A Portal to the 19th Century

February 20, 2021

Willie Keeler: From the Playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame, by Lyle Spatz (Rowman and Littlefield: Lanham MD), 2015. 356 pp.



Harvard used to offer a very prestigious post-graduate program called the Bunting Fellowship that tempted my ex-wife on several occasions in the late 1970s and early 1980s to apply for—I forget the details, but it was a very sweet deal, providing money, office space, and oodles of prestige to pursue whatever area of academe you were most interested in. It was for women only, so I never got too interested in applying for one myself (transgender operations were in a primitive stage back then), but I do remember making some slight fun of my ex- whenever she mentioned the Bunting Fellowship as one of her options: "If that don’t beat all," I would say. "Used to be, you’d get awards for hitting away, but now they’re recognizing ‘bunting’ as something to be prized. How low we’ve sunk! O tempora! O mores!" etc. and more etc.

The fellowship was not designed, of course, to honor the lost art of bunting—it was named for Mary Ingraham Bunting, its benefactor,  https://onviewatradcliffe.org/history-of-the-bunting-- and this joke probably became less funny on its eighth or ninth go-around (personally, it never got old for me), but it was at just about this period that bunting, as opposed to Bunting, did become a disparaged art even more than merely a lost art. Thanks in part to Bill James and Earl Weaver, bunting became a foolish, discredited and finally denounced strategy, wasteful of outs and counter-productive to scoring runs.

Which was too bad, considered aesthetically.  A perfectly placed bunt is a thing of beauty. Not only was it one of the few athletic skills I felt I could master, requiring more brains and manual dexterity than the sheer power that I sorely lacked when my obsession with baseball first began in the early 1960s, but on the professional level, in that same decade, it was still pre-James and pre-Weaver, and so pre-discredited.  Low-scoring games were common for a few years, and speedy leadoff men like Maury Wills and Richie Ashburn would commonly keep infielders honest by forcing them to guard against the bunt base-hit, which fast guys would still be able to beat out anyway. If they couldn’t get on base via the bunt, it was still thought to be worthwhile to give up an out and move other baserunners along, at a time when a single run was very hard to manufacture, and it would always be an exciting bang-bang play at first base anyway, nabbing the speedster on a one-handed grab-and-throw. I could watch a skilled bunter try to pull off that play several times per game and love it every time. It got me up out of my seat, smashing my scorecard into my other hand and screaming, more surely than a 400-foot extra-base hit from a slugger could ever do.

But alas! O tempora! O mores! The bunt is no more, and no mores, either.

It died a slow death. But there was a time, long before any of us were born, when it was THE skill play, when it recurred far more commonly than in the mid-1960s, when the ball itself was briefly dead. Back in the Dead Ball Era, before the revolution of 1920, bunting was a part of every hitter’s skill set. A third baseman fool enough to position himself 105 feet away from the batter, even a heavy-set and slow batter, was risking a ball being placed in a spot where no fielder could get to it in time to throw out even the slowest batter.

Several factors have changed since then: the ball itself may have been sufficiently dead to allow for bunts to die easily in the long wet grass around home plate, fielding in general may have been more erratic (crummy gloves, but also a lower standard of catching and throwing ability on the fielders’ part themselves), and the hours of practice that laying down a perfect bunt requires may have been required in those days that modern-era batters now devote to other goals.

Nineteenth century baseball generally is too removed from the game I grew up following to engage me much, and the period just before the emergence of the American League in 1901 is just too busy with oddball franchises, forming and reforming leagues, combining teams into each other, and all the political maneuvering that accompanies such things. I can’t follow all that frantic activity—or I could follow it, if I wanted to devote the time and effort to keep them straight, but mostly I’m interested in the ways they might have impacted post-1900 ball, and those ways are few.

It’s sort of like 19th century politics more broadly. I’m as interested as the next guy in knowing what the Know-Nothings were about, and who the Mugwumps and the Stalwarts were, and why the Whigs died out, but mainly I’m interested in knowing how these dead alliances and movements continue to influence 21st century politics. If they don’t, and some don’t as far as I can tell, then my interest in them becomes more trivial than useful. Nineteenth-century baseball is mostly trivia to me.

The less the underlying rules apply, the more my interest is trivial. Take the flat bat as an example of a staple of 19th-century ball that was outlawed in 1893, but in use throughout the National League for nearly a decade before that: "flat bats were legalized by the National League in 1885, and became ideal for bunting. In 1893, the 1857 rule requiring a round bat was reinstated" (from a SABR study: https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-bats-they-keep-changing/ ). Bunting with a flat bat required less skill, and putting down a good bunt was within the grasp of every batter in the late 1880s and early 1890s. When the "round bat rule" was reinstated in 1893, Willie Keeler, born in 1872, was already a professional, playing his second season for the New York Giants, and he was uniquely built to adapt to the round bat. Tiny even for his time (listed at 5’4" and 140, he was thought to have weighed less for most of his career), Keeler lacked the physical power needed to drive the ball long distances, and had long mastered the art of bunting when bunting was a common skill.

The phrase that even a 19th-century dunce like me knows belongs to Wee Willie Keeler is "Hit ‘em where they ain’t," which never made all that much sense to me, and made even less sense when I became aware of the principles behind Babip.  Even the most skillful place-hitter of all time, which I think we have applied to Keeler on the basis of this catch-phrase, isn’t going to be very successful in his goals to hit ‘em where they ain’t, because no one actually has the ability to thread the needle between fielders consistently at will. I don’t mean that no one ever has done this, of course, or that Keeler couldn’t have—just that the best place-hitter ever trying to send a hard-hit grounder through the hole between two infield positions is going to fail most of the time, and fail randomly. "Do or do not," as another wee little fellow wisely said. "There is no try."

