Exactly one month ago, our own Andrés Chavez detailed the career of Charlie Keller. The Maryland native is one of the better hitters in the history of the Yankees, but he never got the proper praise for his performance after his career was over.
The amount of talent that’s put on a Yankee uniform is astounding, so one of the perks of our All-Supernova series is the chance to highlight great players whose stories have receded to the background behind those of countless Yankees legends. While they may not all be Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, these are players who were in their own way crucial to the history of the organization.
A few of the previous entries to the Supernova squad felt like shoo-ins; Don Mattingly and Roger Maris come to mind. When it came to decide who would be playing across from Maris in left field, the great Charlie Keller is just as obvious a selection.
Career NYY Stats: .286/.410/.518, 1,066 Games, 184 HR, 723 RBI, 760 BB, 481 SO, 152 OPS+
Keller was born on September 12, 1916 in Middletown, Maryland, one of four children growing up on a farm. Milking cows from a very young age to help out his dad on the farm has been credited as one of the things that helped him develop the strength he used to swing the bat. Anyone familiar with the arduous task knows how hard it is and the kind of strength and endurance it develops. However, it wasn’t long until his family moved to the city, where Keller excelled as a multi-sport athlete. He played basketball, soccer, and even ran track, but it all paled in comparison to what he was able to do on a baseball field.
Keller was so outstanding that he eventually played every position on the baseball field, but most of his work came pitching and behind the dish as a catcher. During his senior season, Keller had to stay away from sports due to appendicitis, and he would eventually accept a scholarship to attend the University of Maryland.
In college, Keller took on football for a while as well and made an impression, but after suffering an injury, he felt compelled to give up the sport, fearing it would compromise his baseball career. This was a sound choice, as the Yankees felt so strongly about his potential on the diamond that they signed him well before his graduation, and agreed to let him finish out his time in college. So excited by the opportunity, Keller decided to show up early and get his degree at a later point.
Debuting in 1939, Keller took the American League by storm and finished 22nd in MVP voting despite failing to even reach 500 plate appearances. His stellar .334/.447/.500 slash line was more than enough to outweigh the relative lack of volume during his rookie campaign — one that ended in a fourth straight championship for the Yankees.
Keller dominated from there, averaging 28 homers, 102 RBI, and a 153 OPS+ over the next four seasons. He missed the 1944 season due to military service, but didn’t skip a beat upon returning, managing a 164 OPS+ over the next three years.
Back problems prevented Keller from playing a full season after he turned 30, and one can only wonder at the impact he could’ve had under different circumstances. But even in a limited time, Keller left his mark. All that’s said about Don Mattingly can be said about Charlie Keller.
For his Yankee career, the lefty slugger had a little more than three walks for every two of strikeouts he suffered. Keller ranked third in OBP during from 1939 to 1947, behind legendary hitters, Stan Musial and Ted Williams. In OPS, the Yankees left fielder was sixth, sandwiched in between the aforementioned Musial and Jimmie Foxx. He combined that with great power for the time, with a .242 ISO between 1939 and 1947 that surpasses the career figures posted by more contemporary greats like Mike Piazza and the elder Vladimir Guerrero.
In his prime, Charlie Keller breathed rarified air, alongside some of the greatest hitters this sport has ever seen. By all accounts, he was a Hall of Fame level hitter, with only a balky back keeping him from achieving his greatest potential. He had a spectacular and sustained peak, surpassed by few in Yankee history.