On This Day in History, March 3: Pint-Size Champ From Brooklyn
William Henry (“Wee Willie”) Keeler was born on March 3, 1872, son of a Brooklyn trolley switchman.
Despite his small stature — 5 feet 4½ inches — Keeler was one of the best hitters of all time. When he retired in 1910, he was second all-time in hits. Willie’s hitting advice was, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Ever after, batters attempted to imitate his “hit ‘em where they ain’t” style.
Keeler began his career with Binghamton in the Eastern League in 1892. Although a left-handed thrower, Willie made his debut at shortstop.
Late in the 1892 season, Keeler was purchased by the New York Giants and made his debut at the Polo Grounds on Sept. 30 as a third baseman. His single off Tim Keefe of the Phillies was the first of nearly 3,000 hits he would collect during his illustrious career.
He fractured his ankle early in the 1893 season and was sold to Brooklyn for $800 by Manager John Montgomery Ward, who maintained that because he was so short he was incapable of withstanding big-league punishment.
He was traded to Baltimore for the 1894 season where he was converted into an outfielder. With his natural speed and reliable glove, Keeler was in his element in right field, but it was as a batter that he gained his greatest distinction.
For the 1899 season, he moved to Brooklyn with his manager, Ned Hanlon, and a few other teammates. He played on championship clubs in Brooklyn in 1899 and 1900 giving him the distinction of performing for five pennant winners and two runners-up in his first seven years as a regular.
When the National League was raided by the American League in 1901-’02, Keeler remained loyal to the senior league. But before the 1903 campaign, the American League made him an offer he could not refuse. Limited for years by National’s $2,400 salary ceiling, Keeler jumped to the Highlanders and became baseball’s first $10,000 player. When Clark Griffith resigned as manager of the Highlanders in the 1908 season, the owners planned to offer the job to Keeler. When he got wind of the plan, he went into hiding.
Keeler was a pinch-hitter for the Giants in 1910, coached for the Brooklyn Federal League team in 1914, and scouted for the Boston Braves in 1915. His career batting average was .341.
After his retirement, Keeler lost all his savings from real estate investments and died destitute in a lonely shack in Brooklyn on New Year’s Day in 1923. He was 50. In 1939, Willie Keeler was the first Brooklyn-born baseball player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
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