Top 100 Indians: #37 Ken Keltner

LGT's countdown of the greatest players in franchise history continues with Ken Keltner, one of the top third baseman in baseball in the late 30s and 40s.

Kenneth Frederick Keltner (Butch)

Third Baseman, 1937-1944, 1946-1949

Height: 6'0" Weight: 190 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Right

How Acquired: Purchase, 1937 from Milwaukee Brewers (American Association) for $25,000 and 6 players

Left Via: Release, April 18, 1950

Not much is known about the Milwaukee (WI) native's early years, but Keltner was born in 1916 to a mill rail switchman and housewife. He was the fourth child of the couple. He grew up on the southeast Bay View neighborhood and attended Boys' Technical High School, but did not graduate. This was because he was an excellent ballplayer.

In 1932 at the tender age of 15, Keltner played shortstop for the Gerber Morticians of the local Midget (under 18) League. The next season he competed for the Hebein Drugs team. He was offered a "job" at a wholesale seed company as a company clerk, leading the Justrites to the local Major A title. In his spare time, Keltner also played on a fast-pitch softball club. In 1936, his next occupation was that of a "truck driver" for Sanders Clothiers, the local Major AA team.

By this time, his reputation of being a premier talent piqued the interest of the hometown Milwaukee Brewers, who competed in the American Association, who usually worked closely with the Indians and Tigers franchises. The Brewers assigned Keltner to the Class D Fieldale (VA) Towlers of the Bi-State League. The combo third baseman/shortstop destroyed the pitchers in that league. In just 118 games and 486 at bats, he hit .360, and totaled 332 total bases. This was on 37 doubles, 12 triples and 32 home runs. He scored 120 runs and drove in another 116. He was definitely ready to come back home.

He did not disappoint his local fans. He hit .310, slugged .523 with 287 total bases in 549 at-bats, 26 doubles and 27 home runs, finishing second in the AA. He played primarily third for the Brewers, but also left field, eschewing shortstop. Late in the season, Keltner belted a pair of solo home runs in both ends of a doubleheader, with one of them clearing the stadium and reportedly breaking a gas pump across the street. Those wins secured the Brewers a fourth place finish, and they knocked off second place Toledo before eventually losing four games to two to advance to the Columbus Red Birds in the Little World Series.

During the 1937 season, the Brewers president was negotiating with the Indians, Yankees, Pirates, Red Sox, Braves and Dodgers for Keltner's rights. And even though the Yankees offered more cash, the Indians offered $25,000 and six players to fill in some of the holes the Brewers had. Because of this deal, the Indians and Brewers developed a strong bond, with Milwaukee grooming talent for Cleveland while Milwaukee had first dibs on any Indians on the trading block to non-major league teams or players being cut. Keltner appeared in one game late in 1937 for the Indians, driving in one run on an out against the Tigers.

Keltner had an invite to spring training in 1938 and won the job outright. He started every game but four at third for the Tribe and most likely would have won the rookie of the year award had it existed back then. He slashed a 276/319/497, 103 OPS+, 31 doubles, nine triples, 26 home runs and a 113 RBI as a 21 year old. He did get enough votes to finish fourteenth in MVP voting while hitting primarily seventh in the lineup. He was also chosen to drop baseballs from the top of Terminal Tower that August to set a new caught ball drop record in a publicity stunt.

He played every game in 1939, improving his line to 325/379/489 123 OPS+, 35 doubles, 11 triples, 13 homers and 97 RBI. His defense also improved greatly that season, He had the most putouts, double plays and the top fielding percentage. Between his offense and defense, Keltner was voted twelfth in MVP voting. Even though his home run power dipped, he had three in one game at Fenway, just missing a fourth.

