DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY (Charlie Keller Edition)
In which I usually open the encyclopedia to a page at random and riff on what I find.
Charlie Keller LF 1939-1943, 1945-1952 (1916-1990)
My father is in the hospital in serious condition so I’ve been taking time off this week to be with him, but I had a moment to myself just now and figured I would dash off an entry lest I forget how to do this writing thing. Because of the lack of time and residence in various waiting rooms and “visitor lounges” rather than my office-library, this player wasn’t chosen at random but simply popped into my head somewhere between the soda and snack vending machines. This entry will also be heavier on riff than research as I simply haven’t the time or the access to my usual materials. Let’s see if we can get somewhere useful anyway.
Keller is a player sabermetric types would have loved given his combination of strong batting averages, power and 100-walk patience. He was a short (5’10”) but strong man with strong wrists and big hands. He also had a wide grin and some truly frightening eyebrows. His strength, combined with his appearance, apparently suggested something ape-like, thus earning him the despised nickname “King Kong.” The offensive results were sublime, the left-hander making career rates of .286/.410/.518. Keller combined with center fielder Joe DiMaggio and right fielder Tommy Henrich to compose one of the elite outfield trios in the history of the game.
Despite that, Keller’s is one of those careers I wish we could have to do over. There is a lot missing. The Yankees signed Keller out of college at 20 and sent him right to their top farm team at Newark in 1937. He was overqualified, hitting approximately (when I say “approximately” with these minors stats it’s because even at home I don’t have access to hit by pitch numbers for the 1930s International League–the average and slugging rates are accurate) .353/.428/.541. He led the league in hits, runs, and triples, and threw in 13 home runs and 71 walks.
The Yankees had room in their outfield at that moment, room for a corner outfielder even, as left field was staffed by an increasingly injured George Selkirk, Myril Hoag, and the repugnant Jake Powell. For reasons that aren’t clear to me from my current vantage point, they opted to send Keller back to Newark instead. Repeating the league only made him better. He played every day and hit .365/.432/.569 with 22 home runs and 108 walks. The Yankees never called.
By 1939 they were finally ready for him, though it took some time for him to shake Selkirk and Powell. He got into 111 games, hit .334/.447/.500, with 11 home runs, walked 81 times. Note that Ted Williams, also a rookie in 1939, hit .327/.436/.609. Keller beat him in batting average and OBP. This gets at one of the reasons that it would be fun to get a second shot at Keller’s career (come to think of it, it would be nice to get a second shot at a lot of things, but let’s just stick with Keller for now). To this point in his career, Keller hit the ball all over the field, hence the high batting averages. At some point during or after the 1939 season, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy told Keller that left-handed hitters who had regular jobs for the Yankees knew how to pull the ball, and if he wanted to stay around, he’d better learn to pull it, too. Keller complied, and the power came. In 1940 he hit 21 home runs, in 1941 he hit 33, and he didn’t lose the walks, drawing over 100 a year. However, 40 points dropped off of his batting averages; instead of hitting .330, he now hit .280 or .290.
It is an unanswerable question as to which Keller would have been better over the course of his career, but there is another factor at work here, the interplay of approach and health. Keller excelled through 1943. There was then an interruption for World War II. He missed less time than some, all of 1944 and three-fourths of 1945. Still, it’s more missing time. The health part comes from Keller’s back, which began to go on him after his fine 1946 (150 games, .275/.405/.433 with 30 home runs, 113 walks). In June, 1947, he ruptured a disc in his back during a rundown play, and that was pretty much it for his career. Inclusive of that year, he hit .260/.390/.455 over 294 games through 1952, many of them spent pinch-hitting.
What I often wonder, knowing what we know about Don Mattingly, a short guy who used his back to generate power that he might not have had otherwise, is if McCarthy’s insistence that Keller pull the ball contributed to his later back problems. Now, Keller had a son who, at 21, hit .349/.460/.627 in 139 games for Binghamton of the Eastern League but supposedly had his career ended by the same back problems—his career abruptly ended the next year—so maybe my theory is all wrong and it was all a matter of genetics, but we’ll never know for sure…
Back to dad and the hospital; more when I’m able. I appreciate your patience.