Monday, November 24, 2014

Record-Setting Streaks (Part II--Willie Keeler and Pete Rose)

Long before Joe DiMaggio attained immortality in the Bronx, a diminutive outfielder from Baltimore set the bar for him. "Wee Willie" Keeler stood just five-foot-four and weighed one hundred and forty pounds. He spent several of his prime seasons with the infamously rough and tumble Orioles squads. The O's were notorious for fracturing rules and Keeler was no exception, keeping extra baseballs hidden in the high grass at Oriole Park in case the ones hit to right field eluded him. Appearing at the top of the batting order, Keeler led Baltimore to three consecutive first place finishes. His most remarkable offensive season came in 1897.

After collecting a hit in his last at-bat of the '96 slate, he hit safely in the first 44 games of the '97 campaign, breaking a record set by "Bad Bill" Dahlen of the Chicago Colts. Keeler's streak came to an end on June 19 against the Pirates. The pitcher that afternoon was Frank Killen, a left-hander who won 30 games in a season twice during his career.  There was far less hullabaloo about streaks and records in those days. In fact, a Pittsburgh Press correspondent saw fit to mention Keeler's accomplishment only briefly, remarking: "Until today, Keeler had not missed a hit or more in each game this season." That was it--just one sentence! Had the reporter known that Keeler's 45-game hitting streak would stand as a National League record for more than a century, perhaps he would have waxed poetic about it.

Keeler's record was seriously challenged by NL contenders only a handful of times during the twentieth century. In 1945, Tommy Holmes of the Braves assembled a 37-game hitting streak. In 1978, Cincinnati's Pete Rose tied the single-season mark. Arguably the greatest player outside the Hall of Fame, Rose got his nickname "Charlie Hustle" from Yankee southpaw Whitey Ford, who resented the way Rose sprinted to first base after receiving a walk during an exhibition game. Rose was known for his intensity on the field, sliding headfirst into bags and bowling over anyone who stood in his path. During a playoff loss in 1973, he fought with lightweight shortstop Bud Harrelson, solidifying his reputation as a bully. Three years earlier, his ethics  had come into question after a vicious collision with catcher Ray Fosse during the All-Star Game.

Playing with unbridled ferocity, Rose hit safely in 44 straight games during the '78 campaign, mirroring "Wee Willie's" 1897 feat. On August 1, he was stopped in his final at-bat against change-up specialist Gene Garber of the Braves. Garber remembered the game vividly many years after the fact, commenting: "It was the most nervous I'd ever been in my life because I was scared to death I might walk him. I'd be a horses' rear end and never live it down if I walked him to end the streak, so that made the situation a lot more difficult than it really was."

The right-handed Garber was summoned in relief of Dave Campbell, who had taken over for rookie Larry McWilliams. McWilliams had walked Rose in his first plate appearance then robbed him of a hit an inning later with a nifty grab on an ankle-high liner hit back through the box.There were more than 31,000 fans on hand--an unusual sight at Fulton County Stadium considering that the Braves were non-contenders. By the time Rose came to the plate in the ninth inning, Atlanta had opened up a 16-4 lead. There was nothing at stake except the streak. Hitless in four previous trips to the dish, Rose faced Garber with 2 outs and nobody on. With the count at 2-and-2, he swung through a change-up, ending his incredible run. Rose didn't realize that the post-game interview was live and vented his frustration to reporters. Asked how he felt about the streak being over, he barked: "At least now I don't have to deal with you jerks anymore." He later complained that Garber had pitched to him "like it was the seventh game of the World Series." Responding to the comment years later, Garber commented: "For him to say that was a compliment to me. That was my hope, to be perceived as playing the game that way."

Garber spent nineteen years in the majors and recorded more than 200 saves. He lost 108 games in relief--a major league record. To date, he is the only hurler with 200 saves who never made an All-Star appearance.


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