If he’s capable of doing it perhaps a third of the time, the other two-thirds of the grounders he hits are still going to be caught by one fielder or another. The skill is hitting hard groundballs; those balls finding holes between fielders is luck. A .333 rate is nothing to sniff at, but that’s just because hard-hit groundballs find holes sometimes. Keeler might have wanted to place one between the third baseman and the shortstop, but any way you slice it, there are going to be a lot of 5-3s and 6-3s in the mix, no way around it. Also some pop-ups around the infield, and a few balls he couldn’t quite get around on in time that went back to the pitcher, or the second baseman, or even right up the middle, and the occasional strikeout or two. The Great God Babip says this must be so—batters simply can’t control with any degree of consistent precision where a batted ball will go. Some batters do it better than others, but most batters trying to place a ball in a specific location will see it ending up in a different location from the one they were trying for.

No, what I think was going on was that Keeler exercised a great deal of conscious control over whether he wanted to bunt or hit away—that was what he meant, I believe, by "Hit ‘em where they ain’t." He would gauge how far back the infielders were playing him, and he would decide (from pitch to pitch) whether his chances were better laying down a bunt in a particular direction or, if a fielder were playing in for the bunt, whether he had a better chance of hitting the ball over his head or batting a fast liner or grounder past him. "I had no luck in the beginning of the year," he said, explaining a rare slump. "It didn’t make any difference whether I bunted, or whether I hit them out. I couldn’t place any of them away from the fielders." Most of the time, when he was running in better luck, those two choices were employed strategically and successfully by Keeler.

I believe this thesis because nowadays (that is, for the last century and more) "bunting for a hit" has dropped off the face of the earth. As bunting as declined, bunting for a hit has declined even more sharply, to the point that we see it in MLB about as often as we see a solar eclipse or Grace Kelly in the full-frontal altogether. https://www.theatlantic.com/entert​ainment/archive/2014/10/baseballs-long-and-complicated-relationship-with-the-bunt/380563/ . A Brett Butler may do it now and then, or some other powerless speedster, but as a standard gambit in baseball strategy, it’s gone the way of the dodo, and done the way of the gogo. Dead as Kelsey’s nuts, as the not-so-risque expression has it ( https://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-kel1.htm ), and irreclaimable, barring some massive changes in how the game is played. It was possible in Willie Keeler’s day to decide whether you wanted to try to hit the ball safely 12 feet from home plate or 120 feet from the plate, and that’s what I believe "hit ‘em where they ain’t" referred to.

Keeler is my portal into 19th century baseball, for a number of reasons, most of them entirely trivial. His catch-phrase resonated with me and puzzled me, and now makes a little sense to me, if my notion about bunting for a hit is anything like correct, but he was also known as the key player on the one team, the 1890s Baltimore Orioles, that I know a little bit about. Keeler was most famous as an Oriole, a teammate of John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, and Wilbert Robinson, and had his best seasons in Baltimore, a city I know pretty well from doing some of my graduate work there, but as Keeler’s biographer, Lyle Spatz notes in Willie Keeler: From the Playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Hall of Fame, "Keeler was first and foremost a son of Brooklyn," a borough (then a city) that is also my place of birth and upbringing, though my parentage has also been described in terms of my being a son of numerous other places, people, and things. In addition to his years playing for Brooklyn and Baltimore, Keeler also played for two teams of another city I have worked in and lived in for decades, the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. (This was before the Yankees moved to the Bronx, and indeed Keeler played for them before they were the Yankees—the team he played for was the Highlanders, named so because they played on a hilltop overlooking the Hudson River, in a spot that would eventually become Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where I used to work installing air-conditioners and TV sets.) The Brooklyn franchise that Keeler played for was also known by its pre-Dodgers name, and the Brooklyn Superbas and the Brooklyn Bridegrooms played in parks preceding Ebbets Field.  Keeler’s Brooklyn roots piqued my interest in him recently, and made me buy Spatz’s biography to explore further.

This past New Year’s, I happened to read that this was the 98th anniversary of Keeler’s death on New Year’s Day of 1923, in Brooklyn which, the article mentioned, was also Keeler’s birthplace. Further, it also mentioned that he was only 50 years old when he died, and had barely been retired for a decade at his death, which struck me as a bit unusual, so I decided to look into his life and death. The biography was out-of-print (or technically, ridiculously pricey on Amazon) but luckily Lyle Spatz lives one town over from me so I was able to get a copy hand-delivered and autographed by meeting him in a shopping plaza near me.

Brooklyn is a big place. As the first Thomas Wolfe once put it in a short story entitled "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," no one alive knows the place through and through. (To be precise, his story was narrated by a native of Brooklyn, speaking in a heavy dialect, so it appeared in print as "Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh goddam town.")  It’s huge, much larger than most major cities, and densely populated, but there was a time when it was quite rural, not so long ago. When Keeler was born in 1872, I’d guess that most of the acreage in Brooklyn was still farmland, undeveloped forests and open fields, which is just wacky to one born, like me, 80 years later, and certainly to any Brooklynite much younger than I am. Keeler was born before the first subway was built, before any of the bridges connecting it to Manhattan were constructed, and when the only trolleys that a Brooklyn ballplayer might dodge were drawn by horses through the unpaved streets.

His Brooklyn consisted of several large villages, spaced widely apart, mainly on the shore of the East River, the part closest to Manhattan, which was reachable by ferryboat. The part that I come from, on the southern coast bordering the Atlantic Ocean, was mostly open land. (Coney Island, the southernmost portion of Brooklyn, near my boyhood home, was just beginning to become developed into a seaside vacation spot for city dwellers in the decades following the Civil War. By 1872, when Keeler was born, this development was mainly in the planning stages. Here is a very quaint map of Coney Island drawn in 1879, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/47/1879_Coney_Island​.jpg , where the houses are marked by black rectangles, to give you some idea how sparsely Coney Island, which was still an actual island, was developed when Keeler was seven years old.) So I wondered where in Brooklyn Keeler was born, and where he played ball, and for which teams, when he was growing up.

