November 21, 2018

When Charlie Keller Tried to Come Back

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In the spring of 1947, the Yankees’ Charlie Keller was at his peak as a power hitter. Now 30 years old, he’d long ago mastered the kind of left-handed swing New York management had envisioned when they signed Keller off the University of Maryland campus; he was the consummate pull-hitter, routinely muscling the ball into the rightfield short porch at Yankee Stadium a la Babe Ruth, the legend Keller had been meant to replace. Back in Newark during those two fabulous seasons of 1937 (.353) and ’38 (.365), when he won a batting title and was the International League Player of the Year, Keller hadn’t been that kind of hitter. Still using his natural swing then, he usually drove the ball hard and deep to the opposite field, and if his homer and RBI numbers weren’t as impressive, his batting averages were demonstrably higher. But when Keller arrived in New York in 1939, Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy asked him to change his style, to sacrifice his average for more home runs, and so Keller worked diligently for the next several years until he became the type of home run hitter the Yankees desired.

By 1941, Keller’s transformation as a hitter was largely complete. During that rookie season of ’39, he outhit another, more celebrated rookie, Boston’s Ted Williams, .334 to .327, yet hit only 11 home runs. Nevertheless, Keller seemed pleased with his performance, telling the press that year, “I never will be one of those home run sluggers.” The next season, though, as he continued to try to alter his swing, he hit 21 home runs, while his average fell to .286. Finally, in 1941, Keller blasted 33 home runs and drove in 122, and his status as a slugger was permanently etched in the minds of American League pitchers: for the first of four consecutive seasons Keller drew over 100 walks, and two of those years he led the league. After such a dramatic conversion it was no small irony several years later when a writer opined in Baseball Digest that “chances are (Keller) never will hit .300 consistently; he swings at too many bad pitches.”

Talk about taking one for the team.

Beginning with that 1941 season, Keller produced a string of powerful performances. While the Yankees won two of the next three World Series, anchored by arguably the best outfield of the era (Keller in left; DiMaggio in center; and Tommy Henrich in right), Keller finished second in the league in home runs in ‘41 (33); third in ’42 (26); and second in ’43 (31); those totals placed him second, third and first in home runs per at bat. Moreover, during that span Keller also averaged 105 RBI and his average OPS was .949. Having turned 27 years old in September 1943, Keller was in the prime of his career. Little could he know how quickly it would come to an end.

On January 20, 1944, Keller was commissioned an ensign in the United State Maritime Commission, and for the next 20 months, sailing around the world on merchant ships, baseball was the furthest thing from his mind. Confined to a ship, he later recalled in a 1973 interview, “you didn’t do much leg work,” so when Keller finally returned to the game in August 1945, he admitted, “I wasn’t in shape to play.” Despite his lack of conditioning, though, the slugger still slammed 10 home runs in 163 at bats over the final six weeks of the season, and by 1946 he had fully regained his timing: that season he hit 30 home runs, drove in 101 and walked 113 times; with an OPS of .938, third in the league, Keller had hardly skipped a beat.

Now, in 1947, the slugger was seemingly poised for another solid year. Prior to spring training Keller had signed a $22,000 contract, and he came to camp in great shape. Through the first 43 games, ‘King Kong,’ as the press had dubbed him in his rookie year (he always hated that name), was leading the league with 13 home runs and 36 RBI, had a .954 OPS and had already drawn 41 walks. Pull-hitting was easy now, and Keller couldn’t wait to get to the plate and look for a fastball he could turn on. Suddenly, though, just like that, it was all but over.

He was unsure exactly when it happened. On June 5, the Yankees were in Detroit. That day, after walking and collecting a pair of base hits, Keller felt pain in his right lower back and left the game in the sixth inning. When interviewed by the press afterward, he stated that he first experienced pain the previous day and surmised that it must have happened from swinging awkwardly. On June 6 and again on June 24, Keller made pinch-hitting appearances; but on June 27, with the pain now radiating down his leg, the slugger checked into the hospital in New York for evaluation. He never played another game that season.

It was indicative of Keller’s stature in the game that on July 2 he was named to his fifth All-Star team. Unfortunately, though, this year he was in no condition to play, and Keller, still in the hospital, graciously declined.

Finally, after several weeks, Keller’s condition was diagnosed:  on July 18, surgeons removed a slipped disk from his spine. The Yankees immediately announced that their star might possibly return in September, but a clubhouse visit was all Keller could eventually muster. That fall, when the Yankees faced Brooklyn in the World Series, Keller joined his teammates in uniform on the bench, and before the first game a friend suggested that the slugger play the role of captain and present the lineup card at home plate. No, not for him, Keller replied; he wasn’t going to go on the field for a little sympathy. If he couldn’t take the field as a player, Keller contended, he wasn’t going to take the field at all. He’d know the following spring whether or not he could play again.

That winter, Keller’s rehabilitation was an “arduous ordeal.” In January, he went to Bartow, Florida, where his teammate ‘Snuffy’ Stirnweiss ran a baseball school. Since baseball regulations at the time restricted the period during which a player could begin spring training, Keller was listed as an instructor at the school, but in truth, he was there to try to regain his form. As a result of inactivity following his surgery, Keller’s muscles had atrophied; his back and thighs were flabby and weak. Moreover, his right leg had become thinner than the left.

His workouts were slow and painful, and Keller often grew discouraged. To outsiders it was difficult to believe that a player who had had part of his vertebrae removed could come back from such an operation. One day in spring training, in fact, a reporter watched the Yankee leftfielder work out and reported to his paper that “Keller was through.”  Sadly, the Yankees’ front office believed so too, yet they repeatedly issued denials to the press.

