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Charlie “King Kong” Keller Rattles the Woodshed ending a Yearlong Silence

Baseball militaria can be one of the more challenging areas in which to curate be it for museums or personal collections.  Our regular readers are, no doubt familiar with the difficulties we have encountered as we continue to pursue artifacts. In terms of game-used equipment, uniforms and gloves have been relatively easy to procure while baseballs have been to the contrary in sourcing. With precisely four service-used bats in our collection (two baseball models and two for softball use), it may be more realistic to accept that military lumber is the most elusive.

More than a year has elapsed since we acquired our most recent arrival; a “U.S.” stamped Hillerich & Bradsby H&B “Safe Hit” Jimmie Foxx model bat. Like most of the bats in our collection, the Foxx bat was in rough condition due to extensive use and nearly eight decades of decay leaving the bat more suitable as firewood than as treasured baseball artifact. However, after a modest prescription of cleaning and oiling the Jimmie Foxx bat has become quite a display piece both in our home display and for public showings. The same situation surrounded our “U.S.N.” Stamped Ted Williams signature H&B model bat regarding condition. It seemed that we were destined to source pieces that most collectors and curators would consider to be filler (items that fill collection “holes” until nicer examples can be located).

The lack bat of activity over the last year wasn’t due to the absence of suitable pieces but rather the result of considerable competition for the few that were on the market. With models bearing the names of baseball legends such as Ruth and Gehrig emblazoned on military baseball bats, the market tends to drive the prices to stratospheres well beyond a reasonable budget. Sometimes, the roadblock is purely (poor) timing resulting in missed opportunity.

With the dry spell showing no signs of ceasing, the opportunity arose when another military-marked Hillerich & Bradsby-made bat surfaced on the market in an online auction. This time, the bat was in slightly better shape than our previous acquisitions yet still showed since of heavy usage. The finish of the hickory-wood bat was relatively intact yet nearly all of the black foil was worn away from the brand and signature (all that remained of the markings was the very slight indentations where the bat was struck during the manufacturing process. We encountered a similar situation with an earlier bat arrival to our collection – the early 1950s Ferris Fain model – that was nearly devoid of markings. Restoration of that Fain bat left it as a showpiece in our non-militaria collection. The lack of foil markings on this potential candidate didn’t give us pause.

The barrel markings of the H&B Charlie Keller signature bat include the U.S.N. stamping (indicating Navy use) and Keller’s autograph (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Aside from the missing black foil (“store model” or commercially available bats lack the “burned” brands present on professional models), this piece was clearly a viable candidate for our collection. The accompanying photos (in the listing) of the bat revealed markings indicating that it was another “H&B” model with a designation of ether “NO. 60” or “NO. 80” within the center brand. On the barrel is a rather deep “U.S.N” stamp above a faintly depressed “Charlie Keller” signature. While Keller’s name isn’t nearly as recognizable as both Williams and Foxx (the two names on the aforementioned service bats in our collection), His career was well-known to anyone who was a baseball fan during the “Golden Age” of the game (1930s to the 1950s).

Upon closer examination of the center brand, this Keller model appears to be a “NO. 60” versus our pre-purchase assessment of “80” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Charles Ernest Keller was born on September 12, 1916 in Middletown, Maryland. He was raised on the family farm and in addition to his schooling, he, like all three of his siblings, put in hard day’s work, rising at 4:00 before heading to school. In the afternoons, Charlie would be at home on the farm, sneaking in some baseball along with his younger brother, Harold before resuming chores after school. Charlie worked hard as a student and athlete resulting in a scholarship to the University of Maryland after graduating from high school in 1933. Continuing to hone his talents in college, his play caught the attention of Yankees scouts who signed him to a contract following his junior season (1936) with the provision of allowing him to finish his senior year and to graduate.