He slumped in 1940, but based on his two first seasons, was named to the All-Star team. His final slash for 1940 was 254/322/418, 92 OPS+, his worst full season number. As nondescript as 1940 was, 1941 was just the opposite. He rebounded nicely with a 269/330/485 118 OPS+ line and had 31 doubles and 23 home runs. But it was July that cemented his fame in the baseball community. The American League was losing 5-3 going into the bottom of the ninth of the All-Star Game. After one out, Keltner pinch hit for the pitcher Eddie Smith. He had an infield hit off shortstop Eddie Miller. This base hit sparked a four run rally, culminating in Ted Williams three run shot off Claude Passau. But this was just a prelude to the July 17 night where he stopped Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak by backhanding two shots down the third base line in the first and seventh innings. Although he had a very good overall career, this was the one thing he was always known for.

Had there been Gold Gloves given out in those days, Keltner most assuredly would have won quite a few of them. He was highly regarded as the best defender at third for most of his career. It was said that he almost toyed with batters who grounded to him because he would always beat them by a step, with it was a slow grounder or a quick one. His arm was so precise he could throw it from almost any angle and still nip the batter at first. He led the league in assist four times, double plays five times and fielding percentage thrice.

This became critical for Keltner as his bat slumped in both 1942 and 1943, but he still netted 100 and 108 OPS+ lines, starting the All-Star game both seasons and finishing fourteenth and thirty-first in MVP voting respectively. His 1943 campaign ended after only 110 games due to spike slash that severed a ligament. He took the rest of the season off, went home to Milwaukee and spent time with his wife and two sons.

The time at home must have rejuvenated him as in 1944, Keltner, at 27, slashed 295/355/466, 137 OPS+, 41 doubles, 13 homers and 91 RBI. He made his third consecutive All-Star start, but oddly enough received no love from the MVP voters. His All-Star streak was snapped in 1945 due to him serving in the Navy in Hawaii. It took him awhile to return to hitting as he hit 241/294/387, 95 OPS+ in 116 games in 1946. He started the All-Star game mainly on reputation. His All-Star game streak was snapped in 1947 (there was no game in 1945) at six consecutive games while he hit 257/331/383 101 OPS+.

So entering his 31 age season in 1948, it was either time to put up or be put out to pasture. Keltner definitely put up. By the All-Star break that year, he was at 283/393/554 with 20 home runs and 57 RBI. He started his fifth game, singled and eventually scored the winning run in the fourth on a Vic Raschi single. His second half slowed a bit, but he finished with career highs in home runs (31), RBI (119), slugging (.522) and OPS+ (146). After the Indians finished the end of the regular season in a dead heat with the Red Sox, they headed to Fenway for regular season game 153. The teams were tied at one when in the fourth when he broke the stalemate with a three run homer off Denny Galehouse over the Green Monster. Keltner finished the game 5-1-3-3 with a homer, double and six assists, including the last one of the game. Sadly his postseason went much worse than that, going 2-21 with three runs scored while the Tribe celebrated their second World Title.

And as good as he was in 1948; the 1949 season would come crashing down for him. He was spiked again in the leg during the season, only appearing in 80 games (69 starts) while slumping to 232/335/382 91 OPS+. And although Keltner was indeed a fan favorite he was let go that offseason because the Tribe had his replacement all lined up in Al Rosen.

The Red Sox signed him for the 1950 season, but he only appeared in 13 games, eight at third and his lone appearance in the field away from the hot corner, a solitary game at first. He was released in June. In 1951, he played for the Sacramento Solons in the PCL and hit 249/365/354 in 101 games. After retiring he played semi-pro for Rohr Jewelers in Milwaukee and then a few sales jobs. He also scouted for both the Indians and Red Sox briefly.

He enjoyed watching both Braves and Brewers games when they played at County Stadium. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in 1970. He was also inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame, the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame and was named one of the Top 100 Indians Players in 2001. In the 1980s, Cleveland Milwaukee fans started a petition to get Keltner into the Hall of Fame. Bill James received some of these pleas and determined via the "Keltner List" that while very good, he wasn't up to snuff to be enshrined. He passed away in December 1991 at 75 years of age.

