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Hal Keller: Baseball's role player
Editor's note: This article appeared in the Aug. 29, 2007 edition of the Sequim Gazette. Hal Keller died at his home in Sequim last week at age 85.
For a game celebrated in and around ballparks, Hal Keller made his living in major league baseball almost anywhere but the field.
For 50 years he played roles baseball asked him to, from pinch hitter and catcher for minor league teams — and, for a brief stint, the majors — to scout of nearly every description and eventually to the front office, where he was general manager of the Seattle Mariners. Then, he became a scout again.
A body wracked with pain kept him from being a star like his brother Yankee slugger Charlie Keller, but a keen eye and sense of what it takes to play the game gave him five decades worth in the game that Joe Garagiola once called a “drama with an endless run and an ever-changing cast.”
“Baseball,” Keller says from his Dungeness Valley home, “has been very good to me.”
One might say the game reciprocates his compliment. As a scout and farm club director, Keller gave countless players their shot at the big leagues, mostly in Texas and Seattle. Mariner fans can thank Keller for his work in getting signed mid-1980 Seattle stars like Mark Langston, Harold Reynolds, Mike Moore and “Mr. Mariner,” Alvin Davis.
When Mike Hargrove unexpectedly resigned as Seattle’s manager earlier this season, Keller could relate. The game’s lows were too low, Hargrove said, and the highs weren’t high enough.
On his way out of Washington, Hargrove made a stop in Sequim to see Keller, a family friend and scout who signed him in the early 1970s.
“We’ve kept in touch over the years,” Keller says. “I could appreciate him leaving (Seattle).”
For someone who called baseball his career for so long, it’s a little surprising when he admits, “I am not really a sports fan.” Sure, he follows the Mariners from time to time but he doesn’t read the box scores. He follows golf more than baseball.
Surprising, but not so when one considers how Keller broke into the game.
Challenge of catching
Born Harold Kefauver Keller on July 7, 1927, in Middletown, MD., the future player and scout says he played maybe five games in high school.
“I learned to play on the church lot,” he remembers, in games where they had so few players that if he hit it into left field, where no player was positioned, he was called out.
A left-handed hitting outfielder, Keller played at the University of Maryland and later when he joined the U.S. Army in Korea.
“I had a good arm (but) they needed catching,” he says. “When I hurt my back, I couldn’t run anymore.”
In 1948, after being discharged from the Army, Keller signed with the Washington (D.C.) Senators as a free agent.
He got a single in his first game as a pinch-hitter, on Sept. 13, 1949, off White Sox hurler Randy Gumpert. Keller was 22 years old.
By then, his brother Charlie — dubbed “King Kong Keller” because of his strength — was on the downslope of a once promising career. Charlie teamed with Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich to form one of the most potent outfields assembled, but, like his brother, injuries derailed his major league career.
Despite a curt major-league career, Hal Keller found plenty of action with minor league teams in cities like Charlotte, Memphis, Toronto and Kansas City, most of it working from behind home plate.
“I enjoyed working with pitchers more than anything else,” Keller says. “It’s challenging to get a pitcher through a game.”
Like the time he worked with a player-manager who never shook off Keller’s signs, but pitches he didn’t like he always threw for a ball.
“After you work with a pitcher,” Keller says, “you get to know him.”
Leaving the ball yard
Hal Keller doesn’t remember the pitch that he hit for a home run, but James Atkins does.
They were ball players on similar tracks: Keller played in small bits of three seasons while Atkins was a right-handed thrower who got his cup of coffee — a career total of four games — with the Boston Red Sox in 1950 and 1952.
Nearing the end of the 1950 season, Atkins worked his way up through the minors and made his debut in Fenway that fall, throwing the better part of five innings in relief against the Senators.
Atkins, recalling the confrontation with Keller on author Rob Trucks’ blog (dockellis.blogspot.com), worked the count for two strikes, then threw a high pitch the left-handed Keller tomahawked over the wall in right center field into Fenway’s outfield bullpen.
It was Keller’s only major league home run and the only major league home run Atkins ever gave up.
After the Senators finished their at-bat, Boston sent to the plate future hall-of-famer Ted Williams, a fellow many baseball historians and fans consider the greatest hitter of his generation and of all-time. After missing 60 games that year to a mid-season injury, Williams was back, polishing off a “poor” season of .317 batting and 28 homers.
