Keeler's advice to hitters was "Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't"—"they" being the opposing fielders. His .385 career batting average after the 1898 season is the highest average in history at season's end for a player with more than 1,000 hits (1,147 hits).1 He compiled a .341 batting average over his career, currently 14th all time. He hit over .300 16 times in 19 seasons, and hit over .400 once. He twice led his league in batting average and three times in hits. Keeler had an amazing 206 singles during the 1898 season, a record that stood for more than 100 years until broken by Ichiro Suzuki. Additionally, Keeler had an on-base percentage of greater than .400 for seven straight seasons. When Keeler retired in 1910, he was third all-time in hits with 2,932, behind only Cap Anson and Jake Beckley.
He was one of the smallest players to play the game, standing 5' 4½" and weighing 140 pounds (64 kg), resulting in his nickname. Keeler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He appeared on The Sporting News' list of the "100 Greatest Baseball Players," ranking in at number 75.2 In 1999, he was named as a finalist to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Having played his last game in 1910, he was the most chronologically distant player on both Top 100 lists.
Baseball card of Keeler
Keeler had the ability to bunt practically any ball sent his way. He was the impetus for the rule change that made a third-strike foul bunt into a strike out. With Ned Hanlon's Baltimore Orioles he perfected the "Baltimore Chop," in which he would chop the ball into the ground hard enough for it to bounce so high he could reach base before the fielder could throw the ball to first. Bill James has speculated that Keeler introduced the hit and run strategy to the original Orioles and team-mate John McGraw. James found that Boston's Tommy McCarthy was the first manager to make wide use of the hit and run. McCarthy then taught the tactic to John Montgomery Ward, who introduced the strategy to Keeler.3
In forming the powerful original Baltimore Orioles of the late 19th century, manager Ned Hanlon was given a piece of the team and a free rein to form his team. In one of the most one-sided trades in baseball history, Hanlon obtained Dan Brouthers and Keeler from Brooklyn. Keeler and six of his teammates from the Orioles eventually were inducted into the Hall of Fame.4
In 1897, Keeler had a 44-game hitting streak to start the season, beating out the previous single season record of 42, set by Bill Dahlen. Keeler had a hit in his final game of the 1896 season, giving him a National League record 45-game hitting streak. This mark was surpassed by Joe DiMaggio in 1941, who had a 56-game hitting streak. In 1978, Pete Rose tied Keeler's single season mark of 44 games. No other player in baseball has ever matched this feat. Keeler also had eight consecutive seasons with 200 hits or more, a record broken by Ichiro Suzuki in 2009.5
In 1901 when Ban Johnson formed the American League, one of the first acts was to raid the National League and offer their stars big contracts. In 1901, Keeler received offers from six of the eight new American League clubs, including an offer from Chicago for two years at $4,300 a season. Keeler remained in Brooklyn and did not actually jump to the new league until 1903, when he signed with New York. In 1905, Keeler set the Yankees team record for most sacrifice hits in a season with 42.6
Death and legacy
Keeler suffered from endocarditis for the last five years of his life. By late 1922, his condition had worsened and it was doubtful whether he would live into the new year. Seriously ill by New Year's Eve, he heard bells and sirens in the streets when the new year arrived. Keeler sat up and said to his brother, "You see, the new year is here and so am I—still."7 He enjoyed a drink and a smoke, then said that he was ready for a long sleep.7 A short time later, Keeler died; he was 50.8 He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York.
In a 1976 Esquire magazine article, sportswriter Harry Stein published an "All Time All-Star Argument Starter," consisting of five ethnic baseball teams. Because of space limitations the Irish team, including Keeler as center fielder, was omitted.
Line-Up for Yesterday
K is for Keeler, As fresh as green paint, The fastest and mostest To hit where they ain't.