For '97 Orioles, Keeler swung a big little stick Baseball: 'Wee Willie' posted the best season of his Hall of Fame career for Baltimore's National League team 100 years ago.

September 26, 1997|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

It's Sept. 27, 1897, and Baltimore's Union Park is filling fast: 25,000 pennant-crazed baseball "cranks" converge on the stadium at the edge of town to root on the Orioles against first-place Boston. A half-game separates the teams; the National League title is at stake.

The crowd surges into the wooden park, trampling the gate on 25th Street as thousands stream onto the grounds, armed with noisemakers of all kinds -- horns, stovepipes and tin cans filled with stones.

The cacophony dies quickly. Boston wins, 19-10, wresting the title from the three-time defending NL champions. The Orioles bow meekly but for their smallest player, "Wee Willie" Keeler, who goes 4-for-4 and scores four runs against Boston pitcher Kid Nichols, a future Hall of Famer. "Lion-hearted Keeler never gave up to the very end, but kept on cracking out safe hits to the last," The Sun reports.

A century ago, bands tooted at Orioles games, fans rooted from nearby housetops and summer belonged to the mousy son of an Irish trolley switchman who summed up his success with a shrug and a sound bite: I hit 'em where they ain't.

Keeler, 5 feet 4, was brilliant in the Orioles' 1897 title chase, starting the season with a 44-game hitting streak -- an NL record matched in 1978 by the Cincinnati Reds' Pete Rose -- and finishing with a .424 average, fifth-highest in history.

Years later, on his deathbed, the soft-spoken Keeler would call that season "the greatest thrill of my life." His 30 1/2 -inch bat, shortest in baseball, was more wand than wood, slapping

seeing-eye hits and dragging bunts that hugged the baselines. Seven times that year, he got four hits in one game. Four times, he got five hits. Once, Keeler went 6-for-6.

Few pitchers could solve the Orioles right fielder, least of all Cy Young: Keeler hit .333 (6-for-18) against the winningest pitcher of all time. In 129 games in 1897, Keeler failed to hit in only 11, most of them in August, when a mashed finger crippled his grip.

He played on, bad hand and all. "I think I'm the luckiest guy in the world," he said in a rare interview. "I love playing ball so much, I'd pay them for the privilege, if that was the only way I could get into the park."

Keeler said little else during a stellar 19-year career (five with Baltimore). A wallflower off the field, he rarely spoke in public or caroused with players, devoting much of his life to his mother, with whom Keeler is buried in a single grave in a churchyard in his native Brooklyn, N.Y.

The first Oriole enshrined in Cooperstown -- he's a charter member -- Keeler remains an enigma. His low-key demeanor discouraged biographers, who turned instead to his flashier teammates: ornery John McGraw, who'd as soon settle games with his fists; jovial Wilbert Robinson, who ran a popular saloon here; suave Joe Kelley, who played with a vanity mirror tucked under his cap; and dotty Hugh Jennings, who tried to get hit by pitches. In the head. All four Hall of Famers had more glitz than William H. Keeler, the godliest of an irreverent gang of Orioles who ruled the league in mid-decade.

"Keeler was a straight-arrow character, a quiet, little guy who just went about his business," says John Phillips, a baseball historian in Perry, Ga. "He didn't drink or get thrown out of games like McGraw, Jennings and Kelley. He wasn't involved in any controversy at all."

A paradigm of virtue who saved nearly every cent from baseball, the clean-living Keeler was the first great Oriole to go. He died penniless at 50, a victim of heart disease and bad investments.

"Keeler's personal file at Cooperstown is very thin," says Jack Kavanagh of Cranston, R.I., an expert on 19th-century baseball. "The best contact hitter of all time is remembered mostly for one laconic phrase."

And one banner year in Baltimore.

Proving himself

In 1897, Keeler, 25, was still proving himself to Orioles fans. Despite having hit .370 or better for three straight years, he wasn't the club's most popular player. On Opening Day, Jennings, the deft-fielding shortstop, and Robinson, the affable catcher and barkeep, drew the loudest ovations as players emerged from horse-drawn carriages after a parade through the city to Union Park. Not that it bothered Keeler, who doubled twice, scored twice and stole a base as the champions drubbed DTC Boston, 10-5.

That was April 22. Keeler would manage at least one hit in every game for nearly two months. He got two singles the next day, and two more the next. In a one-run loss to Brooklyn, Keeler hit safely again, but slammed down his bat in a rage when he failed to advance a runner late in the game.

He then went on a tear (11 hits in four games) while fielding flawlessly. Once, with a runner aboard, Keeler made a diving catch, turned a somersault and threw to first base for a double play. Cheered wildly, Keeler uncharacteristically doffed his cap.

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