Alex Rodriguez has been connected to many things during his long, sometimes troublesome career: home run milestones, record contracts, steroids, various celebrities in the gossip columns, etc. Along the way, he's had the opportunity to play alongside and under some all-time baseball greats such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.
However, thanks to a little digging, I've discovered that the former top overall draft pick has another fascinating connection. This time, it's to a man who played on the very first Yankee (then called the Highlanders) team: Willie Keeler.
Yes, a way exists to connect the Yankees' main designated hitter heading into the 2016 season to someone who played in the franchise's inaugural season in 1903 and who made his big league debut 81 years before a DH was ever used in the majors (Keeler's first major league season came in 1892 for the New York Giants). Let's dive right into it.
Connection #1- Alex Rodriguez and Lou Piniella
Rodriguez played the first seven years of his major league career (1994-2000) with the Seattle Mariners under former Piniella, who of course spent 14 years in pinstripes as a player (1974-84) and manager (1986-88).
Sweet Lou had quite the career, amassing over 1,700 hits as a player and winning 1,835 games in 23 years as a manger. He also won three World Series rings, two as a player with the 1977-78 Yankees and one as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1990. One of the rings he won as a player was with our next connection on this list at the helm.
Connection #2- Piniella and Bob Lemon
Lemon took over as Yankee manager midway through the 1978 season after Billy Martin was let go for the very first time by George Steinbrenner. With Lemon in charge, the Yankees won 48 of the season's final 68 games, tying the Boston Red Sox for the division and forcing that famous one-game playoff at Fenway Park to end the season.
Thanks to The Boss' hiring and firing practices, Lemon would manage Piniella and the Yankees for parts of three more seasons (1979, '81, and '82). Lemon won 430 games during his eight seasons as a big league manager, 99 of which came in New York.
Connection #3- Lemon and Roger Peckinpaugh
While he is primarily remembered as being one of the better pitchers of his era for the Cleveland Indians (207-128 with a 3.23 ERA and seven All-Star selections in 13 seasons), Lemon originally was signed as an outfielder and third baseman. His very first appearances on a big league diamond came in 1941 as a September call-up, collecting one hit in four plate appearances (even when he became a full-time pitcher, Lemon continued to be a fairly productive hitter, hitting .232 with 37 home runs in his career).
The first manager Lemon ever had in the majors was Roger Peckinpaugh. Peckinpaugh had been hired as the Indians' manager prior to the '41 season, and had served as the team's manager previously from 1928 to 1933. Peckinpaugh's '41 Indians squad finished 75-79-1, and was elevated to general manager the following season, ending his managerial career.
Connection #4- Peckinpaugh and Hal Chase
Prior to Peckinpaugh's managing career, he had quite the productive playing career. The former shortstop played 17 seasons in the big leagues, nine of which were spent with the Yankees. Of those nine seasons, eight were spent as the sixth captain of the Yankees and one (1914) as a 23-year-old player/manager for 20 games.
His first year with the Yankees came in 1913 (which, coincidentally, was the first year the team was called the Yankees) after an early season trade from Cleveland, which is how Peckinpaugh and Chase became teammates. However, their time as teammates was rather brief as shortly after the Yankees acquired Peckinpaugh, the team traded its long-time star first baseman to the Chicago White Sox.
Connection #5- Chase and Willie Keeler
Prior to the 1913 trade to Chicago, Chase spent eight-and-a-half seasons in New York with the Highlanders/Yankees. During his tenure with the team, the right-handed hitter collected 1,182 hits, stole 248 bases, and slashed .284/.311/.362. Chase did, however, have his fair share of issues, as he was routinely suspected of throwing games. In fact, according to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), he even allegedly played a role in the 1919 Black Sox fix as a middle man, and SABR calls Chase "the most notoriously corrupt player in baseball history."
During the first five years of his career (1905-09), Chase was the teammate of one of the best hitters in the Dead Ball era in Keeler. The left-handed hitting outfielder and Brooklyn native played 19 seasons in the major leagues, hitting .341/.388/.415 with 2,932 career hits and 495 stolen bases.
The man nicknamed "Wee Willie" (he was only 5-foot-4, 140 pounds; for comparisons' sake, Jose Altuve is two inches taller and has 25 heavier than Keeler was) was perhaps best known for his incredibly low strikeout totals, as he only struck out an incredible 136 times in over 9,600 plate appearances. In fact, Keeler had seven seasons in which he tripled more than he struck out (in 1899, for example, he tripled 13 times and struck out just twice in 633 plate appearances).
This brings us to the whole point of this exercise- Keeler was a member of the very first team in Yankee/Highlander history. Keeler actually batted second for the Highlanders during the team's very first game on April 22, 1903. The full box score from The New York Times can be found below (courtesy of MiscBaseball.com).
There you have it. Who knew a 5-foot-4 outfielder in the dead ball era had a connection to a 6-foot-3 designated hitter playing in an era of instant replays and pitch counts? (And no, Keeler and Rodriguez did not play together, so try to resist the old jokes please).