Academic journal article Base Ball

Two Hall of Famers Speak: New First-Person Narratives by Willie Keeler and Kid Nichols

Academic journal article Base Ball

Two Hall of Famers Speak: New First-Person Narratives by Willie Keeler and Kid Nichols

Article excerpt

These two primary documents, never before published and largely unknown even to exist, may not contain startling revelations and indeed may be mere historical curiosities. And yet ... they are new, and the voices are those of two who in the 1890s often found themselves in contention for the championship: Wee Willie Keeler of Baltimore and Kid Nichols of Boston. The Keeler document is a diary for the period September 27 to December 5, 1896 and will benefit from a bit of prefatory explanation. The Nichols document, on the other hand, is more far-reaching, essentially his autobiography boiled down to about 30 handwritten pages. Oddly episodic, it will, to all but a handful of experts, provide fresh detail. To make better sense of what is missing as well as what is there, I have annotated the Kid's memoir in a way that would not have served the Keeler journal.

The Diary of Wee Willie Keeler

In October 1896, five members of the best-known athletic organization of the era set off on a journey befitting their stature, if not their upbringing.

The five men-Wee Willie Keeler, John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, Joe Kelley, and Arlie Pond-comprised the core of the famed Baltimore Orioles baseball team, threetime defending National League champions. Keeler, the Orioles' right fielder, had just completed a season in which he batted .386. As lofty as that sounds, it wouldn't have been good enough to lead even his own traveling party because Jennings, the shortstop, had hit .401. Kelley, who played left field, finished at .364, his third straight season at .360 or higher. McGraw, normally the third baseman and leadoff man, had been limited by injuries to just 23 games, batting .325 in that occasional duty. Pond, a pitcher when he wasn't taking postgraduate courses in medicine at Johns Hopkins, started 26 games and won 16 times.

More than their uniform and ability bound the men, who found common ties as well in their Irish heritage, Catholic religion, youth, bachelorhood, fiery natures and small size. Off the field they didn't look like athletes, averaging just 5-foot-8 and 162 lbs. They were also an unlikely educational mix. Pond, a trained physician, and Jennings, who would eventually earn his law degree, had little intellectually in common with Keeler, a grade school dropout whose lack of formal education is betrayed by the misspellings and utter absence of punctuation throughout his diary.

But the deficiencies of book-learning that could prompt Willie Keeler to observe that "we was almost ate into by mosquitos" were more than overcome by his and his friends' competitive instincts. Those instincts, which carried them so far on the field, also prompted their trans-oceanic excursion following the completion of the 1896 season.

It was for all five a voyage of exploration of their Irish-English roots, roots that were as personal as they were ethnic. As the diary makes clear, religion was a core part of Keeler's life. The entry for Sunday, October 11, notes that he "went to the Cathedral ... [where] we heard Grace Goldin Sing the Ave Maria." Again on Sunday, Nov. 8, religion surfaces, this time by way of omission. "Overslept ourselves this morning and missed Mass the first time in quite a long while," he confesses.

The diary begins on September 27, 1896, the day after the last game of the regular season in which the Orioles went 90-39 to finish nine and one-half games ahead of the second place Cleveland Spiders. In those days the two top teams played a postseason contest for a trophy called the Temple Cup, and although the Orioles' margin of victory during the regular season suggested that the series ought to have been an easy win, Keeler and his teammates were taking nothing for granted. Both in 1894 and 1895 they had won the pennant only to be upset by the runner-up in Temple Cup play. They would not let that happen again: following four exhibition victories against eastern minor-league teams, they dispatched the Spiders in four straight. …

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