Spatz’s book details all that: Keeler grew up in the village of Bedford-Stuyvesant, in a wooden house in Pulaski Street, and played ball on "the vacant lots near Broadway and Gates Avenue," which oddly enough turned out to be the location of the boarding house that he would die in, a coincidence that Spatz leaves unnoted. There were lots and lots of vacant lots in the area. (By my time, again, the last few vacant lots in Brooklyn were being gobbled up by developers: in a long memoir I just finished writing, I describe a game I invented for myself, involving my 10-year-old self deliberately getting lost in Brooklyn, and my one specific memory of discovering an undeveloped lot on which my junior-high school would soon be constructed. I might publish this chapter on BJOL if I run low on material.) Spatz gives a sense of a casual, uncodified, unregulated sense of 19th century life in general.

Another rules-free oddity of pre-20th century American immigrant life is the fluidity of names: perhaps unsurprisingly, Keeler’s family name changed a few times. He was born William Henry O’Kelleher which shifted to "Keleher" and then soon to "Keeler" with no official or legal papers being filed. As someone who changed his family name, about as much as "O’Kelleher" was changed to "Keeler," almost exactly one century after the Keelers, I can tell you that the level of expense and paperwork and time required in a name change is proportional to the population density of Brooklyn in 1870 and 1970 (barely 400,000 in 1870, over 2.6 million in 1970.) It was a different world then.

Different, yet the same. Certain barbarities, such as the dangerous (rat-infested, toxic waste and rusted metal-strewn) vacant lots between habitations that were common in Keeler’s Brooklyn, and far less common in mine (and far more common in Walt Whitman’s pre-Civil War Brooklyn, when the population was one-tenth of what it would be in Keeler’s time) still obtained, and we can still visualize, if we try, what his world was like. And we can attach significance, if we choose, to those similarities and differences.

Take, for example, Keeler’s position. He played mostly right field in the big leagues, and was thought to have been the game’s all-time greatest right fielder until Babe Ruth. (John McGraw thought him the best player in baseball history, with the possible exception of Ty Cobb.)  But—and this is a big "but," perhaps even larger than Babe Ruth’s—he came up as a third baseman. In his first two seasons, playing for the Giants and the ur-Dodgers, he played 26 games at third base, 2 at second base, 2 more at shortstop, and three in centerfield.  This may not seem so strange, except for this:

Like Babe Ruth, Keeler was left-handed.

All the way. Batting, fielding, eating, the whole thing.

Which meant that, by Ruth’s generation, he would have been limited to playing the three outfield positions, plus pitcher, plus first base.

Which were, of course, the five positions that Ruth did play in the major leagues.

Now, the configuration of the baseball diamond is one constant, from before Keeler’s time to beyond ours: because the layout is counter-clockwise, therefore a left-handed third baseman or shortstop is at a distinct disadvantage, and a left-handed second baseman is practically an impossibility. This is true in 18th century baseball, if there was such a thing, and it will be true in 22nd century baseball, if man is still alive, but it only became accepted as a universal truth, it seems, sometime between Ruth’s birth (in Baltimore in 1895, when and where the 23-year-old Keeler was first laying out his bona fides as a baseball superstar) and Ruth’s emergence as a baseball superstar in the 1910s.

What can this tell us? It tells me that MLB, such as it was, was still working out some basic, elemental truths about the game that allowed smart teams to take terrible advantage of less-smart teams in grasping these concepts. Previously, I alluded to certain disadvantages of 19th century fielders that might have allowed skillful bunters like Keeler to get on base more easily than later skillful bunters, and this possibility of left-handed infielders, however uncommon, seems indicative of other, larger lapses in perception. In other words, a baseball world that hasn’t quite caught on to the inadvisability of playing a lefty in the infield might well also be a world that hasn’t caught on to other, less binary and less obvious, truths.

Keeler (I think obviously) had a strong throwing arm. (I assume that his arm explains his playing right field as his primary position: again, the counter-clockwise configuration of the diamond will make right field the most demanding position of a throwing arm.) So his earliest managers and admirers seem to have decided that this strong throwing arm could be put to use at third base and shortstop. No one, as far as I can tell, ever advised the young Keeler that playing on the left side of the infield would be detrimental to his reaching the big leagues—as it in fact wasn’t. I’m thinking that other fielding attributes might also have been ignored in baseball’s early days, attributes that we categorically apply to young players as a matter of course. "You’re tall—have you ever thought about playing first base?" or "You’re very fast—why not see if center field suits you, son" are rather unremarkable remarks that may have been rather revolutionary observations at some early point in baseball’s history, just like "Um, kid, you throw left-handed so you really can’t play third base or shortstop or second base—sorry, but them’s the rules" is unremarkable and downright helpful in our time.

If it seems that the left handed Keeler playing a little second-base, shortstop, and third-base when he came up is purely a relic of early baseball, a 19th-century anomaly formed by desperation of not knowing where to play an unknown rookie, I should mention that when the Highlanders later needed a substitute for an injured middle infielder, they chose the 33-year Keeler to start 10 games at second base long after he’d established himself as a super-star in the outfield. Let me repeat that: in 1905, a winning team (62-60) chose to play their left-handed superstar outfielder at second base for ten straight games. The categorical notion that this wasn’t maybe such good baseball was still evolving.

