Classic Yankees: Charlie Keller

charlie-kellerFirst off, he hated his nickname. Whenever the “Scooter,” Phil Rizzuto,would call him by his nickname, the Scooter would find himself stuffed into his own locker.

Often, Charlie “King Kong” Keller would do that with only one hand.

Keller was hairy, hence the nickname. He also was strong. One of his eyebrows alone might hit a single to right.

If not for WWII and a bad back, who knows where Keller’s career could have headed.

Charlie Keller joined the Yankees in 1939, as they were in the midst of winning their (at that time a record) fourth consecutive World Seires title. (It was surpassed by the five consecutive championships the 1949-1953 Yankees won).

Just 22, Keller hit .334 with 11 HR and 83 RBI. OPS+143. Some rookie year. 22nd in MVP voting.  Then came the World Series, and Keller took apart the Reds, in more ways than one. First off, he went 7 for 16 in the Series, with a double, a triple, and THREE HR. Six RBI in what was a four game sweep.

He’s most famous in that series for one play. In the fourth and final game of that series, the Yanks were tied 4-4 in the top of the 10th at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Frankie Crosetti walked, and Red Rolfe bunted him to second. Keller reached on an error by the SS. 1st and 3rd, one out. Joe DiMaggio. up. DiMag singled in Crosetti. Keller went to 3rd, and came home on an error by the RF. In doing so, he knocked HOF catcher Ernie Lombardi out for a brief moment. While Lombardi was out cold, “snoozing” as reporters called it later, Joe D. came all the way around the bases to score on what was deemed an E-2. Poor Lombardi. But getting hit by Keller was no picnic! It was like getting hit by a charging bull.  The three runs on one play ensured the Yanks of their fourth straight title.

Despite the .334, the Yanks wanted Keller to go more for power in the future, and he never hit that high again. A lefty hitter, Keller dropped from .334 to .286 in 1940, but his HR increased from 11 to 21 as he drove in 93 runs and made the All-Star team. He led the league in walks and had a 141 OPS+.

In 1941, Keller wound up 5th in MVP voting. Not bad in a year where MVP DiMaggio had his 56 game hitting streak and runnerup Ted Williams hit .406. Keller hit .298 with 33 HR and 122 RBI. He walked 102 times, was named to the All-Star team, and had a superb OPS+ of 162. He was 7 for 18 with 2 doubles and 5 RBI as the Yanks won the Series in five games.

In 1942, Keller once again was on a pennant-winning team, but the Yanks lost the World Series to St. Louis. Keller hit .292-26-108 with 14 SB (OPS+ 163) and came in 14th in MVP voting. He was only 4 for 20 in the World Series, but had 2 HR and 5 RBI.

In 1943, Keller and Bill Dickey (along with P Spud Chandler, the MVP) led the Yanks to a World Series title.  This really showed some leadership, since some, like Ruffing, DiMaggio and Rizzuto, were in the service during WWII, and weren’t with the Yankees that year. Keller hit .271-31-86 and led the majors with 106 walks. He led the league in OPS and OPS+ (167). He was once again an All-Star, and finished 13th in MVP voting. He went 4-18, with one triple and 2 RBI in the World Series.

In four World Series, Keller hit .306, with 5 HR and 18 RBI in 19 games.

Keller probably deserved more MVP consideration in 1942 and 1943 than he received.

From 1939-1943, Keller averaged 136 games a year, .295-24-98. OPS+ a superb 155. 102 walks.

For the short period of time they were a trio, Keller/DiMaggio/Henrich was as good of an OF as you could find.

But after the age of 27, Keller’s glory days were mostly gone. Keller turned 27 in September of 1943. He missed all of the 1944 season due to military service during WWII. He missed most of 1945, but got out in time to play in 44 games, hitting .301 with 10 HR and 34 RBI. OPS+ 180. Great for someone who missed over a year and a half.

1946 was Keller’s last full-time year at the age of 29. Once again he was an All-Star, and he finished 15th in MVP voting, hitting .275-30-101, OPS+ 159.

He never played in over 83 games in a season again. Given his numbers to that time, what a shame.

Keller suffered a back injury (ruptured disc), and only played in 45 games in 1947, hitting .238-13-36, OPS+ 165. It was the fifth and final time he was named an All-Star. You can see by the number of HR and RBI in a limited amount of games how good he still was, despite the B.A.

In 1948, Keller got into 83 games, but that was still barely more than half of the season. .267-6-44, OPS+ 110 wasn’t bad, but it showed a serious dropoff in Keller’s abilities. “King Kong” wasn’t monstrous anymore.

1949 and more difficulties. Just 60 games. .250-3-16. It was now obvious that Keller’s back injury would derail his career. OPS+ 104. Still decent as a backup, but not the Keller of old, putting up OPS+ numbers in the 160s. As in 1947, he didn’t see any World Series action.

After 1949, he was released by the Yanks and then spent two years as a backup for the Tigers. He had had five World Series championships to that point, but didn’t contribute much to the 1947 and 1949 teams. He went .314-2-16 as a backup for the 1950 Tigers (OPS+ 157), and .258-3-21 (OPS+ 117) for the 1951 Tigers. Still, it was a strange feeling after 1946 seeing Keller relegated to a backup role.

Keller was released by the Tigers after the 1951 season, and late in 1952, was picked up by the Yankees for the stretch drive. He ended his career as a Yankee, going 0 for 1 in two games in September of 1952.

For his career, Keller hit .286 with 189 HR. It’s a shame that he only had six seasons in which he played in 100 or more games.

His 162 g. average was .286-26-105, OPS+ 152. Read that again. His career OPS + was 152.

If not for WWII and a ruptured disc at the age of 30, what could have been?

After retirement, Keller founded Yankeeland Farm, and bred race horses in Maryland.

In his heyday, 1939-1943, Keller wore no. 9, a number retired for Roger Maris, but also made famous by Hank Bauer and Graig Nettles. After WWII, Keller wore #12. In his last two games, Keller wore #28 and #99.

In 1990, Keller died at the age of 73.

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4 Responses to Classic Yankees: Charlie Keller

  1. Hardcore Yankee Fan says:

    Nice profile. It's unfortunate that he is so obscure in baseball history as he was a superstar level player. If he could have been more healthier and had a longer career, no doubt he would be enshrined in Cooperstown, and deservedly so.

  2. Ol hickory says:

    Good story, Keller was one of my favorite Yankees. To bad his career was cut short. When he was with the Newark Bears

    (Yankee farm team,) They were better than most major league teams.

  3. Larry Maggiacoma says:

    Keller, Dimaggio and Henrich for a short time were as good as it gets as all around greats. The war years denied baseball the pleasure of following one of the great all time outfield. Keller played Left field which was a terrible sun field and was 457 feet deep in leftcenter. Got to see Henrich and Dimaggio at the end of their career( 49, 50, 51).

  4. Three home runs in a four game WS is amazing. As a child I was devastated when the Yanks after the war changed his # 9. With a kinder fate he would've been one of the great ones.