- Willie Keeler: From the Playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame by Lyle Spatz
Penned by Lyle Spatz, one of the foremost baseball historians, Willie Keeler: From the Playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame offers the first book-length biography of a player whose name baseball historians will be familiar with, though they may still be surprised by the extent of his legacy. Spatz’s succinct introduction contains many of the highlights of Keeler’s career: that the diminutive right fielder known as “Wee Willie” may have used the shortest bat in Major League history (thirty inches, and he choked up about halfway on that); that his hitting streak of forty-five games from 1896–97 was the one surpassed by Joe DiMaggio and still remains the National League record; that he eventually became the highest-paid player in baseball with a salary of $10,000 in 1903; that Ichiro Suzuki (who broke his singles record in 2004) acknowledges Keeler as an inspiration; and that Keeler contributed the famous adage “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”
The first Brooklyn-born player in the Hall of Fame, Keeler was also the first to play for all three New York teams: Giants, Superbas, and Highlanders. But Keeler was at his peak when he played with the Baltimore Orioles (1894–98), when he and his “Big Four” teammates—John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley—perfected the “Baltimore chop.” Although Keeler would later play seven seasons with the Highlanders (versus five for Baltimore), this section is the longest, as the Orioles and their “inside baseball” dominated the 1890s. The Orioles were known for their rowdy play, although Keeler was considered the gentleman of the lot, not one prone to cursing, arguing with umpires, or deliberately injuring his opponents. Keeler may have been the best bunter of his era, all while maintaining one of the lowest strikeout rates; in 1899, he had only two strikeouts in 633 plate appearances, a feat that has yet to be duplicated. Although Keeler did benefit in these early years from the absence of the foul strike rule that would come a few years later, he maintained a high average into the dead-ball era despite his age. He concluded his career with a .341 batting average and was the fin-de-siècle all-time leader with an average of .381.
Because this is a chronicle of a player who bridged the two decades, Spatz’s biography is recommended for those interested in baseball at a pivotal point in its development, the transition from the high-scoring 1890s to the dead-ball era. Those interested in the early Orioles, Brooklyn Superbas/Dodgers, and New York Highlanders/Yankees will also find much to enjoy in this volume. In addition, Spatz aptly captures the rivalry between the [End Page 454] National and American Leagues and could be read in tandem with Chuck Kimberly’s recent The Days of Wee Willie, Old Cy, and Baseball War: Scenes from the Dawn of the Dead-ball Era, 1900–1903 (2014). Markedly similar to Spatz’s previous biographies, only two of the thirty-two chapters in Willie Keeler are devoted to the subject’s life before and after his baseball career, leaving the reader with an understanding of Keeler as still somewhat of a mystery, his personality (besides being a gentleman in a notoriously rough-and-tumble period) hidden behind the statistics and seasonal accounts (which may also explain why a biography of such an illustrious player is so long overdue). Nevertheless, Spatz includes the testimonies of numerous teammates and rivals who regarded Keeler as one of, if not the best, hitters of his time. The book also includes over thirty photos, but surprisingly few of Keeler, as his teammates, contemporaries, and stadiums also merit graphic depiction. Still, as with his books on Bill Dahlen and Dixie Walker, Spatz has once again contributed a recommended biography of a lesser-known baseball figure, one where the reader does not...