Every truth, every idea about the game of baseball (and about everything else, I suppose) was at some early point a revolutionary breakthrough, and it’s hard to imagine that breakthroughs happened easily and immediately. So Keeler was playing at a time when certain truths about baseball were still in the discussion stage. Bill answered a "Hey Bill" recently that asked why a 19th century catcher (I think Roger Bresnahan) played as much centerfield as he did, and his answer was to the effect that 19th century ball was far looser about what qualities were desirable to play particular positions than it is today. Which I took to mean that 19th century strategists didn’t know how important speed, or a strong throwing arm, or much of anything, was required in a centerfielder or a catcher, which conforms to the way pickup teams assign positions. No one ever had an extended pregame discussion of who would play where, not in any pickup game I ever played. The closest you would come to a discussion might be if two guys had each decided he would play shortstop or pitch, but mostly we just gravitated to where we felt like playing on that day, or in that game.

Which isn’t to say that 19th century ball followed the practices of a casual pickup game, just that specializing in a position based strictly on your qualifications for that spot could only have happened after we learned, for a fact, which qualifications were necessary for each position.  Catching pop-ups may have been, for example, an important skill back when popups were more common than they are today, and shading one’s eyes from the sun was much harder than it is today with long-brimmed caps and sunglasses and huge mitts. I’m also imagining that certain practices we take for granted as inherent to the game were worked out rather slowly, such as calling for a popup. Somebody, at some early point, had to figure out that collisions occurred much more rarely if you were able to work out in advance a system that assigned somebody, like the centerfielder, the final word on whose call overruled whose on a fly ball, or whether the infielder backpedaling had dibs on a ball that a hard-charging outfielder claimed as his. Nowadays, the rule is that centerfielder’s call settles outfield disputes, and the charging outfielder overrules the backpedaling infielder, a rule that had to be established at some early point.

There are thousands of these practices, or at least hundreds, that we all take for granted. Woody Allen once wrote a mock-history of the invention of the sandwich that captured perfectly our tendency to take for granted things that existed before we were born: Allen’s hilarious essay exhaustively takes us through the numerous trials and errors in the Earl of Sandwich’s invention (a slice of bread between two slabs of meat, like that) to illustrate how slowly such commonplace things as sandwiches took to develop, and to popularize. In today’s Reader Posts, there is a thread  (http://boards.billjamesonline.com/showthread.php?15582-Ernie-Lombardi-and-lack-of-speed ) making much the same point, that there are now hard-and-fast cutoffs that qualify and disqualify potential players from MLB: if someone can’t run 60 yards in 6.9 seconds, according to MarisFan61’s testimony, then he can’t play major league baseball.  I don’t know if this is actually true, and I don’t know if MarisFan61 thinks it is true, but I do know that such standards couldn’t have existed until baseball people relied on stopwatches rather than their eyes to tell them who was faster than whom.

Spatz’s biography abounds with further examples of common practices we take for granted that were revolutionary in Keeler’s time, like the way Fred Tenney revolutionized the way to play first base:

Tenney’s way is far different from other first basemen. He reaches his hands far out for the ball, and stretches his legs so that he is farther out from the bag on every throw than every other first baseman in the league.

This was according to a Chicago News account of 1897. Until then, and presumably for a few more seasons until the majority of first basemen successfully copied Tenner’s technique, the distance from an infielder’s hand to the first-baseman’s glove was longer by a foot or two or three than it is today, making it "far" more common to beat out an infield hit. The same source Spatz quotes for this account of Tenney’s invention of the stretch (made, btw, with a stubby short-fingered glove, not the elongated ball-traps of the past seventy years) also quotes John McGraw’s description of Tenner’s Chicago teammate third-baseman Jimmy Collins as the "’real pioneer of the modern style of playing third base,’ for his adeptness in fielding bunts." No specifics there, so one must guess at the pre-modern style of fielding the position, but you have to wonder what, exactly, the ineffective ‘style of fielding bunts’ was before Collins revolutionized the position, and how many bunt singles it caused in the 19th century that would be simple 5-3s today.

The primitive fielding techniques, equipment failures, strategic misjudgments, etc. of 19th century baseball don’t, of course, mean that none of the play of 1800s ball was skillful. The greatest players of the day are still going to be great, and Keeler was considered by some to be its greatest outfielder, baserunner, and hitter, including but by no means limited to his bunting skill. He was perhaps better known for his hit-and-run skill, which is based on place-hitting: "Prior to the 1890s, such plays as the bunt, the hit-and-run, the squeeze, and the double steal were executed on an individual basis with little thought and emphasis on technique," but, as Spatz demonstrates persuasively, Keeler’s Orioles innovated the game by making systematic planning and execution the norm.

"Willie Keeler, the best second place hitter I ever saw or expect to see," Spatz quotes Oriole teammate Hughie Jennings, "…could almost certainly be counted upon to advance McGraw to second, even though he himself were thrown out at first. But very, very often, he would come through with a short, snappy single, McGraw would race around to third and with Keeler on first and no one out, our heavy stickers coming up, McGraw was dead sure to score." In other words, Keeler could dependably hit a ball into the ground, so that McGraw could immediately start running on (or just before) contact, and the ball would sometimes find a hole between fielders, who had to be playing in, in case Keeler got the idea to lay down a bunt instead.

Spatz describes the Orioles "in effect inventing the suicide squeeze" in late-night bull sessions that they would test out the next day in practice, and on defense invent the practice of pitchers covering "first on balls hit to the right side and back[ing] up third on balls hit to the outfield." I call your attention to the qualifier "in effect" to modify "inventing," as Spatz sensibly doesn’t try to argue that no one before the Orioles of 1890s ever pulled off a suicide squeeze or ever had a pitcher covering a base, but rather that they standardized such practices and turned them into a staple of sound baseball, which gave them a tremendous edge over their opponents who left such choices up to their players’ individual discretion.

