Hometown celebrates Keller, who batted 1.000 for humanity

September 27, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

MIDDLETOWN -- Idle boasting or engaging in empty rhetoric wasn't his style. No pretense or sham.

Charlie Keller was the genuine article. Twenty-four karat. An authentic gentleman of conservative ways, who by his presence upgraded humanity and epitomized the fundamental values: love God, family and country, and the highest regard for those he encountered in the game of life.

The only exception was pitchers about to throw a baseball from 60 feet, 6 inches away.

Keller didn't need a bat in his hand to gain respect. He was strong enough to knock down a building, but more important, never lost the sincerity and honesty of purpose that underlined his quiet yet noble demeanor.

What he could do for the New York Yankees created cheers in an earlier time, but Keller, by his exemplary virtues, represented much more than could be found in the agate lines of a box score.

His old Frederick County hometown honored him posthumously as part of its annual Heritage Celebration yesterday when the AMVETS Post No. 9 unveiled a plaque in Memorial Park reading, "Middletown's Own Pride, Character and Sportsmanship."

As was the case at the funeral eight years ago, his best friend and one-time roommate, Tommy Byrne, a fellow Yankee and Marylander, came from his home in Wake Forest, N.C., to be here. Mrs. Martha Keller and her children and grandchildren were obviously elated with the festivities. Martha served as grand marshal of the parade.

It was in 1939 that Keller produced one of the most explosive performances by a rookie in a World Series. He led all players with a .438 average and three home runs as the Yankees demolished the Cincinnati Reds in four straight. When he returned to the Middletown Valley, some of his admirers intended to put on a testimonial parade and dinner.

Keller didn't want to appear arbitrary but said he'd feel uncomfortable. With reluctance, he arrived at the dinner and, so typically, said: "I'm not much of a Keller booster. I guess I was swinging where they were throwing. My luck was good."

That's how he tried to explain away the accolades that followed his first World Series, a year in which he earlier batted .334 while another newcomer to the league, Ted Williams, checked in at .327.

Keller had been signed as a senior off the University of Maryland campus in 1937 and was assigned to the Yankees' top farm team, the talent-laden Newark Bears. Immediately, he led the International League in batting with .353. The Yankees were impressed, but not enough to take him to spring camp the next year. They merely told him to go back to Newark and do it again.

He took them literally and improved to .356. In 1939, he played in an outfield that included Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich. Keller hit the ball to all fields with vicious results, but manager Joe McCarthy wanted him to direct his swing toward the inviting right-field stands at Yankee Stadium.

He became a forced pull hitter rather than letting his natural swing evolve. Keller never complained (but others did) that tampering with the stroke reduced his average. He also was bothered by injuries to his spine, ankle, hips and hand.

When World War II came, he tried to enlist in every branch of service -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard -- but was rejected. He could have played out the war in the major leagues, but was determined to help his country as best he could.

The Merchant Marine finally accepted his enlistment despite his congenital back condition. Aboard ship, he drew the difficult North Atlantic run to Murmansk in the dead of winter, which wasn't much fun.

"As a Yankee, I roomed with Charlie," said Byrne. "If he wouldn't have had the back problem, he'd have been one of the top five Yankees of all time, with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. The type person he was got your attention and kept it. Players admired him and sought his friendship. We had a special camaraderie, and it wasn't because we were both from Maryland. More so because we had a lot in common: our families and baseball ambitions."

The Yankees promised Keller he could have a job with them as long as he lived. He went back to coach, but eventually decided to breed and train standardbreds at his farm, which he called "Yankeeland," outside Frederick. It became a proficient producer championship stock and, to this day, under the jurisdiction of the grandchildren, continues to dominate the sales book.

When Keller closed his career with the Yankees in 1949, management insisted on giving him a "day." He objected. Finally, they got him to relent by asking, if he didn't want the expensive car they'd ordered, then what might he like?

"You all have been good to me," he told them. "I don't want or need a single thing."

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