Keeler had knack for surprising everyone

Keeler had knack for surprising everyone

SEATTLE -- A man of few words but many base hits, William H. Keeler needed only one sentence to describe the secret of his hitting success.

"Hit 'em where they ain't," he said.

Those words are etched on Keeler's plaque inside the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

It has been more than 100 years since the 5-foot-4, 140-pounder from Brooklyn, N.Y., known as "Wee Willie," established the Major League record with eight consecutive seasons of at least 200 hits.

Now, Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki is making a run at the 200-hit mark for the ninth straight season.

Ichiro has already broken one long-standing MLB record. He knocked Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler off the pedestal for most hits in a single season in 2004 with 262, breaking a record Sisler held alone for 80 years -- 257 hits.

Keeler passed away more than 86 years ago -- on Jan. 1, 1923 -- and his record was never seriously challenged until Ichiro came to Seattle from Japan, where he had become rock-star famous. He ran like the wind, hit the ball in every direction and had a knack for turning routine infield outs for most players into hits.

Wee Willie Keeler was like that in his day as he rattled off his string of 200-hit seasons, beginning with 219 in 1894. That was followed with 213-, 210-, 239-, 216-, 216-, 204- and 202-hit seasons through 1901. He played nine more seasons, and the closest he came to 200 hits was in 1904, when he had 186 hits.

Newspaper clippings provided by the Hall of Fame give us a peek into what Keeler was all about.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 3, 1872, Keeler was more into baseball than schoolwork during his teenage years.

The Willie Keeler File
Born: March 3, 1872 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Died: Jan. 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, N.Y.; buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, N.Y.

Personal: Never married and has no known living relatives.

Major League debut: Sept. 30, 1892.

Career highlights: Batted at least .300 16 times during his 19-year MLB career, including a .424 average in 1897, and ended his career in 1910 with a .341 career batting average. Was the National League batting champion in 1897 and '98, with a .385 mark. Of his 216 hits in '98, 206 of them were singles. Had a 44-game hitting streak to start the 1897 season, a MLB record that stood until Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games in 1941. Pete Rose tied Keeler's NL record in 1978. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939 and at 5-foot-4, is one of the shortest players in the HOF. Was the first player to begin his career with eight consecutive 200-hit seasons and was ranked second to Cap Anson on the all-time hit list with 2,932 when he retired. Once went 700 consecutive at-bats without striking out. A left-handed hitter and thrower, Keeler began his career as an infielder, playing third base, shortstop and second base. He became primarily an outfielder with the Baltimore Orioles in 1894, although he played one game at second base that season, one game at third base in '98, one game at second in 1900, 13 games at third or second in '01, four games at third in '04 and 15 games at third or second in '05.

One of his teachers, Miss Emma Keeler, once told him, "I am very sorry to acknowledge that you are a namesake of mine, but I am, however, thankful to know you are not one of my kin. You ought to be ashamed of yourself to say that a rhinoceros, an animal, the hide of which cannot be pierced by a bullet, is noted for its feathers.

"A boy who pays no more attention to his studies than you will never amount to much when he gets to be a man."

Not quite finished, Miss Keeler also admonished her student for "the bringing of baseball bats into the schoolroom."

On the positive side, she mentioned the baseballs he had hidden in his coat pockets.

She was wrong about Keeler never amounting to much. But it was difficult for someone so small to make a big impression in a business that was down and dirty, much more so than now.

A story written in 1977 recalled an incident during Keeler's rookie season with the Baltimore Orioles. He had tried for nearly three weeks to take batting practice, but the Orioles' veterans would not allow it.

Whenever Wee Willie would step into the batter's box, a bigger, older teammate would step in front of him and growl, "Beat it, busher!"

That went on until the day the team owner saw the 22-year-old sitting on the sidelines.

"Why don't I see you batting?" he asked. "You're supposed to be pretty good."

Keeler explained that the veterans wouldn't let him.

"Well, you're a good, strong boy," the owner said. "Why don't you make them let you?"

Keeler marched to the plate with bat in hand, took his stance and was ready for some BP.

"Hey busher, g'wan, beat it!" a veteran said. "Who do you think you are?"

"I think I'm the next batter, and I either bat the ball, or I bat your head in with this club," Keeler said. "Which will it be?"

Keeler took his allotted swings, was never pushed around again and went on to hit .371 for the Orioles that season, finishing with 219 hits in 129 games and helping the team win a championship.

He would reach the 200-hit mark in each of the next seven seasons, becoming the first player to start a career with eight straight 200-hit seasons, a mark Ichiro tied last season.

Keeler was described as "a craftsman with his amazing light bat." He perfected the "Baltimore chop," swinging down on the ball so that it would hit the ground and bounce high. More times than not, he would beat the throw to first base.

He also bunted a lot.

For most of Keeler's career, when a batter had two strikes on him, he could still bunt at will and not be called out on strikes as long as the ball was touched. Foul balls on two-strike pitches didn't count as strikeouts.

That rule was changed in 1909, perhaps to speed up the game.

Keeler is also credited with introducing the hit-and-run play to the game.

According to published reports, the Orioles were playing the New York Giants in Keeler's rookie season when the pitcher, Big Amos Rusie, surrendered a game-opening single to John McGraw.

Keeler sauntered to the plate and stepped into the left-handed hitter's side of the dish. Rusie was beside himself.

"Hey, little boy! When did you get out of the cradle?" he hollered.

After a called strike on the first pitch, McGraw and Keeler pulled off the first recorded hit-and-run play in history. McGraw, who would later go on to fame as a manager, broke for second base on the pitch, the second baseman went to cover the base, and Keeler pulled the ball through the vacated hole between first and second bases.

Rusie, reportedly, was not a happy man.

Wee Willie made life miserable for a lot of big league pitchers. He slapped, dashed and chopped his way to one hit after another. He put the ball in play with the best of them, including a guy named Ty Cobb.

Striking out is something Keeler just did not do very often.

During a 700-at-bat streak that started near the end of the 1895 season, continued through the '96 season and part of the '97 campaign, Wee Willie did not strike out. Not once.

Umpire Billy Evans recalled a conversation he had with Keeler, shortly before the outfielder's death.

"The record books credit me with a great many batting feats," Keeler said, "but fail to mention what I regard the real feature of my career in baseball.

"While my memory is a little hazy as to actual facts, I went to bat 700 consecutive times in the National League, covering parts of three seasons, before I was struck out. Every baseball fan knows how easy it is for a star batter to strike out.

"That's why I regard that performance as the greatest of my career in baseball."

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939, along with Eddie Collins and Sisler.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.