Sources

Wikipedia, SABR Biography Project-Jim Nitz

Indians Career Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB GDP HBP SH Pos Awards
1937 20 CLE 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 -100 0 0 0 /5
1938 21 CLE 149 619 576 86 159 31 9 26 113 4 3 33 75 .276 .319 .497 .815 103 286 3 7 *5 MVP-14
1939 22 CLE 154 646 587 84 191 35 11 13 97 6 6 51 41 .325 .379 .489 .868 123 287 15 0 10 *5 MVP-12
1940 23 CLE 149 609 543 67 138 24 10 15 77 10 5 51 56 .254 .322 .418 .740 92 227 11 3 11 *5 AS
1941 24 CLE 149 645 581 83 156 31 13 23 84 2 2 51 56 .269 .330 .485 .815 118 282 9 2 10 *5 AS
1942 25 CLE 152 663 624 72 179 34 4 6 78 4 3 20 36 .287 .312 .383 .695 100 239 16 3 16 *5 AS,MVP-14
1943 26 CLE 110 470 427 47 111 31 3 4 39 2 2 36 20 .260 .317 .375 .692 108 160 13 0 6 *5 AS,MVP-31
1944 27 CLE 149 632 573 74 169 41 9 13 91 4 3 53 29 .295 .355 .466 .821 137 267 23 0 6 *5 AS
1945 Did not play in major leagues (Military Service)
1946 29 CLE 116 435 398 47 96 17 1 13 45 0 3 30 38 .241 .294 .387 .681 95 154 14 0 7 *5 AS
1947 30 CLE 151 612 541 49 139 29 3 11 76 5 4 59 45 .257 .331 .383 .714 101 207 8 1 12 *5
1948 31 CLE 153 656 558 91 166 24 4 31 119 2 1 89 52 .297 .395 .522 .917 146 291 23 1 8 *5 AS,MVP-14
1949 32 CLE 80 292 246 35 57 9 2 8 30 0 1 38 26 .232 .335 .382 .717 91 94 10 0 8 5
CLE (12 yrs) 1513 6280 5655 735 1561 306 69 163 850 39 33 511 474 .276 .337 .441 .778 112 2494 142 13 101
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/26/2013.

