a river.
The club got off to a terrible start and many of Mike Kelly's killers were taking with the flu. Delays in the construction of their ballpark also left the club on the road for most of April. By the time Cincinnati played their first home game (April 25) Mike Kelly's men were 5-9.
As the season progressed, Mike Kelly and his killers found themselves in jail frequently as a result of attempting to play baseball on Sundays. At the time, the National League did not allow Sunday baseball games to be played. As a result the rival Association capitalized on this by having their teams play Sunday games. The problem for Cincinnati was that the city had the blue law in place which also disallowed Sunday games. Owners of the club made repeated attempts at playing games on Sundays. Sometimes the Mayor of Cincinnati, Mayor John B. Mosby, would enforce the law and other times he would not. When the Mayor did enforce the law, the Killers and the players from the opposing team found themselves in jail.
As the season wore on the club lagged in the standings and were never true contenders. By August the club was 21 games out of first place and losing money.
The inconvenient location of the club's ballpark, poor play on the field and the fact that they were competing for spectators with the Reds hurt the Kelly's Killers' attendance. By mid-August, it was decided by league leaders and club ownership to suspend the franchise for the remainder of the 1891 season and reactivate the club for the 1892 season in a brand new ballpark on the west side of town. With 34 games remaining on their schedule, the Milwaukee Brewers, of the Western League stepped in and played out the Kel's remaining games. Frank Dwyer, Willie Mains, Farmer Vaughn and Jim Canavan all signed on to play for the Milwaukee club. Kelly returned to play for the Boston Reds for four games before jumping back to the National League's Boston Beaneaters.
Unfortunately the 1891 season would be the Association's final year. The circuit merged with the National League, transferring St. Louis, Louisville, Washington and Baltimore to the senior circuit while paying the other teams to disband.
Dewey, Donald & Acocella, Nicholas (1996). Ball Clubs. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-7881-9981-1.