Wee Willie had a catchy nickname, extraordinary statistics, membership on one of the game’s great teams, and a formula for success that became baseball’s classic axiom. A two-time batting champion as the Baltimore Orioles right fielder, Keeler advised simply, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t.”
Keeler arrived from Binghamton (Eastern League) as a hard-hitting left-handed third baseman in 1892, the last year pitchers threw from 50 feet. But it was not until Ned Hanlon acquired him for Baltimore in 1894 that he blossomed into an excellent outfielder. The 5’4-1/2″ 140-lb Keeler was Hanlon’s leadoff man through nine glorious years in Baltimore and Brooklyn, five as pennant winners, three in second place. He was a consistent contributor to those successes, batting .378 over the nine-year period and averaging 215 hits and 134 runs. While there was a surge of high-average hitting as pitchers adjusted to the new 60’6″ distance to the plate, Keeler hit .355 or better until 1902 and did not drop below .300 until 1907.
In 1897, at age twenty-five, Wee Willie enjoyed his finest season. He batted .432, the third-highest mark in ML history, and led the league with 243 hits in only 128 games. He also hit safely in 44 consecutive games, an NL record since equaled by only Pete Rose.
Although the native Brooklynite jumped to the New York Highlanders in 1903, becoming one of few to play for three New York teams, he is best remembered for his years in Baltimore. His contemporaries recognized him as one of the game’s great bat handlers, a precise bunter, and place hitter as well as a master of the “Baltimore chop” off the hardened dirt in front of home plate. He choked his short bat almost halfway up, and with a quick wrist snap would punch the ball over the infielders’ heads. He was extremely fast down the line and worked the hit-and-run expertly with teammate John McGraw. Aggressive and opportunistic, Keeler remained cheerful and friendly, without a trace of McGraw’s unpleasant anger. A bachelor who prospered in real estate when his playing days ended, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939.