I found the descriptions of these late-night brainstorming sessions enticing, not least because Spatz gives the addresses of the locations of these get-togethers, and I discovered that many of them were Baltimore row-houses I had walked past, unknowingly, in my grad student days: some players lived in "the Oxford House on Greenmount Avenue, a few blocks from Union Park [where the Orioles played]. John McGraw and Hughie Jennings shared a room at 12 West Twenty-Fourth Street, not far from the park. Wilbert Robinson, who was older and married, lived with his family in three-story row house at 2620 North Calvert Street." I’m slightly annoyed with myself that I was unaware of all these sites in baseball history when I was strolling around that neighborhood, to and from my classes, and even unaware that there used to be a ballpark there, "bounded by Hunter Street, Huntingdon Avenue (now East Twenty-Fifth Street), Barclay Street, and Sumwalt Street (now East Twenty-Fourth street)." Oh, well. I pass through Baltimore, and stay with old friends now and again, and I’ll have to visit these still-standing row houses on my next trip.

That ballpark played a material role in Keeler’s story as well: one Tom Murphy was hired to be the park’s groundskeeper the same year the Orioles acquired Keeler, and he mixed the infield dirt with clay, "as hard as concrete and gave us a ‘fast track’ to work on," as John McGraw recalled. This concrete-hard infield was the basis for the Baltimore Chop, a now-outmoded play in which a fast runner like Keeler would pound a "middle-height [pitch] on the upper side" into the ground, sending it so high that no fielder could catch it in time to throw the batter out. "No one made better use of the Baltimore Chop than Keeler."

Murphy also enhanced Keeler’s skills in the outfield, by constructing "a hill in right field that Willie Keeler had mastered, but was ‘the terror of visiting players.’" Spatz goes on to quote a different source: "’Right field was ragged, full of weeds, rough spots, hollows, and hills. It sloped towards a fence, beyond which a stream [Brady’s Run] flowed, forming a perpetual bog.’ Keeler knew every obstacle out there, but Union Park posed a daunting challenge to the league’s visiting right fielders."

In short, which is the best way to describe Willie Keeler, his Orioles put into practice many parts of the game that we now think have "always" been there, they took advantage of things (like crazy-quilt groundskeeping) that modern practices have outlawed, they caused certain standards to evolve in response to their aggressive rules-lawyering. One example of the latter might be attributing "instant replay" to them: they realized that a single umpire can’t look everywhere at once, so they took advantage of that umpire’s focus on one base to physically manhandle a runner on another base, causing MLB to decide that two umpires, and eventually four umpires plus a team on Manhattan’s west side, were necessary.

But make no mistake: Keeler was a great player, in his time, in his ballpark, on the teams he played for. He could do more than just bunt and slice hits in between fielders, though many of his longer hits wouldn’t cut it in the modern game either.  In 19 big league seasons, he hit 33 home runs, 32 of which were Inside-The-Park jobs ( https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/event_hr.fcgi?id=keelewi01&t=b​ ) , the other one, his first HR, being what we would now rule a grounds-rule double, a bouncer. In 9,616 Plate Appearances, he never once hit a ball out of the ballpark on the fly.

Keeler is still famous because of several items aside from "Hit ‘em where they ain’t": his .424 batting average in 1897 stands in fourth place, just .0003 ahead of Rogers Hornsby’s .424 mark of 1924, and his 44 consecutive game hitting streak of 1897 got his name into the news when DiMaggio busted through it 44 years later, and then when Pete Rose tied it in 1978. (One curious fact about Rose’s streak that I’d forgotten, if I ever knew it, was that twice, in his 31st and 41st games with a hit, he got those hits in his final at-bat by laying down bunts against the third baseman who was playing him too deep. Fella named Mike Schmidt, in both games. Pretty good fielder.)

Willie Keeler comes up surprisingly short in two areas that would seem fairly easy to research: what happened to his health at the end of his life, and what happened to his money. Through the second half of the biography, Spatz repeatedly refers to Keeler’s enormous wealth, his investments (mostly in real estate), his status as a prosperous retiree, with reminders of how much each dollar was worth in those days when the average person’s annual salary was in the low four figures. But then it is suddenly revealed that Keeler was penniless, his investments worthless, and a subsistence living for him had to raised by charitable efforts of his old teammates. Such an amazing turn of events seems to warrant more financial detective work than appears here: real estate seems a pretty safe investment, and it’s hard to see how one goes broke so quickly by owning buildings and land as Keeler did. Likewise, around the same time, Keeler’s health suddenly and completely deteriorates, without much more than a superficial mention of that fact. At age 50, he becomes a dying pauper with very few details about the cause of the loss of either his well-being or his affluence, so that remains a bit of a puzzle to me.

But mainly I got to understand some glimmers about 19th century baseball that had never been made plain to me before, such as the machinations that got Keeler from the successful Orioles of 1893-8 to the equally successful Brooklyn Superbas of 1899-1902, which involved the contraction of the National League from 12 teams to 8 teams—in other words, Keeler was "assigned" (not traded or sold) along with several of his Orioles teammates. This contraction created, in turn, a void, out of which the American League emerged, and Keeler jumped to it in 1903. Understanding the context of his shifting teams in this period made the period itself make more sense to me than it ever had before, which is why I like reading biographies more than history accounts, at least in the early stages that prepare me to read synoptic histories.

Even without sharing my interest in the streets of Old Brooklyn, Old Baltimore and Old Manhattan, readers may well find Spatz’s biography of Keeler a valuable introduction to nineteenth century baseball: he played on so many famous teams, and jumped around so much from team to team and league to league, that even a neophyte is likely to recognize a few familiar names among Keeler’s teammates and opponents that may serve as orientation to a world that barely resembles ours in many ways.


COMMENTS (24 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
A few quick comments, based on my experiences and some things I learned about 19th century baseball.

I was able to hit them where they ain't very successfully by the time I was in tenth grade. The opposing team tried the shift on me, once (this is 1962) and I promptly hit two ground balls right through where the 3B normally stands. They shifted the shift to keep the 3B on the line, just moving the SS over. I hit two grounders right through where the SS normally sets up. They gave up trying to shift me. The one REAL problem with this was that it didn't work against fast pitching (which you don't find in tenth grade). Keeler, short, very quick, and an actual professional grade athlete (unlike me) probably couldn't hit accurately against Amos Rusie or Cy Young, but most pitchers aren't like that.

