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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Two days later, he wowed New York, going 4-for-4 and scaling the outfield wall to make a sensational catch. "As he took [the ball], one foot was on the side of the fence and the other dangling in the air," The Sun reported. "When he returned to terra firma with ball in hand, there was a perfect roar."

Against Washington, Keeler banged out three hits after being knocked unconscious, colliding with his first baseman while chasing a pop-up. He stayed in the lineup, collecting 34 hits in the next 16 games as the Orioles raced to the best start (32-9) in NL history.

Keeler plowed through the 12-team league once, then started over: three hits off Cleveland's Cy Young in their first meeting, and two more in the next, a 4-2 Orioles victory in which Keeler drove in every run.

The Sun began calling him "that wondrous little batsman," though it didn't acknowledge Keeler's streak until it reached 30 games. That wasn't an oversight, historians say. "People didn't make a big deal of records in those days," says Phillips.

Could anyone stop Keeler, a left-hander who stood flat-footed at the plate and choked up on nearly half of his piddling, 29-ounce bat? He punched out four hits in game 34, then started a five-day spree in which he had two hits in every game.

On June 16, Keeler managed a cheap single to run the string to 43 games, breaking the record set in 1894 by Chicago's Bill Dahlen. Two days later, Keeler had three more hits, including a double and triple. And there the streak stopped. He went hitless the next day at Union Park, handcuffed by a stiff pitcher's wind and by Frank "Lefty" Killen, a husky 200-pounder who'd twice won 30 games or more for Pittsburgh. Not coincidentally, the Orioles lost, 7-1.

"It was the first game of the season in which Keeler did not make a hit," The Sun reported -- in the last paragraph.

His binge helped the first-place Orioles to a 33-10-1 mark. Keeler then fashioned a five-game hitting streak before being sidelined for a week with a pulled groin.

He returned a marked man, dogged by crowds and the press. In Boston, while pursuing a fly, Keeler was tripped by fans poised along the foul line. In Chicago, a horse was turned loose in the outfield to chase after him.

Subject to criticism

The Sun began to nit-pick. Spoiled, perhaps, by his early-season success, the paper reported Keeler's every bungle. He got three hits against St. Louis, but was tweaked for botching a hit-and-run play: "Keeler never did such a thing in former years." A four-hit game took a back seat to a fielding error: "It is hard to believe [Keeler] could muff a ball that had gone right in his hands, but he did so."

If the knocks upset Keeler, he didn't show it. He hit for a higher average in his last 44 games (.471), during the Orioles' pennant chase, than he had during the streak (.408). Against Louisville, he scored the winning run from first base on a single, circling the bases so fast that the rattled center fielder threw the ball eight feet over the catcher. At Philadelphia, Keeler gloved a long fly after climbing an inclined, asphalt track and slamming into a brick wall.

He won the batting crown by a landslide (34 points) over Louisville's Fred Clarke (.390). Then, fouls didn't count as strikes, allowing crafty hitters like Keeler to bunt until they hit it fair. He repeated as batting champion in 1898 before joining Brooklyn and, finally, New York, which paid him a record $10,000 a year to jump to the fledgling American League.

Keeler retired in 1910 with a .341 career average -- 12th-highest in history -- and 2,932 hits. Had the 3,000 mark held magic back then, historians say, Keeler, at 38, likely would have played longer.

He retreated to his old haunts in Brooklyn and fell into decline. Bad real estate deals sapped Keeler's savings; a bad heart stole his strength. He succumbed Jan. 1, 1923, hanging on until midnight as if fighting off a 3-2 count.

"The new year is here, and so am I -- still," Keeler whispered to friends at his bedside. Then he fell asleep and died.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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