Willie Keeler

Position: Outfielder
Teams: New York Giants, 1892-1893, 1910; Brooklyn Bridegrooms (Superbas), 1893, 1899-1902; Baltimore Orioles, 1894-1898; New York Highlanders, 1903-1909

Willie Keeler is perhaps the major league's most difficult player to evaluate. Nicknamed "Wee Willie" because of his 5-foot-4-inch, 120-pound stature, Keeler nevertheless compiled 2,947 hits and 1,727 runs, twice led the National League in batting, and posted a .343 career batting average.

Hall of Famer Willie Keeler
"Wee Willie" Keeler excelled at finding
open spaces on the field
and hitting the baseball there.

His forte, as he himself put it, was to "hit 'em where they ain't," and there has probably never been a batter more skillful at poking a ball through a vacated hole in the infield or executing a hit-and-run play.

The difficulty in analyzing him is that William Henry Keeler (1872-1923) played in an era that gave him advantages that comparable players who came along later didn't have.

During most of his career, for example, Keeler was able to foul off pitches at will without having them count against him as strikes. For a while, he was even able to bunt balls foul deliberately without being charged with a strike.

Every hitter in Keeler's time had the same options, however, and none used them better than he did.

In all likelihood, none of Keeler's achievements would be suspect if his performance had not slipped dramatically almost as soon as foul balls became considered strikes.

Part of the drop-off can be explained by age -- once he turned 29 years old, his career batting average declined every year thereafter -- but in several seasons his output was so minuscule, it seemed he was being retained for his name alone.

Keeler finished his career in the dead-ball era, however, a time when few players were able to hit .300. He was an integral member of one of baseball's most famous teams -- the Baltimore Orioles of 1894 to 1898.

While his teammates -- such as John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson, and Hughie Jennings -- played the reckless, exciting, and at times deceitful brand of baseball for which the team became renowned, Keeler was shy and retiring almost to the point of invisibility. Were it not for his small size, he might, curiously, have gone without notice. Because he was barely bigger than a batboy, he became instead a fan favorite.

When the great Baltimore team was broken up after the 1898 season, Keeler moved with most of its other stars to Brooklyn. He played four years with the Superbas before jumping to the fledgling New York entry in the American League. Keeler played seven years for the Highlanders.

Upon finishing his big-league career, Keeler played a year in the minors and was later a coach. When the Hall of Fame opened in 1939, Keeler was among its first inductees.

Here are Willie Keeler's major league totals:


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