Jimmy Collins' contribution to 3B play was very specific - he was the first player to realize that, if the 3B played in front of the bag and charged bunts, he'd throw out a lot more bunters. He did this when he was very young. When he first came up, he couldn't handle bunts, and got sent back to the minors because of it. In the minors, he figured out playing 3B close, and promptly went back to the majors. The interesting thing is that, before Jimmy Collins, NO 3B played in nor charged bunts! No one had figured it out yet. That colors every perception of 19th century defense. It is a large part of why Collins is in the Hall of Fame. It's also worth remembering that, before Collins' time, gloves were rare and really bad. They still weren't much in Collins' time, but no one had to try to field grounders barehanded, or try to stop liners from batters who crossed the defense up while playing less than 90 feet from the bat with no glove. Fear of the liners would be my guess as to why it took baseball so long to figure out playing 3B in close.

The really successful way to handle the absence of a foul-strike rule was the way of Sliding Billy Hamilton and John McGraw. Foul off everything that is at all close, until you get a cookie or you take a walk. (This concept may have been invented by Yank Robinson in the 1880s, but I've never seen any proof of that, except in Yank's walk rates.) Hamilton and McGraw had more strikeouts than Keeler, and no power, but they were on base constantly with walks, and so scored enormous quantities of runs. Keeler apparently couldn't do that. He fouled off anything anywhere near the strike zone, waiting for the cookie, unmindful of the walks. So, he never struck out, but also never walked. In spite of this, Keeler really WAS the best RF, or very close to it, to have played the game at that time. The RF who ranks above him is King Kelly, but assigning a defensive position to Kelly is like trying to herd rats. Keeler had an arm and hit for high average. But also, RF at the time had yet to fully emerge as something more than a "that place where you put your change pitcher" mentality.

I responded to Bill's Hey Bill! comment with the observation that really fast catchers, like Buck Ewing or Roger Bresnahan, gained an advantage when dealing with the large numbers of wild pitches and passed balls of the time (Ewing had huge numbers of passed balls). They could get to the errant ball faster than other catchers, and had cannons for arms, so runners often overestimated their ability to outrun the play by that catcher. Bill thanked me for this, saying that I'd actually shown him a REASON why running that fast would help an early catcher. He was trying to figure out how such a fast runner as Ewing ever ended up at catcher. I came by this realization when researching Ewing. He had a tremendous number of passed balls, but also a tremendous number of assists, which make him into a Grade A+ catcher, because passed balls are nowhere near as common as assists. I was trying to figure out what might unite many passed balls with many assists, and came up with speed. I'm going to stand by that until someone shows me different.

8:57 PM Mar 5th
I don't think anyone was bunting anything like a dozen times a game. They first started tracking sacrifices in 1894 and there were 0.6 or 0.7 per game through 1901, then climbed to 1.2 by 1920. No, that doesn't count bunt hits and bunt attempts, but I doubt teams had 0.7 sacrifices a game and 11.3 bunts for a hit.

Also, catchers and pitchers field many bunts. A right-handed catcher always has to make that half-turn that a left-handed third baseman would have to make to throw to first on a bunt. That didn't seem to stop right-handed catchers from existing. In fact left-handed catchers went extinct just as sac bunts were increasing despite their natural advantage on such plays.​
12:38 PM Feb 25th
Hmm, I would have thought that it much more likely to have a left handed 2nd baseman in 1900 than a left handed 3rd baseman and Wee Willie Keeler is precisely the reason why (that and how 2nd basemen positioned themselves). In a time when the 2nd baseman played so close (I see you Nap Lajoie) to 2nd base that it didn't matter so much that he would have to turn his body to make the pivot if he was a 2nd baseman it would make sense that an exceptional athlete could still play 2nd base left handed. OTOH, if teams are bunting a dozen times a game, a LH third baseman is going to have a very difficult time making all those plays, no matter how athletic he is.
1:53 PM Feb 24th
The 2019 Orioles made 0.67 errors/game, the 1897 Orioles 2.04. I guess my point was that the minds eye (my mind's eye?) sees 19th century fielding as a long, continuous string of kicking the ball about chaotically. But the reality is that the 2019 Orioles made an error once every game or two, the 1897 Orioles two a game. The difference in home runs between the two teams (1.4 vs. 0.14 per game) is much more extreme than the errors.
3:08 PM Feb 23rd
Steven Goldleaf
Heinie: what part of "But make no mistake: Keeler was a great player, in his time, in his ballpark, on the teams he played for. He could do more than just bunt and slice hits in between fielders" do you have a problem with?
12:53 PM Feb 23rd
Keeler: I hit'em where they ain't.

Steve: No you didn't.

Keeler: Why not?

Steve: Because REASONS and BABIP!

Keeler: Prove I didn't.

Steve: More REASONS! And anecdotes!

Keeler: My point exactly. Plus I'm dead. Stop bothering me.
12:05 PM Feb 23rd
Steven Goldleaf
Not exactly, Jon. The 1897 Orioles, a very good team, committed 277 errors in 136 games, slightly more than 2 per game. The 2020 Orioles, not a very good team, committed 43 errors in 60 games, or about .7 errors per game, about one-third of the rate of their 1897 counterparts. Committing nearly three times the number of errors per game might seem a trivial difference to you. It doesn't to me. Even taking your 2019 figures at face value, though, 1.5 errors per game doesn't seem negligible to me either.