Entering professional baseball, Keller was assigned to the Yankees’ International League affiliate, the Newark (New Jersey) Bears. In his first season, Keller acquitted himself hitting .353 in 536 at bats with a .541 slugging percentage. In the late 1930s, the Yankees roster and their farm system was stocked to the point of embarrassment. Though he demonstrated his skills by easily adapting to professional pitching in his first season at Newark, the logjam in New York kept him from moving up to the big leagues. Despite being held back, Keller’s skills and abilities improved and his offensive output (.365 batting average and .589 slugging percentage with 22 home-runs) made it difficult for Manager Joe McCarthy to keep him down any longer. Charlie Keller earned a roster spot for the 1939 season, splitting 105 games in the outfield (57 in right and 48 in left field) while managing a .334 batting average in 398 at-bats. Not missing a beat from his two seasons in the International League, Keller maintained his power, clubbing 11 homeruns and a .500 slugging percentage as a part-time player. The following season, still platooning between left and right field (sharing time with George Selkirk and Tommy Henrich), Keller was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance despite his batting average slipping to .286 (though his power increased – 21 homers and a .508 slugging percentage), while hitting third in the order. Keller’s major league career was nothing, if not a picture of consistency.

“January 23, 1944 – St. Petersburg, Florida: Charlie Keller. Reports for Duty. Ensign Charlie Keller (left) former New York Yankees star outfielder, shakes hands with LT. Commander W. L. Burget as Keller reported here, yesterday to begin his duties as an athletic officer in the Maritime Training Station physical Education Program” (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

By the end of the 1943 season, Keller owned three World Series rings with championships in 1939 (versus Cincinnati), ’41 (Brooklyn) and his most recent from the four-games-to-one dominance over the defending champions St. Louis Cardinals (who defeated the Yankees in 1942). In his 19 series game (in four world series), Keller carried a .306 average with five home runs, a .367 on base percentage slugging his way to .611.  Keller’s career was peaking at the age of 27 with World War II in full swing. The Following the final out in the fifth series game against the Cardinals, the Yankees saw the balance of their stars exiting for military service (Joe DiMaggio was already serving in the Army Air Forces following the conclusion of the ’42 season): catcher Bill Dickey and George Selkirk joined the Navy, Joe Gordon entered the U.S. Army Air Forces. Other players who departed included Ken Sears (Navy), Billy Johnson (served in a war production plant and was drafted into the Army in ’44) and Johnny Murphy (worked at Oak Ridge Mountain where the atomic bombs were developed). Instead of joining one of the armed forces branches, Keller enlisted on January 23, 1944 into the U.S. Maritime Service and was commissioned as an ensign. Though he initially was to be assigned as an athletic training officer, he ended up serving aboard merchant ships in the Pacific Theater for the majority of his tenure. Unlike service aboard a warship, merchant vessels were considered prime targets by enemy submarines and aircraft as cargo carried in their holds sustained combat forces with needed supplies. Keller’s life was very much at risk with his ship constantly at sea between ports.

The U.S. Maritime Service (USMS) was the most risky proposition for those who served aboard merchantmen during World War II.  During WWII, (according to USMM.org) approximately 243,000 Americans served in the USMS, aligning its ranks with that of the wartime U.S. Coast Guard.  With 9,521 killed (either on the high seas, murdered while in captivity as a POW or succumbed to wounds) or approximately 3.9% of all merchant marines, the 1:26 ratio for loss was the lowest compared to the armed forces. Merchant Marines sailors had a one in 26 chance to be killed (a Marine had a 1:34 ratio). This shipping losses were staggering.

In the last few decades, historians and Hollywood have shed considerable light upon the treacherous duty and challenges faced by the North Atlantic Convoys plying the waters between the eastern United States and Europe and through traps set by the Kriegsmarine “Wolfpacks” during the Battle of the Atlantic. However, with the vast Pacific Ocean and convoy routes between ports spanning the length of the U.S. West Coast and the South Pacific, the plight of merchant sailors is largely forgotten. Regardless of his shipboard assignment, Ensign Charlie Keller faced considerably dangerous odds. Keller was a fairly quiet man throughout his life and apparently didn’t speak about his duties during the war.

After more than a year at sea, Ensign Charlie Keller was discharged from the U.S. Maritime Service in mid-August. Rather than spend his pos–war service readjusting at his home, Keller reported to the Yankees during their abysmal 23-day, 24-game road trip (with prior stops at Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis) when the “Bombers” were visiting the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park, for a six-game final stop before heading home. Keller made his first appearance of the 1945 season on Saturday, August 18 for a pre-game workout before Chicago hosted Boston for their final game of the series with the Red Sox (the Yankees were still in St. Louis facing the Browns). The visiting Boston club showed Keller the returning war veteran a measure of courtesy by loaning him a Red Sox uniform and allowing him to take up his familiar position in left field. With 678 elapsed days since the final out of Game 5 of the 1943 World Series, the workout with the Red Sox was his first time in a professional setting.

