He had just over 1,000 hits and 189 home runs in his career, but Charlie Keller was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 11 years. Why?
In his time, Keller was one of the most powerful sluggers in all of baseball, finishing in the top three in homers and slugging four times before he was 29 years old. But World War II happened and Keller enlisted in the Merchant Marines, missing one full season and all but one month of another. It was the prime of his career and probably cost him 60 more homers. In Keller’s estimation he was never the same ballplayer after he returned from missing that time, and even though he had a fine season in 1946, he only hit 27 homers after his 30th birthday. The problem was his back: in early June of 1947 Charlie was leading the league in home runs when he felt a twinge in his back. He had a slipped disc and even though he had numerous operations and tried many comebacks, he was never able to swing a bat without pain again.
They called Charlie “King Kong” (after the 1933 film) because he was so strong and it fit nicely with his last name. Like Rudy York in his time and Ted Kluszewski and Rocky Colavito later, Keller had impressive biceps and shoulders that many fans loved to gawk at. He had dark, handsome features that made him a favorite with female fans. Three times in his eleven years with the Pinstripers†they had a “Charlie Keller Day” at Yankee Stadium and each time he was showered with gifts and praise.
Among players who went into WWII and came back to play again, Keller and Senators’ shortstop Cecil Travis probably suffered the most as far as their career and reputation. Before the war, Keller was a three-time All-Star who received MVP votes in three separate seasons. As the big lefthanded bat in the Bombers’ lineup, Keller helped the Yankees to three pennants. He was part of one of the best outfields in the game with right fielder Tommy Henrich, one of his best friends, and center fielder Joe DiMaggio.
In the 1939 World Series, Keller blasted three homers in the last two games against Cincinnati. He victimized Gene Thompson for a pair of two-run dingers in Game Three and the next afternoon in the clincher at Crosley Field he led off the seventh inning with a home run to right field off Paul Derringer to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead.
Keller spent two years with the Detroit Tigers (1950-51) as a pinch-hitter, and he managed to muscle five balls into the stands in that role before retiring. But the next spring he went back to New York†where he had one last hurrah with the Yanks, appearing in two games, unfortunately both were on the road away from Yankee Stadium.