As to the DPs, they cut both ways. DPs could be attributed to sharp fielding, or to poor baserunning and strategizing. I think it's probably a combination of the two.
10:03 AM Feb 23rd
One other thing I wanted to mention, by Keeler's time baseball had been America's pastime for 30-40 years. The first semi-pros played in the 1860s, professional leagues by the 1870s. Yes, a lot was still evolving, and we won't ever quite know for sure how quickly. But I bet everything wasn't quite so primitive and in the dark as we sometimes imagine. If we were plunked down into the stands at Union Park in 1897 we'd clearly recognize the game. The bases were 90' apart, the mound 60'6" from the plate, there were still nine players and three outs, four balls, and three strikes. The 1897 Orioles turned 110 double plays in 136 games, a rate comparable to an average AL team in 2019. Even with primitive gloves and groundskeeping the 2019 Orioles only made about 1.5 errors a game fewer than their 19th century counterparts.

Yes, a lot has changed. But I think one surprise would be just how much they'd already figured out 125 years ago.
7:45 AM Feb 23rd
Steven Goldleaf
I dunno, I always enjoyed it when Davey Johnson rolled the dice and put Kevin Mitchell or Howard Johnson at ss for the Mets, even though they were stocky sides of beef with the range of a lilac bush. I wouldn't endorse it for a whole season, but I thought it was buying some lineup flexibility at the expense of a groundball or two, max, that might get past one of them every few games. I've written about this option (or I will write about it) but it makes sense to me when you're losing to put an Offense-First team on the field. All that keeping Rafael Santana out there when you're down 8-3 in the 7th is to keep the scoring limited for both teams.
10:44 AM Feb 22nd
Looking it up Wigginton only played nine games/13 innings at short. So any damage was trivial. But I recall wincing every time he went out there, as he was a poor third baseman. Below average fielding percentages, and both Total Zone and DRS have him as about -20 runs per season. -20 third basemen become 1B/DH, not shortstops.

Might not have been that much more comical to play a lefty like Aubrey Huff or Jeff Fiorentino there for a handful of innings.
10:09 AM Feb 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
Spatz acknowledges both books in his 4-page bibliography, Jon. It may be a bit of a vicious circle with lefties in the infield, in that you don't want them to be spending time learning how to play positions they can play only in short-term emergency situations, but if you don't spend that time, they'll be unprepared to perform in those emergencies. Did Wiggy do a lot of harm at shortstop? He had pretty good hands, I thought, when he played 2B and 3B for the Mets earlier.
10:00 AM Feb 22nd
From May 17th to the 23rd, 2019 Chris Davis struck out 15 times in six games.

From April 22, 1897 through October 13, 1900, Keeler struck out 15 times in 535 games.

I would love to pick each one out of their times and places and place them in the other, just to see what would happen.
9:23 AM Feb 22nd
The foul-strike rule had been adopted by both leagues by 1903, yet Keeler never struck out more than 13 times in a season through his 30s. In 1906, at the age of 34, Keeler struck out five times in 674 PAs with the foul-strike rule in place. It seems that the rule was not a massive impact given the batting and pitching styles of the day.

The AL implemented the rule in 1903 and strikeouts went from 2.46 to 3.78 per nine. On a percentage basis that's a lot, but still, 3.78 per nine is not much. Barely over a third of today's rate.
9:15 AM Feb 22nd
Without knowing anything about Keeler's real-estate investments, obviously, I can think of two situations that could have wiped him out in the short term. First, it's my understanding that the long-term compound-interest-based loans so common today did not exist then. Loans on property were generally interest-only, with a full principal payment (what we call a "balloon" payment today) due within "x" number of years. If that due date coincided with a sudden sharp downturn in the real estate market, he may have been unable either to refinance or to sell in time to come up with the payment, and so lost both the property and his capital investment. Secondly, even with conventional financing, if the borrower is highly leveraged, a market crash can cause rents to vanish as tenants vacate in droves, and with no rental income the borrower may face foreclosure within months. This second scenario happened to me in the 2008 subprime crisis. We lost $3 million worth of property in nine months. We weren't wiped out, but only because our lender rented a portion of the property back to us to keep our retail business afloat. And we still were left with over $100,000 in unpaid cash debt which took years to pay off. Fortunately for me, I was in excellent health, but Willie Keeler clearly wasn't. ​
9:14 AM Feb 22nd
Don's quote looks very much like a similar bit from Where the Ain't by Burt Solomon. And/or Baseball in Baltimore, the First 100 Years by James Bready. I have to assume Spatz read both before writing his book, as they were written in the late 90s and are the source of a lot of my knowledge of 1800s Baltimore baseball. I haven't bought the Spatz book because I wonder if there's a lot in there that's not been covered by the other two books. And also that Amazon wants almost $50 even for the Kindle version of Spatz' book...

On left-handed infielders. I think we sometimes rely on rules of thumb and then miss opportunities. Thinking back on the modern Orioles I recall many times where they used a frankly terrible 3B/SS in a pinch, during injuries. Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds both fielded under .900 in 100+ inning stints at third. Ty Wigginton was used at short a least a handful of times in his 30s, when he was well over 200 pounds and clearly lacked the range to play the position. I wonder if teams, now pressed into short benches by huge bullpens, are missing opportunities to play excellent lefties in the infield instead of very poor righties. A half-turn on some plays can't be as damaging as fielding .850 with limited range on every play. Can it?
9:05 AM Feb 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
Excellent point about the foul-strike rule, stevebogus, which Spatz refers to at length, and which I was (mentally) including in my reference to Keeler's ability to take advantage of rules that no longer exist. it goes without saying (though I'll say it explicitly here, since some readers seem unable to grasp it otherwise) that of course there are such things as place-hitters (hitters who are trying to hit in specific directions rather than just hit the ball as hard as they can to send it as far as they can) and some of them are more successful than others, which success-rates may be in part good luck while other parts are marginally related to skill. Keeler was clearly among the most successful place-hitters of all time--I was trying to express my surprise that a good chunk of his 'hit 'em where they ain't" philosophy derived, not purely from this 'ability' such as it was, but from his ability to beat out bunts for base hits, an ability that (due to the positioning wisdom that has evolved, in large part) no longer exists. This wisdom includes such obvious (to us) ideas like "positioning the 2Bman to stand close to 2B at all times leaves a large gap on the right side while redundantly preventing several hits that are caught by the pitcher anyway." Credit Keeler with figuring out such advantages and having the ability (bat-control) to execute such plays, but they wouldn't (and don't) work in a more highly evolved game such as we have today.
5:23 AM Feb 22nd
A few things regarding Keeler's era-

