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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #26 Charlie Keller

“King Kong” was a force in the Yankees lineup for several World Series championship teams in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

Full Name: Charles Ernest “Charlie” Keller
Position: Left field
Born: September 12, 1916 (Middletown, MD)
Died: May 23, 1990 (Frederick, MD)
Yankee Years: 1939-43, 1945-49, 1952
Primary Number: 9
Yankee Statistics: 1,066 G, 4,466 PA, .286/.410/.518, 1053 H, 184 HR, 163 2B, 69 3B, 723 RBI, 153 OPS+, 151 wRC+, 42.5 bWAR, 44.6 fWAR

Biography

When you ask a random Yankee fan off the street about players from the franchise’s various great dynasties from the 1920-60s, there’s a couple that will be the first to come to mind. I’m talking about your Babe Ruths, Lou Gehrigs, Joe DiMaggios, and Mickey Mantles. However, it takes more than one or two players to make a dynasty, and just mentioning the all-time legends from those eras overlooks some massively important names.

One of those names that is often not included among the greats of the greats but was still undeniably hugely important to an incredible era of Yankees’ baseball was the man known as “King Kong.”

Portrait of Joe DiMaggio with Charlie Keller

Maryland Farm Boy

The second of four children, Charles Ernest Keller was born in 1915 to (also) Charles Ernest and Naomi Keller. One of his brothers, Hal, would also play in Major League Baseball, playing parts of three seasons for the Washington Senators. Charlie was born on and grew up working on his family’s farm in Middletown, Maryland, about an hour-ish away from Baltimore. It was that farm work that was credited with helping Keller develop his solid and built physique that he would become known for and got him his famous nickname. His teammate Lefty Gomez would later say of Keller’s sturdy and hairy build, “He wasn’t signed. He was trapped.”

The Keller family lost their farm during the Great Depression, which, while bad for the family, allowed Charlie more time on the baseball diamond. While at Middletown High School, he came a standout not only in baseball, but also in basketball, soccer, and track. Those exploits led to him also becoming a multi-sport star at the University of Maryland.

At Maryland, Keller played on the freshmen teams for baseball, basketball, and even added football into his repertoire. However, after suffering an ankle injury playing football, he later decided to focus on baseball, as that was where his future truly was.

In his two varsity seasons at Maryland, Keller put up batting averages of .500 and .497, getting him on the professional radar. Eventually, Yankees scout Gene McCann inked him for the Bombers, and Keller reported to the minor league Newark Bears for the 1937 season.

Early Career

Keller quickly got acclimated to professional ball, winning the International League batting title after hitting .353/.431/.541 with Newark in 1937. The season got him honored as the IL’s Rookie of the Year and the Minor League Player of the Year. Even after that, the Yankees didn’t even invite him to major league spring training for 1938. Despite that, he was still considered a hot prospect, and teams spent the year trying to acquire Keller, only to be rebuffed by the Yankees. He followed that with another big season with Newark, hitting .365/.466/.569.

In 1939, Keller would go to spring training, and was told by Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy to report early so the skipper could personally work with the 22-year old. While he had played all over the diamond in his youth and right field with Newark, McCarthy thought that Keller had the makings of a left fielder. The manager would mentor the youngster all spring, trying to implement that and some changes in his swing, as the Yankees wished for the lefty to become more of a pull hitter. McCarthy clearly came away impressed, as he named Keller to the Yankees’ Opening Day roster for 1939. While injuries kept him out for the first two games, Keller would make his MLB debut as a pinch-hitter on April 22nd.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

Keller recorded his first hit on April 29th, and made his first start on May 2nd — which was the same game where Lou Gehrig didn’t start and ended his legendary streak. However, his early run of starts coincided with an injury to Joe DiMaggio. Once DiMaggio returned in June, Keller was once again relegated to a backup role. The youngster was deeply hurt by his return to the bench, only to be consoled and told by McCarthy that he needed to continue working on pulling to ball to fit Yankee Stadium.

After a month and a bit of occasional appearances, McCarthy gave Keller a game in right field in the place of a slumping Tommy Henrich. Keller drove in a run that day and was given an extended run as a starter after that. From August on, he hit .356/.464/.563 with nine home runs and his career was off to the races from there.

With Keller rounding out an already great lineup, the Yankees cruised to the AL pennant in 1939. He remained as a starter as the team met the Reds in the World Series. Not only did Keller perform admirably as a rookie in the Fall Classic, but he likely would’ve won Series MVP had the award existed back then.

Keller hit .438/.471/1.188 and led the Yankees in nearly every major offensive category in the four-game sweep. In Game 1, he scored the winning run after a triple in the ninth inning in a tie game, drove in four runs in a 7-3 win in Game 3, and then also scored the go-ahead run in the 10th inning of Game 4.

Becoming “King Kong”

After his stretch run and heroics in 1939, Keller was a no-brainer for the Yankees’ outfield in 1940. Henrich slid back into right field, with Keller moving back to the left field spot that McCarthy had envisioned. The two of them plus DiMaggio would then go on to form one of the best outfield trios in franchise history.

Keller took the bull by the horns and put in a big year in 1940 in his first full year as a regular. He hit .286/.411/.508, with a league-leading 106 walks, making his first career All-Star team. The Yankees fell back to third in the AL despite that, but Keller had proven himself a force on the big league level.

While the attention was mostly on DiMaggio and his 56-game hitting streak in 1941, Keller was a more than excellent second banana that year. He slugged a career high 33 home runs and put up a 162 OPS+, which saw him named an All-Star and finish fifth in AL MVP voting. Among those finishing ahead of him was DiMaggio and a couple other famous guys like Ted Williams and Bob Feller.