With no time or opportunity to swing a bat or throw a baseball, his Saturday morning exercise at Comiskey was welcomed.  Keller told reporters that he was in good physical condition suggesting, “with a couple weeks work I think I’ll be ready to play ball again.*”  Aside from fielding and working on his throwing abilities, Keller was afforded time at the plate during the Red Sox’s batting practice, taking several swings at pitches. “I could hit it all right, and my eye seems good,” Keller told reporters after the hitting session, “but there’s a lot of difference hitting in batting practice and hitting that ball in a game.” Charlie Keller’s biggest concern was getting his batting up to speed with major league pitching asserting that he faced a challenge, “the hardest thing about getting back in condition to play,” the Yankee emphasized, “hitting that ball.” Despite his thoughts regarding his readiness for game action, Yankees manager Joe McCarthy inserted Keller into the second game of the series-opening double-header on Sunday, August 19 to face Chicago’s starting pitcher, Orval “Lefty” Grove. Batting from his familiar three-spot in the lineup, Keller struck out (behind Bud Metheny’s single) to record the second out of the first inning. Leading off the top of the fourth, Keller found his major league stroke and grooved a single off of Grove for his first hit of the 1945 season.  The day belonged to Lefty Grove as he blanked the Yankees 2-0 surrendering just five hits and two free passes. Keller went 1-4, contributing two of Grove’s five strikeouts.

Though all of the black foil has been worn away, Keller’s signature is still discernible (Chevrons and Diamonds Collection).

Charlie Keller would remain with the Yankees through the 1949 season but his 1943 World Series was the last time he played in a championship game (despite New York’s post-season crowns secured in 1947 and ’49) due to his seemingly annual late-season chronic back injuries. Keller’s abilities were steadily diminishing resulting in his outright release by the Yankees on December 6, 1949. Two weeks later, Keller signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers though he was limited to just 104 games in two years (1950-51).  Keller was released by the Tigers following the end of the 1951 season and was out of baseball until he drove from his Maryland home to New York to meet with Yankees manager, Casey Stengel, asking for the opportunity for a tryout. The Yankees, deficient in left-hand hitting power, signed Keller as a pinch-hitter for just $3,000. Keller appeared in just two games, recording just a single plate appearance on September 18, 1952 (the day after his , pinch hitting for pitcher Vic Raschi and facing Chicago’s Marv Grissom. Keller was struck out looking. In his final game, Keller spelled Mickey Mantle at center-field in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Yankees ahead of Cleveland, 7-0. With Allie Reynolds on the mound in full command, the bottom of the Indians order were retired consecutively with infield ground-outs. Keller never touched the ball in his final career game.

Due to Keller’s pre-war all-star status, his name was a commodity for baseball equipment manufacturers seeking to market their gloves and bats to youth and adult ballplayers, alike. The Hillerich & Bradsby company, aside from producing his professional model bats for Keller’s game use, sold store model bats endorsed by the left fielder and bearing his signature. Our pursuit of the H&B model bat was fruitful as the seller was supportive of the Chevrons and Diamonds mission with a very accommodating offer. Within a few days, the bat arrived. Despite the extensive wear and aging, our assessment is such that the bat is restorable in terms of stabilizing the decay, revitalizing the finish and bringing the black foil brand’s appearance into alignment with the age and wear of the bat (it shouldn’t be “like new” since the wood is heavily worn).

The demands of life and circumstances will prevent us from performing the bat restoration in the near-term but we hope to have this piece presentable before the end of Spring. Stay tuned for a follow-up article detailing the restoration process along with the end result. This Charlie Keller signature model bat will be a centerpiece in our collection as we continue to share the story of military baseball while honoring Ensign Keller’s World War II Maritime Service.

 

See also: Blue Seas, Red Stars” Details How The Soviet Union Honored Heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic

*Keller Rejoins Yankees Today – Poughkeepsie Journal, Sunday, August 19, 1945

 

 

 

 

 

 

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