By Glen Sparks
He stood just 5-feet-4. No wonder they called him “Wee” Willie Keeler.
He could hit, too. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native had a plan when he stepped into the box. It was always the same plan.
“Hit ‘em where they ain’t,” Keeler advised.
The son of Irish immigrants, born on this date in 1872, did just that. He bunted for base hits, chopped balls down the line, squirted pitches past infielders and lofted offerings into the outfield. Keeler evaded fielders’ gloves like a smart cat evades the family dog.
Keeler batted .341 lifetime and hit at least .362 every season from 1894 through 1900. He led the league in 1897 (.424) and 1898 (.385) as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. (This was the Orioles team that played in the American Association from 1882-91 and in the National League from 1892 through 1899. League owners contracted the team out of the N.L. before the start of the 1900 campaign.)
Over a 19-year career, Keeler collected 2,932 hits, most of them singles. Only 15 percent of the outfielder’s hits went for extra bases. He notched 206 one-baggers in ’98 (out of his 216-hit total), a single-season record number for more than a century. Ichiro Suzuki, a “Wee” Willie of modern times (along with Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn), rapped 225 singles in 2004 for the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro also broke Keeler’s record of eight-straight 200-hit seasons in 2009.
Keeler hit in 44 straight games to start the 1897 season, a record that stood until Joe DiMaggio broke it with his 56-game streak in 1941.
The tiny man wielded a tiny bat, just 30 inches long. Plus, he choked up on the thing. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford, a top player from the day, couldn’t believe it. “He only used half his bat,” Crawford said.
Fans today lament “the lost art of the bunt.” Keeler perfected that art. He could bunt just about any pitch. “Keeler could bunt any time he chode,” Honus Wagner once said.
Keeler tapped the ball to a vacant spot and sprinted down the line. “Wee” Willie could run despite those short legs. The left-handed batter (and thrower) not only bunted for hits, he also slammed 145 triples and stole 495 bases, including a career-high of 67 in 1898. He swiped at least 40 bags in a season five times.
Not surprisingly, Keeler didn’t hit many home runs. He retired with only 33 round-trippers. Of course, he did play in the Deadball era. Most players struggled to mash those soft, beat-up baseballs, blackened by dirt and chewing tobacco stains by game’s end.
Keeler did produce runs, though. He drove in 810 in his career and brought in 94 in 1894. More impressively, he scored 1,719 times and made it across home plate at least 100 times in eight campaigns.
This is another impressive “Wee” Willie stat: He struck out just 136 times in 8,591 at-bats. By comparison, Joc Pederson fanned 170 times in 480 at-bats in his rookie season last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Keeler came to bat, he was under control.
Keeler played for a host of teams in his career. He broke in with the New York Giants in 1892 and left for his hometown Brooklyn Grooms (forerunner of the Dodgers) the following season. The Grooms sent him to the Orioles in 1894. The Brooklyn Bridegrooms (the former Grooms) picked him up in 1899, and the New York Highlanders (forerunner of the Yankees) traded for him in 1903. Keeler played seven seasons there (his longest stint with one team) and finished back with the Giants in 1910.
Heart problems plagued Keeler in the final years of his life. He died New Year’s Day in 1923 at the age of 50. “Wee” Willie, one of the most talented batsmen in the game’s history, was voted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.