With all the hype and hoopla about today’s mainly over-rated baseball players, with all the fuss about launch angles and shifts, “bullpenning” and instant replay over and over again by the non-stop talkers in the TV booths and on the field of play, it is refreshing to flash back to those who played the game in days gone by.
In this case, the player performed a couple of centuries ago. His given name was William Henry Keeler but he was known far and wide later on as “Wee” Willie Keeler. He made his debut at the Polo Grounds as a member of the New York Giants on September 30, 1892. He singled off the Phillies’ Tim Keefe for the first of his 2,926 career hits.
The son of a Brooklyn trolley switchman, Keeler Two years later became a member of the famed Baltimore Orioles. Just five-foot-four and 140 pounds, the left-handed hitting Keeler more than made up for his lack of size with fine running speed and deft bat control.
Keeler opened the 1897 season with two hits in five at-bats against Boston. Then for two months, the slight southpaw swinger slapped hit after hit, game after game – from April 22 to June 18 – for 44 straight games. His record stood for 44 years until Joe DiMaggio came along and snapped it in 1941.
In 1897, Keeler batted an incredible .432. A reporter asked the diminutive batter, “Mr. Keeler, how can a man your size hit .432?”
The reply to that question has become a rallying cry for all kinds of baseball players in all kinds of leagues:
“Simple,” Keeler smiled. “I keep my eyes clear and I hit ’em where they ain’t.”
That he did.
The Sporting News offered this mangled prose about Keeler as a fielder. “He swears by the teeth of his mask-carved horse chestnut, that he always carries with him as a talisman that he inevitably dreams of it in the night before when he is going to boot one – muff an easy fly ball, that is to say, in the meadow on the morrow.”
“All of us fellows” Keeler explained, “in the outworks have got just so many of them in a season to drop and there’s no use trying to buck against fate.”
In 1898, a year after Keeler batted that astonishing .432, he set a mark for hitting that will probably never be topped, notching 202 singles in just 128 games. He truly was hitting them where the fielders weren’t. It was a season in which the left-handed bat magician recorded 214 hits. His batting average was .379, but the incredible amount of singles amassed saw him register a puny .410 slugging percentage.
That 1898 season Keeler came to bat 564 times in 128 games and walked only 28 times and did not strike out.
A slugger he was not. But, oh what a hitter!
William Henry Keeler played 19 years in the major leagues and finished his career with a .345 lifetime batting average. Quite justifiably the little man was one of the first to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hal of Fame in 1939.
He was something special.
ABOUT HARVEY FROMMER
One of the most prolific and respected sports journalists and oral historians in the United States, author of the autobiographies of legends Nolan Ryan, Tony Dorsett, and Red Holzman, Dr. Harvey Frommer is an expert on the Boston Red Sox having written three books on the team including the classic REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK from which some of the material for this article was taken.
A professor for more than two decades in the MALS program at Dartmouth College, Frommer was dubbed “Dartmouth’s Mr. Baseball” by their alumni magazine. He’s also the founder of www.HarveyFrommerSports.com. Mint, signed, discounted Frommer books are available from the site.