Nonetheless, Keller continued his grueling recovery throughout the spring in St. Petersburg. Given his veteran status and the esteem in which he was held, he was allowed to work at his own pace, and Keller himself was by far his harshest critic. Asked once by a reporter if he was satisfied with the progress he’d made, Keller replied, “Satisfied? No, I’m not satisfied. I’m not running as fast as I used to. You might say I’m running twice as hard, but going half as fast. I haven’t got my power yet,” he continued. “I’ll be alright when I get my strength back.” For a player who had always relished the camaraderie of his teammates during spring training, his attempt to come back from his injury was a very lonely ordeal.

Through it all, Yankees’ manager Bucky Harris watched Keller’s efforts from afar. From the outset, he, too, was pessimistic about the slugger’s chances.

“When I first saw Keller in camp,” the manager remembered at the conclusion of the 1948 season, “I said to myself, ‘he’ll never make it;’” watching Keller at the plate, Harris noted that the “timing on his swing was bad” and “he seemed to be lunging at the ball.” Yet Harris expressed admiration for his veteran outfielder, and he allowed Keller to dictate his own timetable. The slugger had set a self-imposed deadline of April 1 for the time he’d ask Harris to put him in the lineup and the manager honored that decision, explaining that Keller “was a grown man, more conscientious than any I had known,” so “I decided to let Charlie decide when he was to play.”

Thus, when Keller’s first spring appearance finally arrived, it was a spontaneous move that took Harris by surprise. On March 24, the Yankees hosted the Cardinals in St. Petersburg. Trailing in the bottom of the ninth but with his team mounting a rally, Harris arose from the bench to consider his options.

“Want a pinch-hitter, Bucky?” Keller suddenly asked the startled manager. Until then the two had not discussed the veteran’s intention to try to play that day.

Caught off guard, Harris replied, “Do you want to try it?”

“I might as well, Buck,” Keller insisted. “I’ve got to do it sometime. It might as well be now.” And with no prior warning, he grabbed a bat and headed to the plate.

If writer Ed Rumill was in the stands that day, perhaps Keller’s appearance influenced his reporting. Regardless, four months later Rumill’s piece entitled “Hitting the First Pitch” appeared in Baseball Digest, and in it, Keller was included among a select group of “consistent first-ball hitters.” On this day, Keller was true to that depiction: as pitcher Jim Hearn delivered his first offering, Keller swung and lined a single to right field. When the veteran reached first base, Harris immediately sent in a pinch-runner, and when Keller returned to the dugout, Harris asked him how it felt.

“I just couldn’t get away from the plate,” Keller lamented. “The swing felt good, but it seemed as though my feet were stuck to the ground.”

One week later, though, Keller was ready for his first start of the spring; it was to come in St. Petersburg against the Phillies. On March 31, the day prior to his debut in left field, the veteran spoke irresolutely to the press.

“I really don’t know how far I’ve come,” Keller offered. “Frankly, I’m disappointed. I haven’t made any progress in ten days. My legs feel weak. I guess I don’t know how they’ll stand up until I get into the game.”

For a brief period the next day they held up reasonably well. It had been a long ten months since Keller had last taken his customary position in left field to start a game for New York, not since June of the previous year.  This day, in a 10-1 Yankee victory, Keller, in three plate appearances, walked twice and lined out once, in what the press described as “a five inning workout with no ill effects.”  Seeing their star once again playing the game even at a facsimile of full speed, continued the press, “gave the New York Yankees added hope today that outfielder Charley (King Kong) Keller can become a mighty slugger again.” As it turned out, however, he couldn’t.

Yet he gave it a courageous try. Over the next two seasons, Keller appeared in only 143 games for the Yankees, and only played the field 97 times. At the plate, it was soon apparent that his operation had dramatically affected the batting style Keller had worked so hard over the years to cultivate; whereas at his most powerful the slugger had always been a “murderous swinger,” he now favored his back, and the result was a severely shortened swing which all but eliminated Keller’s power. During the four seasons in which he excelled as a power-hitter (1941-43 and 1946), Keller averaged 282 total bases per season and a slugging average of .537; contrast that to his final two seasons in New York, when Keller averaged only 147 total bases and a slugging average of .369, and it’s clear that the man they called ‘King Kong’ for his massive and powerful physique was just a shell of what he once had been. Sadly, on December 6, 1949, the Yankees gave Keller his release, and the career of one of the brightest Yankee stars was extinguished all too soon.

Chip Greene has been a SABR member since 2005. He is a regular contributor to the Biography Project website (www.bioproj.sabr.org), as well as numerous upcoming SABR book projects, and his article comparing the careers of Derek Jeter and Lou Gehrig appears in the just-published Yankees Annual 2010.

Note: This bio is based on a much more comprehensive version recently completed for an upcoming SABR book chronicling the 1947 Yankees. That version will eventually also appear on the SABR Biography Project website.

SOURCES

Interviews

Charlie Keller interview by Kit Crissey, 2/10/73, SABR Oral History Committee

Magazines

Frank, Stanley, “Muscles In His Sweat”, Baseball Digest, February 1946

Rumill, Ed, “Hitting the First Pitch”, Baseball Magazine, July, 1948

Gross, Milton, “Charlie Keller’s Comeback”, Sportfolio, September, 1948

Newspapers

Frederick (MD) News-Post

Middletown Times Herald

Cumberland (MD) Evening Times

The Sporting News

Websites

Baseball-reference.com

Retrosheet.org

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