Willie Keeler: From the Playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame by Lyle Spatz
Lyle Spatz's fine biography of Willie Keeler is a chronicle of his times and an engrossing history of major-league baseball from 1890 to 1915, when rules changed, teams and leagues went into and out of existence, and new styles of play were developed.
Born in Brooklyn in 1872, Keeler began his professional career in 1892 with the Binghamton Bingos of the Eastern League, was sold to the New York Giants of the National League, and then to Brooklyn. In December 1893, he was sold again, this time to the Baltimore Orioles, where his meteoric rise began.
"Wee Willie" Keeler stood 5 ft. 4 in. and weighed 140 lbs. Speed and exquisite bat control were his game or, as he said, "Keep your eye clear and hit 'em where they ain't" (157). In his greatest season, with the 1897 Orioles, Keeler batted .424, still the highest average ever for a lefthanded batter, with 239 hits, including a record 44-game hitting streak that stood until DiMaggio's 56 in 1941. In 1899, Keeler batted .379 with only 2 strikeouts in 633 plate appearances—a record of contact unlikely ever to be equaled. Willie did lack power; of [End Page 192] his 33 career home runs, 32 were inside-the park, and many of his hits were bunt singles. Still he logged eight successive 200-hit seasons, a record that lasted until Ichiro Suzuki put together a run of ten from 2001 through 2010. At the end of the 19th century, Keeler's career average of .381 was the best of all players with more than 1500 hits.
The Baltimore Orioles with whom Keeler played from 1894–98 were NL champions (1894–96). Most of them, like Keeler, were Irish, then the dominant ethnicity in professional baseball, and the "rowdiest, dirtiest, most vile conglomeration that ever spat in an opponent's eye or threw a ball at an umpire" (45), a "sort of Irish street gang wearing baseball uniforms" (45). They featured future Hall of Fame players John McGraw, Hugh Jennings, Joe Kelley, Dan Brouthers, Keeler, and Wilbert Robinson and Ned Hanlon, the latter two inducted as managers. They invented "inside baseball," a style of play that introduced the hit and run, sacrifice bunt, suicide squeeze, and, on defense, the pitcher covering first base. They doctored the third base line with a lip that kept their bunts fair, and hardened the infield for Keeler's "Baltimore chop" singles. Despite his team's reputation, Keeler was universally regarded as a gentleman. He lived at home in Brooklyn with his parents during the off-season, eschewed alcohol and women, and invested his salary in local real estate. He did, however, fancy cigars and betting on the ponies.
After 1898, attendance declined. Baltimore's owners bought stock in the Brooklyn franchise and moved their best players, including Keeler, to Brooklyn which went on to win pennants in 1899 and 1900, with Keeler batting .379 and .362. Said he, "I would rather play in Brooklyn, my home, than anywhere else" (118).
Spatz highlights many changes in baseball during Keeler's career: 1893, the distance from the pitcher's "plate" to home plate was increased from 55 feet to today's 60 feet 6 inches; the league batting average of .245 in 1892 rose to .309 in 1894. 1892, Baltimore was added to the National League, bringing the total to 12 teams, until 1900 when Louisville, Baltimore, Washington, and Cleveland were dropped. 1900, home plate was modified from a diamond to the now-familiar pentagon. 1899–1900, the American League was formed and raids on over 100 NL stars helped staff new teams in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Washington. The New York franchise that would become the Yankees was added in 1903 as the NY Highlanders, intended to compete with the Giants of the NL. 1901, in the NL, the first two fouls were made strikes. No longer could hitters foul off any number of pitches without penalty, waiting for one they liked. Of course, batting averages and game duration decreased, while strikeouts increased. The AL adopted this rule in 1903. [End Page 193]
Willie Keeler was of two minds about baseball; he loved the game, but understood its business side. He said, "I am in baseball for all I can get out of it … in baseball, as in any profession, business prevails over sentiment" (182). Accordingly, in 1898, Keeler, held out for more than the $2400 maximum league salary, finally signing with Baltimore for $2600. And when, in 1903, he jumped from Brooklyn to the Yankees of the AL, he received a two-year contract at $10,000 per year, then the most lucrative player contract ever signed.
But Keeler also averred: "Playing ball is not work. It's fun—and fun of the rarest kind. Every man that plays ball plays it because he loves the game. How many ball players have quit the game when in their prime and gone into other work?" (227) And, "Ball players have a way of talking about the hardships of the diamond, but they all love it just the same. The most mournful specimen of humanity is the old timer who sits in the grandstand and watches the players fight it out. …" (265)
With the Yankees in 1909, Keeler failed to beat out a bunt, returned to the bench and said, "Boys, I guess my time has come. When Willie Keeler can't beat out a perfect bunt he knows he's through" (270). He coached with McGraw's Giants and then with Bill Dahlen's Brooklyn team. His health began to deteriorate, and by 1917 he was a cardiac cripple. His real estate investments soured in the post-World War depression; Charlie Ebbets led a campaign to raise funds for him, and the baseball owners voted $5500. After a cigar and a glass of wine to greet 1923, Keeler quietly passed away early on New Year's Day.
Lyle Spatz appears to have culled every box score from Keeler's debut to his last bunt single. His research is impeccable, although an avalanche of stats and the choreography of bygone pennant races ultimately becomes a trek through long-forgotten games peopled by equally distant players. Nevertheless, Keeler emerges from the mists with bat cocked, ready to hit 'em where they ain't. He was, after all, the first Hall of Fame player of the glorious Brooklyn and Yankee franchises. Columnist John B. Foster wrote, "The world might have used him better than it has. He deserved more of a reward than he seems to have received, but nothing can ever take from him the reputation which he made for himself with the bat" (304). McGraw's eulogy of Keeler was more succinct: "No all-star team of all time would be complete without Willie Keeler in right field" (303). [End Page 194]