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Hometown celebrates Keller, who batted 1.000 for humanity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Ultimately, he decided to go through with the farewell if the money could be directed to funding two scholarships for boys who wanted to attend his alma mater, Maryland, but lacked tuition. The first selection was Jack Scarbath, a shortstop and quarterback at Baltimore Polytechnic. Scarbath's father told Jack "to go thank Mr. Keller for the scholarship." So one afternoon, after borrowing an automobile, he drove to Frederick to find where Keller lived.

Scarbath knocked on the door, and Keller was astonished that the young man had called to express his gratitude. The two were eventually to became close friends.

Little did either realize that the recipient of the Keller scholarship would become Maryland's most famous football player, a consensus All-American, a first-round draft choice of the Washington Redskins and later a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

At Keller's funeral, Scarbath was there to pay his respects, along with his wife, Lynn. Both made plans to be present for the function yesterday, but a sudden gallbladder surgery prevented Scarbath from being among the guests.

Keller, with enormous hands and arms, developed while working on his father's farm near Middletown, presented an imposing physical presence. Vernon "Lefty" Gomez, standout pitcher, dugout philosopher and resident entertainer, once said, "The greatest thing to happen to civilization is Charlie Keller was born good-natured." He drew physical respect, yes, but more so for the man he was.

Charlie Keller file

Full name: Charles E. Keller Jr.

Born: Sept. 12, 1916

Died: May 23, 1990

Teams: New York Yankees, 1939-49, '52; Detroit Tigers, 1950-51

Career stats: .286, 189 HRs, 760 RBIs High school: Middletown High ('33) College: University of Maryland

Career highlights

1936: Signed by New York Yankees.

1937: International League Rookie of Year, hitting .353.

1939: In rookie season with Yankees, hit .334. Played first game May 2, the day Lou Gehrig's streak ended. Starred in World Series, batting .438 with three home runs.

1940: Batted .286 and led league in walks with 106.

1941: Hit .298 with 33 homers and 122 RBIs. Was part of first outfield in league history to hit 30 home runs each, along with Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich. Batted .389 in World Series.

1942: Hit .292 with 26 homers and 108 RBIs. Hit two home runs in World Series.

1943: Hit .271 with 31 homers and 86 RBIs. Led league in walks with 106. Had two more RBIs for 18 in 19 World Series games.

1944-45: Career interrupted by military service.

1946: Hit .275 with 30 homers and 101 RBIs. Only returning veteran to have great season.

1947: Career cut short by back operation.

1952: Ended his career with Yankees.

1957: Coached for Yankees, then retired to raise horses at Yankeeland Farm in Frederick.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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