K is for Keeler
As fresh as green paint
The fustest and mostest
To hit where they ain’t.
— poet Ogden Nash
When you talk about Willie Keeler, a Hall of Fame batsman, you must discuss names. A premature baby, he was born William Henry O’Kelleher in 1872, but the Irish family surname was Americanized to Keeler eventually. For most of Willie’s childhood he was called W.H., just like his father. But when he left school at 14 to box professionally and work in a factory, he chose to be called “Willie” because he wanted to step out from the shadow of his father. Evidently, Willie was a tiny child, and always pretty much a runt: not only short, but also very light. He weighed 105 pounds when he fought his first professional fight. Later, when he became a professional baseball player, he was dubbed “Wee Willie,” a name he didn’t much care for.
The Keeler family lived in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy, an historic neighborhood that served up a number of notable people over the years. Originally Dutch farmland, the area became one of the seven districts in Brooklyn in the early 19th century. A few decades later it had blossomed into one of the first communities where free blacks owned their own homes. Positioned near bustling railroad tracks, it welcomed thousands of Irish immigrants in the last half of the 19th century, but maintained a large black population as well. Jackie Robinson lived there after he debuted with the Dodgers after World War II, and Jay-Z sprung up from Bed-Stuy. It’s still a cultural hotbed in New York city.
Keeler was quick and clever, and he leveraged those traits to become a pesky batter. He debuted in the National League with the Giants at the age of 20 at the tail end of the 1892 season and got two hits off Tim Keefe, who was a future Hall of Famer. Newspaper reports of that day mentioned Keeler’s fleet feet and his ability to place the ball wherever he wanted with the bat. But even in those days, 5’4 was puny, and the Giants and Brooklyn Grooms passed on Willie after giving him brief trials in 1892 and 1893.
The Baltimore Orioles were one of the worst teams in the National League in 1893, and they were in just their second season in the league, trying to establish themselves. In those days, if your team stunk, there was danger that you could be kicked out of the league, bought by rival owners, or your best players might jump to other teams who would pay them more. The Orioles looked like a ragtag team of losers, and Baltimore was one of the smallest and least desirable cities in the circuit at the time. But their baseball team had a great asset: manager Ned Hanlon, a Connecticut man who dressed impeccably and had strong opinions on the game of baseball. Hanlon convinced Brooklyn to trade Keeler and a first baseman named Dan Brouthers on New Year’s Day in 1894. The trade proved to be the spark that led to the greatest dynasty of that era.
The Daring Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s
If you could travel back in time to watch the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s, you would recognize that they were playing baseball, but you would be shocked at the style of play. The offense took advantage of the poor field conditions and small gloves that defenders wore, by pounding the ball into the ground. Hanlon figured his hitters could run down the line to first faster than an infielder could field a well-placed high (and hard) hit grounder. He trained his team to bunt the baseball with precision, and he also taught his baserunners to use several techniques that no one had ever thought of before. Hanlon’s genius earned him the nickname “The Father of Modern Baseball.”
Keeler used a 30-inch bat, which is four inches shorter than batters use today, and was 4-8 inches shorter than the standard in his day. If you saw Wee Willie at the plate, you’d think he had a toy bat. He also choked up on the bat in an exaggerated manner. Outfielder Sam Crawford, who faced Keeler a lot after his Baltimore days, said that Willie “only used about half his bat.”
The Orioles perfected the hit-and-run, the double steal, the sacrifice, the delayed steal, and what became known as a “Baltimore Chop,” (where the batter pounded the ball into the ground in an effort to bounce it over the head of a defender. Since most of the Orioles were fast runners, they could also beat out infield hits that other teams couldn’t, just by hitting the ball high off the hard infield surface. One report estimated that Keeler had 54 “bunt” hits in a single season, which probably also included hits made on the Baltimore Chop.
“Keeler could bunt any time he chose,” Honus Wagner said. “If the third baseman came in for a tap, he pushed the ball past him. If he stayed back, he bunted. Also, he had a trick of hitting a high hopper to an infielder. The ball would bounce so high that he was across the bag before he could be stopped.”
Hanlon’s Orioles won the pennant in 1894, 1895, and 1896, and their exciting style of play helped increase attendance in Baltimore by over 300% from their first season in the National League. The roster was filled with stars: ornery third baseman John “Muggsy” McGraw, hard-hitting outfielder “Jumpin’ Joe” Kelley, determined shortstop Hughie Jennings, the slugging first baseman “Big Dan” Brouthers, catcher Wilbert “Uncle Robby” Robinson, and Keeler, who won the batting title in 1897 and 1898. Willie averaged 219 hits in his five seasons as an Oriole. Each of those star players (McGraw, Kelley, Jennings, Brouthers, Robinson, and Keeler) would eventually earn election to the Hall of Fame. One would not be wrong to call the 1890s Orioles the greatest team of the 19th century.
Hitting Streak Record
In 1897, Keeler started the season by hitting safely in each of the first 44 games of the season, a league record that stood until Joe DiMaggio eclipsed it more than four decades later. Today, we are trained to revere DiMaggio’s record, but when Joe set it, not everyone was so delighted. There were many fans still breathing oxygen who preferred Wee Willie. One letter writer told the New York Times in July of 1941 that in Keeler’s day:
“… there was no such lively ball as the batter of today wallops over short fences or into outfield stands.
And the same Keeler rooter penned that the modern home run was:
“… a travesty to those of us who recall the inside baseball that prevailed in the era of the so-called dead-ball.”
Baseball, the letter-writer said, had “sacrificed to satisfy a supposed demand for ‘swat’ rather than science.”
Even with the different style of play in that era, Keeler’s season was remarkable. He collected 239 hits in only 129 games, and only twice did he go hitless in two straight games. He also stole 64 bases and struck out just five times. His final batting average was .424, a mark that remains the highest ever by a left-handed batter.
The Orioles dynasty didn’t survive the 1890s: money and infighting tore them apart just like the Oakland A’s of the 1970s. Hanlon bought controlling interest of the Brooklyn team and took many of his stars with him, including Willie, who got to live in his parent’s house and walk to the ballpark. He liked home cooking and batted .353 in four seasons with Brooklyn, who were known by that time as the “Superbas.” He finished his career as a veteran with the New York Highlanders in the rival American League, where he earned more money and still kept getting his share of Baltimore Chop base hits. In 1905, when he was 33, Wee Willie finished second in the batting race, and the following year he batted over .300 for the 13th consecutive season. He played his final professional game in 1911 at the age of 39.
Last Days and Early Demise
After his playing career, Keeler had fortune followed by misfortune, and then untimely death. Willie had invested his money from baseball wisely, mostly in coal and iron ore mines, and amassed a nice fortune. But several business dealings with his brothers failed, and by the late 1910s he was in debt. Charles Ebbets, owner of the Dodgers, raised money to help Willie pay off his creditors, but Keeler fell ill in the early 1920s, and on New Year’s Day in 1923, 29 years after he was traded to the Orioles, and only 12 years after his last base hit, Keeler died from heart disease. He was only 50 years old.