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Ken Keltner

Ken Keltner

Position(s):
3B, 1B
Nicknames:
Butch
Born:
October 31, 1916
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6'
Weight:
190 lbs
Major League Debut:
10-02-1937 with CLE

Although he is perhaps remembered best for making two fine defensive plays that helped bring an end to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, Ken Keltner accomplished a great deal more during his 11 seasons with the Cleveland Indians.  The American League’s top third baseman for much of his career, Keltner stood out both as a hitter and as a fielder.  The right-handed hitting third sacker surpassed 20 home runs three times, 100 runs batted in twice, and also batted over .300 once.  Meanwhile, he led all A.L. third basemen in double plays five times, assists four times, fielding percentage twice, and putouts once.  At the time of his retirement in 1950, Keltner’s .965 career fielding percentage represented the third highest mark ever posted by a retired major league third baseman.  

Biography

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 31, 1916, Kenneth Frederick Keltner attended Boy’s Technical High School, after which he took a job working as a truck driver.  Discovered playing softball in his spare time by the minor league Milwaukee Brewers in 1936, Keltner began his professional playing career with his hometown team later that year.  Ascending rapidly through the minor leagues, Keltner received an invitation from the Cleveland Indians to attend their spring training camp in 1938.  After winning the team’s starting third base job, the 21-year-old Keltner went on to hit 26 home runs, drive in 113 runs, score 86 others, and bat .276.

Although Keltner’s 13 homers, 97 RBIs, and 84 runs scored the following year represented a slight decrease in his overall production, he compiled a career-high .325 batting average and 191 hits while playing in all 154 games for the Indians.  Establishing himself as the American League’s finest all-around third baseman, he also led all players at his position with 40 double plays and 187 putouts.  After a subpar 1940 season in which he hit 15 home runs, knocked in 77 runs, and batted just .254, Keltner rebounded in 1941 to hit 23 homers, drive in 84 runs, and bat .269.  He also etched his name into baseball lore on July 17 of that year, when his outstanding glove work at third base prevented Joe DiMaggio from extending his all-time record 56-game hitting streak.  

Role in ending Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak

With Cleveland playing host to the Yankees on July 17, Keltner wisely chose to play DiMaggio extremely deep and close to the third base line every time the “Yankee Clipper” stepped to the plate.  Fully aware that DiMaggio had no intention of bunting, Keltner also knew that the previous evening’s rainfall made it difficult for batters to get out of the box quickly.  Keltner’s strategy paid off since DiMaggio hit two hard smashes down the third-base line that he backhanded behind the bag, before throwing to first base for the out.  DiMaggio ended up grounding into a double play in his final at-bat, thereby bringing to a close his record-setting streak.

World War II and later years

Keltner appeared at third base for the American League in each of the next three All-Star games, extending his streak of consecutive All-Star selections to five.  He had one of his best years in 1944, when he hit 13 homers, knocked in 91 runs, batted .295, and accumulated a career-high 41 doubles.  Keltner missed all of the 1945 campaign after joining the United States Navy to serve his country during World War II.  He returned to the Indians in 1946, earning his sixth All-Star selection despite posting relatively modest numbers.  After another subpar season in 1947, Keltner had arguably the finest year of his career in 1948.  Playing in 153 games for Cleveland, Keltner established career highs with 31 home runs, 119 runs batted in, 91 runs scored, 89 walks, and a .395 on-base percentage, while also batting .297 and leading all A.L. third basemen in assists for the fourth and final time.  The Indians won the American League pennant by defeating the Boston Red Sox by a score of 8-3 in a one-game playoff.  Although Cleveland’s player-manager Lou Boudreau received much of the credit for leading his team to victory by hitting two home runs during the contest, Keltner had three hits, including a game-changing three-run homer over Fenway Park’s Green Monster.  The Indians subsequently defeated the Boston Braves in six games in the World Series, with Keltner batting a paltry .095 during the Fall Classic.  Nevertheless, the third baseman’s outstanding performance during the regular season earned him his seventh and final All-Star selection and a 14th-place finish in the league MVP voting.    

Injuries limited Keltner to just 80 games, eight homers, 30 RBIs, and a .232 batting average in 1949, prompting the Indians to release him after the season.  Replaced by Al Rosen in Cleveland, Keltner signed with the Boston Red Sox during the offseason.  He appeared in only 13 games with the Red Sox, before being released by them in early June.  Although he played one more year in the minor leagues with the Sacramento Solons in 1951, Keltner never again donned a major league uniform.  He ended his playing career at age 33, with 163 home runs, 852 runs batted in, 737 runs scored, 1,570 hits, and a .276 batting average.  In addition to surpassing 20 homers three times, he topped 30 doubles six times and finished in double-digits in triples on three separate occasions.  Keltner finished second in the American League in doubles once, and he also placed third in the league in home runs, triples, and hits one time each.

After retiring as a player, Keltner served as a scout for the Indians and the Red Sox. Named one of the 100 Greatest Cleveland Indians in 2001, Keltner is generally considered to be the finest third baseman in team history.  He died in his home state of Wisconsin on December 12, 1991, less than two months after celebrating his 75th birthday.  According to family members, he passed away after suffering a heart attack.

Hall of Fame

A few years before his passing, Keltner became the subject of a promotional campaign conducted around Cleveland and Milwaukee designed to get the former third baseman elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Although Keltner never received a great deal of support, the promotional materials distributed on his behalf reached notable baseball historian Bill James, who subsequently decided to examine Keltner’s case in detail.  James came to the conclusion that Keltner, while a good player, didn’t quite deserve to be admitted to Cooperstown.  However, during his study, James developed a series of questions he felt it necessary to ask about any player being considered for the Hall of Fame, in order to set out what he believed to be the major arguments for and against enshrinement.  This list of questions is now known as the Keltner List and is regularly used in articles written by analysts when new candidates for the Hall make their appearance on the annual ballot.

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All Star, Cleveland Indians, Joe DiMaggio, Ken Keltner

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