Most New York Yankees fans recognize the five biggest franchise icons: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Derek Jeter. Those are, not coincidentally, the top-ranked players in fWAR in the Bombers’ history.
The next five position players are Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey, Alex Rodríguez, Willie Randolph, and Tony Lazzeri. Can you guess who is number 11? No, not Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Don Mattingly, Graig Nettles, Phil Rizzuto, or Thurman Munson. It’s outfielder Charlie Keller.
Keller, of course, is not a total stranger to the Yankee faithful, by any means. But the average baseball fan may not remember him, or certainly not as easily as it associates all of the names mentioned in this article so far.
The truth is that Keller’s prime was short-lived, for a variety of reasons. But he was a hot prospect in the 1930s, when DiMaggio’s Yankees dominated the scene, and finally got his chance in 1939. Per Sportscaster Steven Goldman on YES Network, in 2004:
“In 1939, the Yankees promoted the super-prospect they’d kept down in the minors for a few years. His name was Charlie Keller, a short (5-foot-10) but powerfully built outfielder with eyebrows that had been borrowed from a passing lowlands gorilla. Lefty Gomez said Keller didn’t look like he’d been scouted, he looked like he’d been trapped.”
In fact, his nickname was King Kong. He had serious power from the left side, as he showed right upon his MLB debut: in that 1939 season, Keller hit .334/.447/.500 in 490 plate appearances, with 11 home runs, 87 runs, 83 RBI, and a 146 wRC+ — he also had 4.9 fWAR. The Rookie of the Year award was introduced in 1947, but even if it existed in Keller’s debut campaign, a certain guy named Ted Williams would have probably earned it.
Keller won his first World Series that year, as a 22-year-old rookie. Over the next four seasons, from 1940 to 1943, he hit 111 home runs, and his lowest wRC+ was 139. He accumulated 27.3 fWAR in that span, or 6.8 per season.
Unfortunately, Keller lost virtually two whole seasons of his prime. Nelson Greene of SABR explained:
“On January 20th, 1944, Keller, now 27 years old, at the peak of his skills, and earning $15,000 a year, was commissioned an ensign in the United States Maritime Service. For the next twenty months, he served as a purser, sailing the Pacific aboard merchant ships. ‘I didn’t see or touch a ball the whole time I was away,’ he said in a 1973 interview. Keller returned in August 1945 to play the final six weeks of the season. I wasn’t in shape to play,’ he admitted.”
He returned to top form in 1946: he hit .275/.405/.533, with 30 home runs, 98 runs, 101 RBI, 159 wRC+, and 6.6 fWAR. Next year, he was leading the league in homers, RBI, and runs by June 5th, but back pain that resulted in a ruptured disc ended his season and, little by little, his career. He tried to alter his swing but was never the same. He barely played from that point until his retirement in 1952.
Keller is, despite his relatively short career, an underrated part of the 1940s dynasty that won five World Series during his stint with the team. He was a five-time All-Star, so he had a few years at the highest level. He had a higher walk rate than Lou Gehrig (17.0% to 15.6%), a higher wRC+ than Joe DiMaggio (153 to 152), and is 11th in the Yankees’ all-time fWAR rankings, which is remarkable if you think about it.
According to Baseball Almanac, when he passed away on May 23th, 1990, former teammate and close friend Tommy Henrich said in his obituary: “Everybody knew Charlie Keller was a great ballplayer, but he was a lot more than that. He was a true-blue man. A man’s man. You hear so much about the term ‘True Yankee.’ Well, Charlie Keller personified what the Yankees used to stand for.”
Give us this day our daily Casey Stengel photo.— Bud Painton (@George_the_3rd) May 19, 2021
September, 1952 ~~Casey welcomes left fielder Charlie Keller back into the Yankees fold following two seasons spent with the Detroit Tigers. "King Kong" Keller had previously been a Bronx Bomber mainstay from 1939 through '49. pic.twitter.com/DV9kMXJorQ
Keller was elite, but circumstances cut what looked like a Hall of Fame career way too soon. He will, nevertheless, live forever in the Yankees’ history books.