- 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...