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Ken Keltner: The right player at the right time

Keltner brought stability for a long time. That’s nearly as important as a superstar

Lou Boudreau and Teammates in Dugout

Great teams are built piece by piece.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an eventual world champion that just happened to fall into it, to emerge from nowhere to the mountain top. Even today, when you can spend money to collect stars, the base of the team can be years in the building.

This was as true of the 1948 world champion Indians as any other team. Stars they had. Solid regulars, too. But it took years, for some guys over a decade and even most of a career, to get to that zenith.

Ken Keltner, a mainstay on the Indians of the 1940s, was such a man. A team doesn’t win titles and be a consistent contender on stars alone. It takes the other guys to help win games. Ranking 21st on the all-time list with 33.1 wins above replacement as a Cleveland Indian, Keltner was a perfect example of the type of player that just sort of helps you win.

This isn’t the first mention of Keltner in this little countdown. He had his job taken from him by the meteoric Al Rosen, but for more than ten years Keltner was a rock at third base. In fact, between the pair of them, the Indians got more than 60 wins in about 20 years of ball, or basically an amalgamated Hall of Famer. The two players did it in different ways though. Keltner was known for a solid bat and more than that his strong glove carried the day. In fact, it features what may be the greatest moment of his career. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Keltner was a Milwaukee product, one of a long string of good baseballers to come out of the Cream City and its surrounding areas along with Al Simmons, Addie Joss, Lave Cross, and more recently Mark Grudzielanek.

He once played for a team called the Gerber Morticians as a teenager, as well as the Drugs, the Justices, and the Clothiers, and was also a wonderful 12-inch softball player. The Milwaukee Brewers, then of the American Association, noticed that he was, in fact, excellent, and signed him then sent him to the minors. There, he played for teams including the Towelers of Virginia.

What I’m saying is, back then every team was named after some weird, niche job.

He didn’t last long in the minors, as the owner of the Brewers, Henry Bendinger, had a close relationship with the Cleveland front office and knew when to sell on a good player. A year after hitting .316 with 27 homers and 96 RBI in 132 games for the Brewers (and having his own Ken Keltner Night with 10,000 in attendance as he hit a pair of dingers to help the Brewers win the American Association Title over the Minneapolis Millers in a double-header) Keltner was shipped to Cleveland for six players and $25,000. He simply did not slow down.

The 1938 Indians were a team in transition. Their young superstar Bob Feller was about to embark on his first full season while long-time vets like Mel Harder, Willis Hudlin, and Earl Averill had seen their best days come and go. The team needed a refresh, and Keltner was part of these reinforcements. At just 21, he played 149 games as the starting third baseman, hitting .276 with a respectable 26 home runs and a team-leading 113 RBI while compiling 1.7 WAR.

Plainly, any nervousness over jumping to the big leagues was lost on Keltner. Though the award didn’t exist at the time, Total Baseball Magazine lists Keltner as the “hypothetical Rookie of the Year”.

While we look at a .954 fielding percentage as kind of terrible today, in its day this was something to be proud of because the ball was a mess and the glove was basically exactly that. For a rookie at the hot corner, this was, in fact, something for Keltner to be proud of.

The next year saw one of Keltner’s best offensive seasons. Hitting .325/.379/.489 with 4.4 WAR, and he improved his fielding to .974 to lead the league at his position. He played every game, and while the power numbers dipped, he was a central figure in a team that spent most of the season in the first division and ended third behind the Yankees and Tigers. With Keltner, Feller, and some other good players growing up, the next season looked to be one for Cleveland to enjoy.

The next season saw a bit of backsliding statistically for Keltner, hitting just .254/.322/.418 and again earning just 1.7 WAR. Despite that, his continuing excellence with the glove won him the first of five consecutive All-Star appearances and seven total. In 1941, when his bat bounced back to a .269/.330/.485 line along with 23 dingers and 4.6 WAR, his brush with destiny would mean he would be at least a bit more than a footnote.

That 1941 season was a pretty big one for baseball. Ted Williams hit .406, Bob Feller won 25 games, and of course, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games. Author Robert Creamer (if you’ve seen Ken Burns’ Baseball, you’ve seen Creamer) called it the best season ever. That hitting streak is what we’re going to talk about here. Specifically, about its end. After all, it had to be someone that recorded those outs, someone had to stymie DiMaggio and stop him from getting to an equally arbitrary 57 straight games.

That man, for the most part, was Ken Keltner.

This was going to end up being Keltner’s third of four straight seasons leading his position in fielding, and the eventual MVP put Keltner to the test in this game. According to Nathan Bierma at SABR, Keltner was prepared for this Aug. 17 day in Cleveland. Earlier in the year DiMaggio had singled over Keltner’s head, and the Tribe third baseman knew he had to adjust his fielding position back.

That, he did. According to SABR, Dimaggio was asked years later how far back Keltner was playing. He responded, “Deep? My god, he was in left field”.

