Posts Tagged ‘Syracuse’

Wee Willie Keeler’s Best Year

Friday, March 17th, 2017

Wee Willie Keeler, a diminutive Baltimore Orioles right fielder measuring 5’4″ and 140 pounds, declared of his success, “Keep your eye on the ball and hit ’em where they ain’t!”  In 1897, he did it 239 times for a .424 batting average.  Both stats led the major leagues—he repeated this achievement in 1898 with 216 hits and a .385 batting average.

1897 was, indeed, a career season for Keeler, whose seasonal achievements at the plate also included:

  • Tied career high in doubles (27)
  • 2nd highest number of triples (19)
  • 4th highest number of RBI (74)
  • Career high .464 on-base percentage
  • Career high .539 slugging percentage
  • Career high 1.003 on-base plus slugging percentage
  • 44-game hitting streak (National League record tied by Pete Rose in 1978

Among Keeler’s skills, power was absent—he had zero home runs in 1897.

In addition to Keeler, Baltimore’s 1897 squad burst with supremacy at the plate.

  • Jack Doyle, First Baseman (.354)
  • Hughie Jennings, Shorstop (.355)
  • John McGraw (Third Baseman (.325)
  • Joe Kelley, Left Fielder (.362)
  • Jake Stenzel, Right Fielder (.353)

Because the Orioles’ lineup overflowed with skilled batsmen, Keeler’s prowess, though formidable, may not be easily discerned.  “The chief obstacle for evaluators of the Keeler legacy is that his prime years came with a juggernaut that was stocked with too many good hitters for pitchers to pitch around him and in an era that afforded him advantages that players who followed him as little as ten years later no longer enjoyed,” wrote baseball historian David Nemec in Volume 2 of his 2011 tome Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900.

Keeler began his career in 1892 and, as Nemec points out, benefited from the allowance to “tap or chop pitches foul without having them counted against him as strikes” during his first seven seasons.

Sporting a 90-40 record, Baltimore’s 1897 team finished 2nd in the National League.  Despite the team’s success in the 1890s, conflict resonated, especially between McGraw and Keeler.  “McGraw, always needing a target, liked to pick on Willie Keeler, the only Oriole littler than he was,” wrote Burt Solomon in his 1999 book Where They Ain’t: The Fabled Life and Untimely Death of the Original Baltimore Orioles, the Team That Gave Birth to Modern Baseball.  “Willie was a city boy and a happy one.  Mac, raised an hour and a half by rail from Syracuse, had grown up hard.  Mac had a talent for manipulation, even a need for it, and a knack for not letting it trouble him any.  Willie cared nothing about things like that.  He wanted to do his job as well as he could and to have fun, not necessarily in that order.  Sharpening his spikes, he believed, was something a gentleman did not do,” continued Solomon.

Keeler died on New Year’s Day in 1923; his Orioles teammates went to Brooklyn’s Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel for a requiem mass—a former tormentor was among those in attendance.  “Tears stood in the eyes of John McGraw, manager of the world’s champion Giants and a team mate [sic] of Keeler’s on the famous Orioles of the 90s, as he viewed his old body,” reported the Washington Post.

Keeler played for the Giants, the Bridegrooms, the Orioles, and the Yankees in his 19-year career.  2,932 hits, .341 batting average, and .415 slugging percentage boosted him to Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Keeler in 1939.  On his plaque, below the name and the visage, stands Keeler’s famous quote “Hit ’em where they ain’t!”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 8, 2016.

Oy Vey! Sandy Koufax, Yom Kippur, and the 1965 World Series

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

Sandy Koufax had a left arm envied by southpaws from Malibu to Miami, a curveball rivaling Mulholland Drive’s bends for arc intensity, and a fastball comparable to a bullet shot from a Winchester.

None of these assets were on display, however, during Game 1 of the 1965 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Because the game took place on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Koufax opted not to play.  It was a choice that reverberated in synagogues from, well, Malibu to Miami.  And Seattle to Syracuse.  And Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine.

“I tried to deflect questions about my intentions through the last couple of weeks of the season by saying that I was praying for rain,” wrote the left-hander in his 1966 autobiography Koufax with Ed Linn.  “There was never any decision to make, though, because there was never any possibility that I would pitch.

“Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religion.  The club knows that I don’t work that day.  When Yom Kippur falls during the season, as it usually does, it has always been a simple matter of pitching a day earlier, with two days’ rest, when my turn happened to be coming up.”

Don Drysdale started the game for the Dodgers.  “Most all of them are high-ball hitters, so I’ll naturally try to keep the ball down on them.  I don’t want to give them a chance to get the ball up in the air,” said Drysdale in a Los Angeles Times article by Charles Maher.  Instead, the fireballer encountered a vicious but rare pummeling—Dodgers skipper Walter Alston pulled Drysdale in the third inning, after the Twins tallied six runs, in addition to their one run in the second inning.

The story goes that Drysdale, indicating a self-effacing manner, told Alston, “I bet you wish I was Jewish, too.”

Final score:  Twins 8, Dodgers 2.

Although the fellas from the Land of 10,000 Lakes surpassed the heroes of Chavez Ravine by a six-run margin, both teams had an equal number of hits—10.  Every Dodger starter but Drysdale hit safely, as did pinch hitter Willie Crawford.

Times sports writer Paul Zimmerman wrote that Drysdale showed “surprising complacency” in explaining what happened.  “It simply was a case of bad command,” said Drysdale.  “I couldn’t get the ball anywhere near where I wanted it and when you can’t do that you don’t deserve to win.”

Mudcat Grant pitched a complete game for the Twins.  It was, indeed, a glorious year for the Florida native—Grant led the American League in wins (21), pitched 14 complete games, and scored two World Series victories.

The 1965 World Series was a seven-game affair ending with the Dodgers returning baseball glory to southern California after overcoming an 0-2 deficit.  Koufax went 2-1 in the series, Drysdale evened his record at 1-1, and Claude Osteen also had a 1-1 output.

In 1965, Koufax led the major leagues in:

  • Wins (26)
  • Earned Run Average (2.04)
  • Win-Loss percentage (.765)
  • Complete Games (27)
  • Innings Pitched (335.2)
  • Strikeouts (382)

But it is what he did during Game One of the ’65 series that is talked about five decades later at Passover seders, in Hebrew school classes, and in sermons during the High Holidays.

Or, rather, what he didn’t do.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 28, 2016.