Before his at-bat, Williams — he of the lifetime 521 dingers — turned to Keller and said, “Does that one feel good?”
When he played, he was quite the contact hitter, striking out just three times in 57 plate appearances. But he wasn’t long for the major leagues. With a back racked in pain, Keller wasn’t able to leg out hits, and his batting average dipped from .217 in 1950 to .174 in the 1952 season, his last. After the 1952 campaign, the Senators sold him to Toronto.
Keller’s last bit of organized ball was in 1955.
He says the game was not hard to leave at all.
“I knew by the time I left I was never going to be a big leaguer,” he recalls. “One thing I didn’t like was Sunday doubleheaders. I never missed those.”
Keller became a teacher after that but needing a bigger paycheck he returned to baseball.
Gems in the rough
Keller became the Washington Senators’ assistant farm team director in the spring of 1959 and remained in the nation’s capital when the franchise was moved to Minnesota and a new Senators team was established. He took over as director of farm clubs in 1961.
In 1972, the franchise moved again — and this time so did Keller — as the Senators settled in Texas and became the Rangers.
Keller was scouting for Texas when he signed Hargrove, a left-handed hitting first baseman who went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and hit .290 in the majors.
But new ownership made a lot of changes to the promising Rangers in the late 1970s, trading Hargrove, draft pick Dave Righetti (252 lifetime saves), Jeff Burroughs (former MVP, 240 homers lifetime) and Toby Harrah (a four-time all-star).
“I became disillusioned,” Keller says. “Another opportunity arose in Seattle and I took it. It was a new challenge.”
In 1979, he joined the Mariners as director of player development, seeing players like Spike Owen, Darnell Coles, Jim Presley, Phil Bradley and Dave Valle develop.
“It takes a player two to three years in the major leagues to know he really belongs,” Keller says. “There’s always a little bit of doubt until that moment comes.”
Keller was named Seattle’s top decision-maker, the general manager and vice president, for the 1984 and 1985 seasons. Those were lean years for club players, managers and fans alike; Seattle was an expansion team in 1977 and was building the franchise from the ground up. From the inaugural season to 1983, the M’s were 426-653 (.395 winning percentage). As vice president and GM, Keller saw the Mariners record back-to-back 74-88 marks; better than in previous years, but still struggling.
“We didn’t have a lot of depth, and that hurt,” Keller recalls. A solid bench and bullpen are the keys to a winning franchise, he insists, and he sees that in the 2007 Mariners.
By 1985, the game had passed him by, Keller says. Like Hargrove, the highs weren’t high enough, the lows just too low, and player budgets skyrocketed from the $6 million arena to upwards of $60 million and more.
“It just wasn’t fun,” Keller recalls. “It’s an awful stressful job.”
Instead, he packed up the family in an RV and toured the United States.
“Best thing I ever did,” he says.
On his way across the states, he paid a visit to a ballplayer who recently hung up his spikes and was considering a career move: Mike Hargrove.
Retiring to Sequim
Keller returned to scouting after his excursion, racking up three years with the Detroit Tigers, another decade with the Angels that landed in Anaheim. In one span, he estimates he landed in 15 states in just 17 days, an exhausting pace.
In 1999 the Disney Company bought the Anaheim Angeles and let go of several longtime scouts, Keller included. Instead of hitting the road once again to scout for another team, he called it quits.
Keller and his wife, Carol, left their Issaquah home and moved to Sequim where they’ve been since.
In 40 years of scouting, Keller figures he’s studied prospects in 47 states, missing only Montana and the Dakotas.
Now is his time to relax, fiddling in the workshop and keeping up with children and grandchildren.
Dozens of school photos line his study wall and are tacked to bulletin boards, a virtual family album placed just so around his computer and walls at about eye level.
Above the window, near the ceiling, are a series of lithographs featuring some of the greatest ballplayers of all time: Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth.
And there’s one of sweet-swinging Ted Williams, the one who more than 50 years ago asked Keller how that homer felt.
Sports fan? Maybe not. But Hal Keller is a fan of baseball’s fabled history, a history he helped write.