Wee Willie Keeler is best remembered as a prolific slap hitter with the Baltimore Orioles, but the diminutive outfielder played his final professional season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1911.
Lured north of the border by former Baltimore teammate, Joe Kelley, who was managing Toronto’s Eastern League club, the 39-year-old Keeler hit .277 in 39 games for the Leafs.
A perennial .300 hitter as a player, Kelley, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, piloted teams in Toronto for seven seasons, amassing 567 wins (the second-most for a Toronto manager). The 1911 squad, featuring Keeler, won 94 games and finished third.
At 5-foot 4, 140 pounds, Keeler was your prototypical, sparkplug leadoff hitter. Despite throwing left-handed, he would make his professional debut at shortstop with the Binghamton Bingos of the Eastern League in 1892. His first big league action would come as a third baseman for the New York Giants on September 30 of that same season.
The scrappy Brooklyn native would evolve into a top-flight outfielder who enjoyed his best seasons with the National League’s Baltimore Orioles from 1894 to 1898. A magician with the bat, Keeler, when asked for advice on how to become a successful hitter, famously responded, “Keep your eye clear and hit’em where they ain’t.” The tiny outfielder also patented the Baltimore Chop, a practice in which he would pound the ball into the ground and sprint to first baseman while the infielder waited for the ball to descend.
Keeler was at his best in 1897 when he began the season with a 44-game hitting streak and ended the campaign with a league-leading .424 batting average. He followed that up with a .385 batting average in 1898, which again lead the circuit. In 1899, he inked a deal with his hometown Brooklyn Superbas, before he was enticed to the New York Highlanders in 1903, when they offered him the first $10,000 contract in big league history. In all, in 19 major league seasons, Keeler would record 2,932 hits and finish with a .341 batting average.
Keeler would live only 12 years after his last professional season with Toronto. Burdened by financial woes, the baseball icon resided in a “shack” in Brooklyn. He died of heart disease on New Year’s Day 1923, when he was just 50 years old.
The 19-year big leaguer was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously in 1939.
I heard my father use that baseball expression, “Hit ’em where they ain’t” quite a lot. I didn’t know it originated with Keeler, and had endured for so many years. And “Baltimore Chop,” as well. It’s sad such a great player had to live out his final years in poverty. Things have certainly changed.