The first half of Keeler's career was played without the foul strike rule. The NL instituted this in 1901, and the AL delayed until 1903. Before this rule a skilled and clever batsman could foul off numerous pitches without changing the count. If sufficiently frustrated by this, a pitcher might eventually give in and toss a fat pitch so the batter would be able to put it into play easily.

Also, in Keeler's day the secondbaseman played closer to the bag than today. Bill pointed this out in Win Shares, noting the changes in putouts vs. assists at 2B over time as secondbasemen gradually moved away from the base. Keeler's career occupied a period when this change was in progress and this means the "hole" between 1B and 2B was larger back then, though shrinking as older players were replaced by younger fielders who were more comfortable with the new positioning.

3:58 AM Feb 22nd
Side comment: The article is way too dismissive of the possible presence of some hitters who have some "hit 'em where they ain't" ability.

And indeed Keeler was one of them.

First of all, I'd say we have to take his famous quote a tiny bit un-literally. I say 'a tiny bit' because I do tend to believe there was some literal truth to it, i.e. that he had some ability to target a particular area (or areas) and to hit it there, and I'll be giving a known contemporary example of that.
But I would tend to think of his approach as a more general thing -- that he would try to adapt his approach according to how he was being played at any time: Something like, to the extent that the pitch allowed it, he would swing in a way that gave him a better-than-random chance to hit it to some more-open area.

And in fact -- BTW did you happen to check his BABIP's?
They were consistently well above league-average.

The contemporary example I can give is one that we're all familiar with, never mind that it's about a player that sabermetric types something enjoy dissing. It's a well known and documentable example:

Derek Jeter

He famously "inside-outed" singles to right field. Even after it became well known that he often did it, he was able to keep doing it. Evidently he realized that it was a thing he was able to do well -- not always, of course, but pretty often -- and there was never anyone playing there, because you couldn't play exactly there.
And, he also was a player whose BABIP's consistently were well above league average, probably very much because of that kind of hit.

Why should we doubt that Keeler maybe was able to do some such thing, i.e. a specific kind of thing?
But even if not, it's not hard to imagine the more general thing that I offered.

In any event, his BABIP's were consistently well above league average. When considering a specific player, we don't need to rely on generalizations like "a player can't control BABIP" that much, nor, on the other hand, to rely automatically on a legendary quote like "hit 'em where they ain't."

We can look it up -- and in this case, the data essentially back up the legendary quote.

And really, we might say this is a good message regarding almost any alleged flat-out sabermetric belief about a thing that doesn't exist: allow for the occasional existence. And when possible, let's look it up before assuming the non-existence.
1:30 AM Feb 22nd
Steven Goldleaf
Another thing I know nothing about, DavidHNix. Must have been pretty severe to have wiped out someone like Keeler with investments in real estate--again, I'd imagine that such investments might suffer lost value in the short term but to get totally wiped out? Seems weird that I'd never have heard of something that could do such damage.
12:50 PM Feb 21st
Keeler's financial reverses coincided with a recession in 1919 and another, far more severe, economic collapse in 1921-22. These are generally thought to be after-effects of the demobilization of war economies at the end of World War I and the global "Spanish" flu pandemic.
9:05 AM Feb 21st
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks for that helpful info, Don. The weird thing is that Spatz is, in addition to being a thorough researcher, the chairman of SABR's Baseball Record Committee, so you'd suppose he'd have access to the same materials that his SABR-biographer did.
5:27 AM Feb 21st
10:45 PM Feb 20th
Keeler's SABR bio has this to say:

Keeler was known as the Brooklyn Millionaire when he retired from baseball, though his actual net worth was likely less than $200,000. He had invested his baseball earnings in mining stocks, a number of successful business ventures, including some with teammates, and real estate, purchasing commercial lots in New York City, and when he retired he bought a gas station in Brooklyn. But Willie contacted tuberculosis, his lifelong allergies worsened, the gas station failed, and when the real-estate market lost its speculative value after World War I, Keeler found himself broke and he and his brothers were forced to sell their childhood home.

By the early 1920s Keeler suffered from heart disease, and endured chest pains and rapid breathing. He attended a major-league game for the final time when he visited the Polo Grounds for Game Six of the 1921 World Series between the Yankees and Giants. Two months later Ebbets presented him with a check for $5,500 after the owners in the two leagues each contributed to a fund to help him pay off his debts. His health continued to fail and Keeler was too ill to attend a reunion of the old Orioles in Baltimore, though many of his old teammates later visited him. He knew he was losing the battle for his life during the holiday season of 1922, but vowed to see 1923. On New Year’s Eve, several well-meaning friends stopped by to congratulate him and cheer him up. When Willie became exhausted, they left him alone, rang in the New Year, and returned to find that he had died. He was 50 years old. The cause of death was chronic endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart that Keeler had probably suffered from for at least five years. He also appeared to suffer from dropsy, better known today as edema, swelling of tissues because of an excessive accumulation of watery fluid, another symptom of heart trouble.

10:43 PM Feb 20th
I don't think Bill James or Earl Weaver ever disparaged bunting, only sacrificing.
9:21 PM Feb 20th
©2021 Be Jolly, Inc. All Rights Reserved.|Web site design and development by Americaneagle.com|Terms & Conditions|Privacy Policy