As a team, the Yankees returned to the top of the AL in ‘41, wining 101 games and finishing 17 ahead of the second place Red Sox. Once again, Keller was excellent in the Fall Classic, OPSing .976 in the five-game series victory over the Dodgers. He also came through with arguably the biggest hit of the series. With the Yankees down to their last out in Game 4, Brooklyn catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t handle a potential strike three on Henrich. That opened the door for DiMaggio to single him to second and for Keller to deliver a go-ahead double, plating his fellow outfielders.

Had Keller been retired and the Dodgers won, few would have remembered the muffed K on Henrich, but King Kong made it hurt. Instead of a tied series, the Yankees went up 3-1 and clinched the championship the following day.

Keller continued his excellence in 1942, recording a 163 OPS+ as he slugged 26 more home runs. The Yankees again returned to the World Series, but were knocked off by the Cardinals in five games. St. Louis pitchers held the Bombers to a .611 OPS and three home runs in the series, but Keller hit two of them in the losing effort.

Despite the likes of DiMaggio being away serving in the military in 1943, the Yankees didn’t miss too much of a beat that season, thanks in part to Keller and company. With a league-leading .922 OPS and 106 walks, Keller helped the Yankees win the AL again in ‘43, while making his third All-Star Game. This time in the Fall Classic, they got revenge on St. Louis, beating them in five games. Keller went just 4-for-18, but was on base for Bill Dickey’s two-run homer in the clinching 2-0 win in Game 5.

Sporting News Archive Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

In 1944, Keller himself was drafted into the military and spent the entire season away from the Yankees, serving in the Merchant Marines. He eventually returned for August 1945 and despite later saying that “he wasn’t in baseball shape,” you couldn’t tell from his stats. In 44 games, Keller slugged 10 home runs and put up a 181 OPS+. His .412 OBP and .577 SLG would’ve led the league had he played enough to qualify for those leaderboards. That wasn’t enough to help the depleted roster get close to the pennant, but Keller was well and truly back — however, it was only for a brief spell.

Injury, Departure, and Return

In 1946, Keller picked up where he left off, putting up a 159 OPS+ in 150 games. As a team, the Yankees didn’t do much with Keller’s mentor McCarthy resigning 35 games into the season. Keller was seemingly still at his peak. His fWAR that season was 6.5. With the exceptions of his rookie year (where it was still 4.9) and his military-shortened ‘45, Keller had put up at least five fWAR in every season he had played. Little would anyone have known at the time, but that ended up being the end of Keller’s career as a regular player.

Keller was seemingly on his way to another big season in 1947. Through June 6th, he had a .960 OPS and a league-leading 13 home runs. However around that time, he began to have recurring back pain, which he attributed to an awkward swing. After getting a couple weeks off, he returned as a pinch hitter on June 23rd. Shortly after that game, the pain began radiating down his leg. Keller would not feature again for the Yankees in ‘47.

In July, Keller had a slipped disk removed from his spine, taking him out of action. After some speculation that he may return late in the season, Keller’s 1947 would end after just 45 games. The Yankees kept him in uniform as they won the 1947 World Series, but Keller still did not appear in the series.

Keller remained part of the Yankees in 1948 and ‘49, and still put up above average hitting numbers, but he was nowhere close to the player he had been before his back issues began. He was also limited to just 143 combined games in those years, only a portion of which came as a starter in the field. After the season, the Yankees released him after 10 years of incredible baseball.

Not ready to be done just yet, Keller signed with the Tigers ahead of the 1950 season in a pinch-hitter/bench role. He put up an OPS over 1.000 in 50 games for Detroit in 1950, helping the Tigers finish second in the AL. However, they were just beaten out by his former teammates in New York for the pennant.

In 1951, Keller still put up above average numbers, putting up a 117 OPS+, but that was a significant step back from the season before. The Tigers decided to release him after that season, but he wasn’t done in baseball quite yet.

After a September 1952 workout impressed, Casey Stengel and the Yankees decided to bring Keller back for a run late in that season. However, he only appeared in two games, and struck out in his only plate appearance. They released him after that, but he was still enough of a beloved figure that the team awarded him a World Series share after they beat the Dodgers.

That brief run would be the full end of Keller’s major league career. Despite how it ended, Keller finished his career with a 152 OPS+. Had he not run into injuries and maintained anywhere close to that mark, he would’ve been a very strong candidate for things like the Hall of Fame. He was deservedly one of the most feared hitters of his era.

New York Yankee Charlie Keller Holding Bat

Post-Baseball Life

After his retirement, Keller and his wife Martha — who he had married back in 1938 — went home to their native Maryland. In his post-baseball career, Keller decided to return to what he knew before that: the farm life.

He purchased some land in Frederick, MD near where he grew up and eventually grew that into a 300-acre farm. “Yankeeland Farms,” as Keller’s land later became known, would become renowned for breeding race horses until its closure in 2006.

Keller continuing working until he passed away in 1990 from colon cancer. He was 73.

Charlie “King Kong” Keller did not have quite enough of the longevity of some of the apex legends in Yankees’ history. Like his predecessor on this list, Earle Combs, he has somewhat strangely not been honored in Monument Park with a plaque, though his numbers stack up with any outfielder in Yankees history not named Ruth, Mantle, or DiMaggio. In his day, Keller was justifiably feared at the dish, and New York reaped the benefits.

Staff Rank: 26
Community Rank: 38
Stats Rank: 20
2013 Rank: 23

Reference

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

BR Bullpen

SABR, Greene, Nelson “Chip”

Pinstripe Alley

US Trotting News

Previously on the Top 100

27. Earle Combs
Full list to date