Classic Highlander: Wee Willie Keeler

He was 5’4”, 140 lbs. Think Freddie “the Flea” Patek. Yet Wee Willie Keeler was known for “hitting them where they ain’t” while on his way to 2932 hits, a .341 career batting average, and the Hall of Fame.

At the same time that the AL Baltimore Orioles moved to NY in 1903 and became the Highlanders, Keeler jumped from Brooklyn of the NL to NY of the AL. He became the Highlanders’ (later the Yankees in 1913) first star.

Keeler played in seven games for the NY Giants in 1892 (.321), and in 27 games for NY (7) and Brooklyn (20) in 1893 (.317). He was purchased by Brooklyn off of the Giants in mid-1893. He then was traded to Baltimore for 1894. The Baltimore Orioles of the National League were probably the best team of the 1890s.

In 1894, Keeler hit .371-5-94 with 32 steals for Baltimore.  It was the 22 year old’s first full season. His teammates were Wilbert “Uncle Robbie” Robinson, who would later manage Brooklyn for many years, Dan Brouthers, Hughie Jennings (who managed the Tigers pennant winners 1907-1909), John McGraw (the Giants’ manager from 1902-1932), and Kid Gleason, who managed the Black Sox. That 1894 Orioles team went 89-39 and finished first. An aging Tony Mullane (284 wins) was also on that team for a while.  The 5 HR and 94 RBI were career highs for Keeler.

Keeler hit .377 in 1895, and .386 in 1896. In 1897 he hit .424, and led the league in batting average, OPS and hits. Meanwhile Baltimore had the best record in the league in 1895 and 1896 as well.

In 1897, Keeler had a 44 game hitting streak to begin the season. It was this mark that Joe DiMaggio broke in 1941 (56) and that Pete Rose tied in 1978.

He led the league in batting average (.385) and hits in 1898, while Baltimore came in second in both 1897 and 1898.

His 206 singles in 1898 stood as a single season singles record until broken by Ichiro.

He was assigned to Brooklyn for 1899, and Brooklyn won the pennant. Keeler led the league in runs scored while batting .379.

Brooklyn won the pennant in 1900 as well, with Keeler leading the league in hits while hitting .362.

In that dead-ball, pre-WS (before 1903) era, Keeler stole a career total of 495 bases. His OPS+ was 127 despite his miniscule size. He had 33 career HR. Five times he stole 40 or more bases in a season, topping out at 67 in 1896 and 64 in 1897.

Keeler hit .339 in 1901 and .333 in 1902. He then jumped leagues to join the NY Highlanders.

Keeler hit .313 in 1903, then .343 in 1904 when the Highlanders barely lost the pennant to Boston.

He hit .302 in 1905 and .304 in 1906, and then had a poor 1907, hitting just .234 at the age of 35.

He rebounded to hit .263 in 1908 as a part-timer, and .264 in 1909.

Keeler ended his career in 1910, hitting .300 in 19 games for the New York Giants.  He was second on the all-time hits list when he retired.

From Wikipedia:

Keeler had the ability to bunt practically any ball sent his way. He was the impetus for the rule change that made a third-strike foul bunt into a strike out. With Ned Hanlon’s Baltimore Orioles he perfected the “Baltimore Chop,” in which he would chop the ball into the ground hard enough for it to bounce so high he could reach base before the fielder could throw the ball to first. Bill James has speculated that Keeler introduced the hit and run strategy to the original Orioles and teammate John McGraw. James found that Boston’s Tom McCarthy was the first manager to make wide use of the hit and run. McCarthy then taught the tactic to John Montgomery Ward, who introduced the strategy to Keeler.

It’s hard to write about someone whose career ended over 100 years ago. The style of baseball in that dead-ball era was very different, and put it this way—Keeler was smaller than Phil Rizzuto. Records for that time aren’t 100% accurate.

Keeler, born William Henry O’Kelleher, wielded a bat that was just 30 inches long, the shortest ever used in the majors, and he choked up so far that Sam Crawford said, “He only used half his bat.”

There was no World Series, not before 1903, anyway. There was something called the Temple Cup in the 1890s (Baltimore lost it in 1894 and 1895, won it in 1896) but there are no postseason records listed on baseball-reference for Keeler. Nevertheless, he played on five pennant winners from 1894-1900.

Primarily an outfielder, the lefty swinging and throwing Keeler actually played some 2B, SS and 3B in his career.  He had 200 or more hits in a season each year from 1894-1901. He scored 100 or more runs eight times.

In his time with the Highlanders, Keeler hit .294, OPS+ 111.

He was elected to the HOF in 1939.

Financial problems made Keeler broke. He contracted tuberculosis, had heart trouble, and was just 50 when he died on the first day of 1923.

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