The positioning was vital in every out. The first, a curve, was lined right down the line, and it took all of Keltner to snag it on a hop behind the bag and gun it to first to get DiMaggio by a step. The fleet-footed center fielder put pressure on infielders every game, but notably never bunted. It made sense, when you’re one of the greatest hitters of all time, why lay one down when you can mash it to the wall?

Following a walk that elicited boos from a reportedly confused crowd of Tribe faithful, DiMaggio swung at the first pitch of a pivotal at-bat. Another curve, like his first out, was mashed right at the same position, pulled right to Keltner, again in perfect position, again nailing DiMaggio at first by a bare step. Keltner was forced to make a pair of lightning-quick plays, two would-be hits turned to outs, and he reminded everyone that day why he was to be an All-Star for half a decade. The last batted ball, if you were curious, was a nubber to shortstop Lou Boudreau, who had to make a nifty play to get DiMaggio when a rock tried to waylay the grounder before he could reach it. The streak was ended though, Keltner mostly to blame, and Bob Feller called him “simply the best in the American League. He could go to his right better than anyone and had a great, great arm.”

This is probably the closest that Keltner would ever come to immortality in the annals of baseball, but there’s nothing wrong with that. He continued to play a great third base, hitting in the high 200’s until 1944 when that damn war forced him to the Pacific and miss the whole season. His last campaign before shipping out was one of his better years as he hit .295/.355/.466 with 41 doubles, 13 home runs, and piling up his second-best WAR total for a season at 5.5 wins. Like so many though, the country called, and he missed a year of his prime because of the war.

Not much is known publicly of Keltner’s service, but he only missed the 1945 season. Pure reputation must have gotten Keltner another All-Star appearance when he came back from the war in ‘46 because it couldn’t have been his bat. He hit just .241/.294/.387 and earned 0.8 WAR in 115 games — his second-worst season.

He worked himself back into shape in 1947, posting a .714 OPS and pulling 2.4 WAR as his glove continued to do the talking. For the first time in seven years though, he didn’t make the All-Star Game. More than that, the Indians, looking to the future, had their eye on a new third base prospect by the name of Al Rosen.

With a fading bat, a slipping glove, was Keltner on the way out? At the very least, he got a challenge in spring training as the rising star battled the veteran for his position.

Maybe it was motivation. Maybe he needed a couple of years to round into form, maybe he just lucked out and happened to see a ton of meatballs down the middle, but 1948 was far and away the best season of Keltner’s career. With a 6.0-win campaign, he trailed only Lou Boudreau (10.4) and second baseman Joe Gordon (6.4) in that mark. The 31 homers, the 119 RBI, both second-best on a team that proved to be the pinnacle of everything the team was building towards.

With madman promoter Bill Veeck at the helm, the Tribe stuffed 2.6 million into Municipal Stadium to set a major league record, and the team boasted five future Hall of Famers. Bob Feller was at his peak, Satchel Paige was ageless as ever, Bob Lemon was an ace in his own right, and the lineup was no slouch, either. They led the AL in runs allowed at 3.6 per game and were third in runs scored at 5.4. Pretty reminiscent of recent seasons. They were a bit unlucky — by run differential they should have won 104 games instead of just 97 — but they were good, no doubt about it.

Keltner was in the midst of it all as the Indians battled the east coast giants for supremacy in the AL. They spent 77 games in first place, but it went back and forth through the dog days. Ultimately, it led to the first-ever winner-take-all playoff game in AL history. Keltner was the hero in that one, hitting a tremendous home run in the fifth inning to give the Tribe an insurmountable lead, and placing Cleveland against the Braves in the World Series. Keltner was a non-factor in the World Series sadly, but he got them there and ended up a champion.

That was effectively it for Keltner. He tried to hang on for another season, but the brightness of Rosen’s star could not be denied, any more than Keltner’s own fading talents.

He played just 80 games in 1949, and another 13 with Boston in 1950, then spent 1951 in the Pacific Coast League but hit just six home runs in 101 games. Father Time was making himself known; his career ended with a typical whimper as he retired from playing.

He scouted a bit for the Indians and Red Sox after that, played a little semi-pro ball, but settled into a private life in the Milwaukee suburbs and raised a family. He’d end up being inducted into the Indians Hall of Fame and is considered one of the best third basemen in Tribe history.

Beyond that, Keltner is exactly what he is. A pretty good player that got hot at the right time, gave the team stability at a position and helped them win. He’s the type of player that’s peppered across the game, and as certain “Stars and Scrubs” squads have found down the years, vital to achieving that eventual goal of a championship. When a better option came along in Rosen, the Indians replaced Keltner, but for quite a while he was as good as you could hope for.

Lou Boudreau thought Keltner was a Hall of Famer — and in fairness, he saw Keltner at his absolute best in 1948 — but most disagreed, and he’s found his place in history. He was what the Indians needed as they transitioned from the days of Tris Speaker and Roger Peckinpaugh to the Feller era, and he found his spot in the history of the franchise. He had a better career than about 90% of ballplayers ever, and that’s something to be proud of.