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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,029

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This is the grave of Wee Willie Keeler.

Born in Brooklyn in 1872, William Henry O’Kelleher, Jr. grew up in the New York working class of the Gilded Age. His father was a switchman on the railroad, about as working class as it came. It was later than the family changed his last name to Keeler. Easier to say, less Irish.

Keeler was a great baseball player from the time he was a kid. In fact, he just dropped out of high school to play semi-pro ball. He rose like a rocket. By 1892, he was on the New York Giants. He was hurt for a big chunk of 1893 but by 1894, he was a regular on the Baltimore Orioles. That year was the first of his eight consecutive seasons with over 200 hits. That included a career high 239 hits in 1897. That included a 44 game hitting strike, at that time the record. He was fast too, with 67 stolen bases in 1896 and 495 over his career. That 1897 year though, that was sick. Not only did he have the 239 hits, but he also hit .424/464/539, leading the league with a 1.000 OPS. In 1898, he hit 206 singles. That was the all-time record until my favorite player ever, Ichiro, broke it. Keeler was also the all-time leader in consecutive years with 200 hits. Ichiro broke that too.

In 1899, Keeler went to the Brooklyn Superbas, where he played until 1902. Then it was the New York Highlanders, the predecessor to the Yankees. He played there from 1903-09. He was really quite solid through these years if not quite as dominant as he was earlier in his career. He started to slip some in 1907 and then had a last year back with the Giants in 1910.

Among the many things Keeler mastered was the bunt. He was a real bunter, the true lost art. He also was almost impossible to strike out because he would just foul off pitch after pitch. In 1899, he had 570 at bats. He struck out—2 times!!!!!! Twice!!!!!! How is that even possible? In fact, over his career 8,591 at bats, he struck out all of 136 times. He also came up with the idea to hit the ball straight into the ground so that it would bounce super high and then he could get a single before anyone could throw him out. I love players like this. It was always so much fun to watch the Ozzie Smiths and Brett Butlers and especially the Ichiros and Wade Boggses just screw around with pitchers and beat out singles. Then the Three True Outcomes arrived and created an unwatchable game. Overall, Keeler really isn’t one of the all-time greats. He’s a tick below this. But he was a remarkable player nonetheless.

After retirement, Keeler worked some in baseball but had also made very smart investments so he was pretty rich. However, he lost a lot of it after the recession that hit after World War I. He also had a lot of health issues by the early 20s, including tuberculosis. The drinking and smoking didn’t help. He died in 1922, at the age of 50.

In 1939, Keeler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wee Willie Keeler is buried in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other right fielders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS statistic, Keeler is the 27th best right fielder of all time. Elmer Flick, who is 26th and also in the HOF, is in Twinsburg, Ohio. Brian Giles in 28th and is quite not dead. How many of us would think that Brian Giles is Hall of Fame caliber is another question, but he’s right there with a bunch of them in terms of the JAWS statistic. Chuck Klein, another Hall of Famer, is 29th and is in Indianapolis. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

Now everyone get to getting Brian Giles in the Hall! He’s also ahead of HOF right fielders Sam Rice, Harry Hooper, Kiki Cuyler, Tony Oliva, King Kelly, Sam Thompson, Ross Youngs, and (LOL) Harold Baines, who is all of 75th in that statistic, even taking into his account his excellent hitting as a DH. In truth, the top right fielder who is not in the HOF is Shoeless Joe Jackson at 13th and OK, but Dwight Evans is 15th and he really does need to be in there. Hopefully the Veterans Committee solves that problem soon. For that matter Reggie Smith is 18th and no one even talks about him.

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