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William Henry Keeler (March 3, 1872 - January 1, 1923) in Brooklyn, New York, nicknamed "Wee Willie", was a right fielder in professional baseball who played from 1892 to 1910, primarily for the Baltimore Orioles and Brooklyn Superbas in the National League, and the New York Highlanders in the American League.


Willie Keeler

Keeler was a remarkable hitter, whose advice to hitters was, "Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't" -- "they" being the opposing fielders. His .385 career batting average after the 1898 season is the highest average in history at season's end for a player with more than 1,000 hits (1,147 hits). [1] He compiled a .341 batting average over his career, currently 14th all time behind Pete Browning. He hit over .300 16 times in 19 seasons, and hit over .400 once. He twice led his league in batting average and three times in hits. Willie had an amazing 206 singles during the 1898 season. Additionally, he had an on-base percentage of greater than .400 for seven straight seasons. When Keeler retired in 1910, he was second all time in hits with 2,932 behind only Cap Anson.

He was one of the smaller players to play the game, standing approximately 5'7" (some sources say he was as short at 5'4") and weighing 140 pounds (64 kg), resulting in his nickname. Keeler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He is among the shortest players ever elected to the Hall, and the shortest to appear on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, where he ranked number 75. In 1999, he was named as a finalist to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Having played his last game in 1910, he was the most chronologically distant player on both Top 100 lists.

Keeler had the amazing 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 John McGraw'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 also speculated that Keeler introduced the hit and run strategy to the original Orioles and McGraw. James researched that Boston's Tom McCarthy was the first manager to make wide use of the hit and run. McCarthy then taught the tactic to Monte Ward, who introduced the strategy to Keeler. [2]

In forming the powerful Original Baltimore Orioles of the late 19th century, manager Ned Hanlon was given a piece of the team and a free rein to form his team. In one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history, Hanlon obtained Dan Brouthers and Keeler from Brooklyn. Keeler and six of his teammates from the Orioles eventually were inducted into the baseball hall of fame. [3]

In 1897, Keeler had a 44-game hitting streak to start the season, beating out the previous single season record of 42, set by Bill Dahlen. Keeler had a hit in his final game of the 1896 season, giving him a National League record 45-game hitting streak. This mark was finally surpassed by Joe DiMaggio in 1941, who had a 56-game hitting streak. In 1978, Pete Rose tied Keeler's single season mark of 44 games. No other player in baseball has ever matched this feat. Another one of Keeler's unbroken records is his eight consecutive seasons with 200 hits or more, although the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki tied that record on September 17, 2008.

In 1901 when Ban Johnson formed the American League, one of the first acts of the league was to raid the stars of the National league and offer big contracts. In 1901, Keeler received offers from six of the eight new American League clubs, including an offer from Chicago for two years at $4,300 a season. Keeler, though, remained in Brooklyn and did not actually jump to the new league until 1903 when he signed with New York. Interestingly in 1903, the Orioles' American League franchise was switched to the New York Highlanders, now the Yankees, and among members of the old Orioles who joined up with the new American league franchise were John McGraw, Keeler, Wilbert Robinson and Hugh Jennings. In 1905, Keeler set the Yankees team record for most Sacrifice Hits in a season with 42. [4]

In a 1976 Esquire magazine article, sportswriter Harry Stein published an "All Time All-Star Argument Starter," consisting of five ethnic baseball teams. Because of space limitations the Irish team, including Keeler as center fielder, was omitted.

Willie Keeler is interred in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York. He is mentioned in the poem "Lineup for Yesterday" by Ogden Nash:

Lineup for Yesterday
K is for Keeler,
As fresh as green paint,
The fastest and mostest
To hit where they ain't.
Ogden Nash, Sport magazine (January 1949)[5]

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Preceded by:
Jesse Burkett
National League Batting Champion
Succeeded by:
Ed Delahanty