Selected Awards/Leaders

  • AL All-Star: 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1948
  • AL MVP: 1938-14th; 1939-12th; 1942-14th; 1943-31st; 1948-14th
  • AL WAR: 7th, 1948-6.1; 8th, 1944-5.7
  • AL WAR Position Players: 5th, 1948-6.1; 6th, 1944-5.7
  • AL oWAR: 6th, 1948-4.9; 8th, 1944-4.7
  • AL dWAR: 5th, 1941-1.1; 7th, 1948-1.2; 8th, 1944-1.0; 9th, 1942-1.1; 10th, 1939-0.7
  • AL Average: 8th, 1939-.325
  • AL On Base Percentage: 8th, 1948-.395
  • AL Slugging: 5th, 1944-.466; 5th, 1948-.522; 10th, 1941-.485
  • AL OPS: 5th, 1948-.917
  • AL Hits: 3rd, 1939-191; 5th, 1942-179; 7th, 1944-169
  • AL TB: 5th, 1944-267; 6th, 1948-291; 7th, 1941-282; 8th, 1939-287; 10th, 1938-286
  • AL 2B: 2nd, 1944-41; 5th, 1939-35; 5th, 1947-29; 7th, 1942-34; 9th, 1943-31
  • AL 3B: 3rd, 1941-13; 5th, 1939-11; 5th, 1944-9; 9th, 1938-9; 9th, 1940-10
  • AL HR: 3rd, 1948-31; 9th, 1938-26; 9th, 1941-23
  • AL RBI: 6th, 1944-91; 6th, 1948-119; 9th, 1938-113
  • AL Bases On Balls: 8th, 1948-89
  • AL Strikeouts: 6th, 1938-75
  • AL Singles: 4th, 1942-135; 5th, 1939-132
  • AL OPS+: 5th, 1948-146; 9th, 1944-137
  • AL RC: 5th, 1948-115; 8th, 1939-107; 9th, 1944-94
  • AL Extra Bases: 3rd, 1944-63; 4th, 1941-67; 5th, 1948-59; 8th, 1938-66; 10th, 1939-59
  • AL Hit By Pitch: 8th, 1940-3
  • AL Sacrifice Hits: 3rd, 1942-16; 5th, 1940-11; 7th, 1947-12; 9th, 1941-10
  • AL Double Plays Grounded Into: 2nd, 1944-23; 2nd, 1948-23; 6th, 1942-16; 9th, 1939-15
  • AL Win Probability Added: 6th, 1948-3.8
  • AL Putouts as 3B: 1st, 1939-187; 2nd, 1940-170; 2nd, 1941-181; 2nd, 1942-166; 2nd, 1944-168; 2nd, 1946-112; 4th, 1947-156; 5th, 1938-141; 5th, 1948-123
  • AL Assists as 3B: 1st, 1941-346; 1st, 1942-353; 1st, 1944-369; 1st, 1948-312; 2nd, 1946-195; 2nd, 1947-266; 4th, 1939-297; 4th, 1939-277; 5th, 1943-228
  • AL Errors as 3B: 2nd, 1942-30; 5th, 1938-19; 5th, 1944-18; 5th, 1946-11; 5th, 1947-12
  • AL Double Plays Turned as 3B: 1st, 1939-40; 1st, 1941-36; 1st, 1942-38; 1st, 1944-37; 1st, 1947-29; 3rd, 1940-27; 3rd, 1943-24; 3rd, 1948-27; 5th, 1946-18
  • AL Range Factor/Game 3B: 1st, 1942-3.44; 1st, 1944-3.60; 2nd, 1941-3.54; 4th, 1943-3.19; 4th, 1946-2.74; 5th, 1939-3.14; 5th, 1948-2.84
  • AL Fielding Percentage as 3B: 1st, 1939-.974; 1st, 1941-.971; 1st, 1942-.945; 2nd, 1940-.953; 2nd, 1943-.969; 2nd, 1944-.968; 2nd, 1946-.965; 2nd, 1947-.972; 2nd, 1948-.969; 3rd, 1938-.956

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 12th WAR Position Players (33.8)
  • 18th oWAR (27.3)
  • 13th dWAR (7.2)
  • t-42nd Slugging (.441)
  • 6th Games Played (1513)
  • 6th At Bats (5655)
  • 9th Plate Appearances (6280)
  • 12th Runs Scored (735)
  • 8th Hits (1561)
  • 5th Total Bases (2494)
  • 6th Doubles (306)
  • 12th Triples (69)
  • 11th Home Runs (163)
  • 7th Runs Batted In (850)
  • 16th Bases On Balls (511)
  • 26th Strikeouts (474)
  • 10th Singles (1023)
  • t-47th OPS+ (112)
  • 11th Runs Created (835)
  • 5th Extra Base Hits (538)
  • t-20th Sacrifice Hits (101)
  • 3rd Double Plays Grounded Into (142)
  • t-33rd Caught Stealing (33)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-29th At Bats (624, 1942)
  • t-38th Hits (191, 1939)
  • t-45th Doubles (41, 1944)
  • t-29th Triples (13, 1941)
  • t-43rd Home Runs (31, 1948)
  • t-25th Runs Batted In (119, 1948)
  • t-38th Runs Batted In (113, 1938)
  • t-49th Bases On Balls (89, 1948)
  • t-50th Extra Base Hits (67, 1941)
  • t-12th Double Plays Grounded Into (23, 1944, 1948)
  • t-36th Win Probability Added (3.8, 1948)
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