An Awesome Player, An Awesome Name: The Story of Wee Willie Keeler

Bleacher Report Senior Writer INovember 2, 2008

William Henry O'Kelleher Jr. was born on March 3, 1872 in Brooklyn. He was the son of William O'Kelleher Sr., a trolley switch man.

O'Kelleher Jr. was a captain for his high school team as a freshman, but quit school the following year. He played for Flushing and Arlington, local semi-pro teams.

Keeler finally broke into organized baseball in 1892 at the age of 20, when he signed with Binghamton, an Eastern League team. (Binghamton is now the Double-A Affiliate of the Mets). As a rookie, he hit .373 but was a terrible fielder, with 48 errors in just 93 games at third base.

Keeler did manage to get called up to play for the Giants in September and singled in his first at-bat off Tim Keefe. In 14 games as a rookie, he managed to have a .321 batting clip. He made a lasting impression, and the Giants put him on their active roster for 1893.

However, on May 10, he injured his leg, missed two whole months, and found himself back in Binghamton. There, his defensive struggles got the best of him, as he made 11 errors in just two weeks. The Giants sent him home to the Brooklyn Grooms, where he hit .312.

Later, the Orioles traded for Keeler and fellow Hall of Famer Dan Brouthers. All the Grooms got was Bill Shindle and George Treadway. Insert Brouthers and Keeler into a lineup that already has Hall of Famers John McGraw and Hughie Jennings, and you've got domination.

O'Kelleher dominated quickly. In his first season (1894), he hit .371 with five home runs and 94 RBI and the O's won the pennant. He dominated for five seasons, with 200 hits in each season, including 239 in 1897.

In Baltimore, Keeler basically invented the "Baltimore Chop" by chopping the ball into the ground and making it so it bounced high into the air, making it difficult for a fielder to throw the runner out.

In 1899, O's manager Ned Hanlon and owner Harry Von der Horst wanted to combine two teams: the Baltimore Orioles and the Brooklyn Superbas. Keeler elected to go back home and play for the Superbas. He made an impact right away. In 1899, he had 61 RBI and hit .379, leading the Superbas to a pennant in their first year of existence.

After three more great years by Keeler and the Superbas, Keeler was acquired by the New York Highlanders, becoming the first $10,000 player. In his first year, he hit .312 with 160 hits, 24 steals and played in 132 games. The next year, he hit .343 with 186 hits and eight triples.

In 1905, it was clear Wee Willie was on the decline. He hit .304, but Nap Lajoie overtook him as the best hitter as far as lifetime average goes. The years 1907, 1908, 1909 and 1910 were very uncharacteristic seasons. He never hit above .265 and didn't even play in 1909 because of injury. Keeler retired from baseball in 1910.

In 1911, he played for Toronto of the International League, getting 43 more hits. He sat out 1912 and 1913. In 1914, he managed the Brooklyn Tip-Tops. In 1915, he was a scout for the Braves. After retiring altogether, he invested his money in real estate and purchased commercial lots all over New York.

Keeler was wealthy, but once World War I came, he had to rely on family. In 1921, he had to accept a gift of $5,500 from the NL and AL to save his mortgage. In the early '20s, he was so sick from heart disease he couldn't even go to the Orioles team reunion. Keeler promised fans and former teammates and coaches he'd vow to live to see 1923. He did. He actually died on New Years' Day, 1923.

In his 19-year career, he had 33 home runs, 810 RBI, a .341 average, 2,932 hits and 495 steals. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949. The name worked for him, but his performance was anything but Wee.