Skip to main content
Original Issue


Once part of a famous Yankee outfield with DiMaggio and Henrich, Charlie Keller was always a country boy at heart and now he is home in Maryland, a rising breeder of quality trotting horses

On the Maryland harness-horse farm he bought with his baseball earnings, Charlie Keller has, among other things, 100 pretty acres for his horses, a roomy red-brick farmhouse for his family and a canary-yellow 1970 Dodge out in the garage should he wish, heaven knows why, to go anywhere else. Despite the woebegone look he wears for all occasions, Keller admits he has few complaints coming. His son Donald and a hired hand are available to help with the chores and he has never objected to a little hard work himself. On the contrary, he is one man who will get out in the pasture and dig postholes with you anytime.

Another pasture Keller once toiled in was left field in Yankee Stadium but that was back when he had no horses and the Yankees had lots of them. A gentle strongman who suffered the nickname King Kong, he played alongside Joe DiMaggio and Tommy Henrich in one of baseball's finest outfields ever. Still compact and thickly muscled at 53, he is now a successful breeder of trotters and pacers, an arduous business that demands the doggedness of a journeyman minor-leaguer plus the kind of raw good fortune that produces unassisted triple plays. Yet when something good happens, as when the first of this year's crop of foals was born on the farm near Frederick, Md., it is a life that brings Keller far greater satisfaction than his 12-year big-league career ever did.

The new arrival was a filly out of Yankee Tassel, one of Keller's 30-odd broodmares, and the scenario was repeated with some minor variations time and again in the following weeks. When Yankee Tassel appeared ready to foal on a Saturday evening, Keller dragged out the Ted Williams-model sleeping bag he uses on such occasions, climbed onto a couple of bales of hay and slept all night outside the mare's stall, "just in case I'm needed." But nothing happened. Next day Keller anxiously looked in on Yankee Tassel every half hour or so, wearily settling down in late afternoon in his knotty-pine den to stare at the golfers charging across the television screen. Early that evening he returned to the barn to find his vigil at an end. At that moment, in direct competition with the Andy Williams-San Diego Open, the mare was foaling.

A year earlier Yankee Tassel had produced an oversized, stillborn filly. Although her new filly was also large, there were, to Keller's immense relief, no complications this time. "You always root for a colt," he said when it was all over. "They're more valuable than fillies when you go to sell them. But first of all you want them healthy."

Scarcely a week later, by the inexorable rhythm of the horse business, Keller loaded Yankee Tassel—and her filly—onto a van bound for Lana Lobell Farms, 40 miles away in Hanover, Pa. to breed her to a stallion named Adios Don. As the other mares bring forth foals in the weeks ahead they, too, will be shipped off to breed—Keller keeps no stallions himself—at Lana Lobell, Pennsylvania's Hanover Shoe and other stud farms as far away as Kentucky. They will return to Frederick to foal. Not until July, the breeding season finally over, will the last of Keller's mares be back home. Shortly thereafter, Keller will start grooming his young colts and fillies in preparation for the next major event on the calendar: the fall yearling sales.

All this allows little time for the banquet and barbershop circuit that keeps many ex-athletes busy. Keller still gets back to New York for an occasional Old-Timers' Game and he maintains a few friendships from his baseball days, notably with ex-roommate Tommy Byrne, with whom he plays golf every fall in North Carolina. Yet Keller squirms uncomfortably in the celebrity's role in which baseball cast him. He agrees to make public appearances with great reluctance, even when it involves nothing more than presenting a trophy at a harness race. Only when he goes into town to pay his taxes or perform some other unavoidable errand do Keller's neighbors in Frederick get a chance to talk baseball with him—and he usually has to be coaxed at that.

Unquestionably, he is happiest in the big-sky solitude of his farm, where the swallows overhead account for most of the chatter while the radio in the broodmare barn pretty much takes care of the music. "I'm looking for a brand-new bed of roses," a country singer trilled one recent rainy morning, but Keller, silently pitching hay alongside Donald, gave no sign that the words were reaching him. At length he stepped out into the rain, which danced indiscriminately on the farm buildings, steaming countryside and his own yellow-suede cap. Walking past Allen, the hired hand, Keller said nothing. When Susie, his Dalmatian, scooted into the paddock holding the weanling fillies, he brought himself to say, "Now don't go spooking the horses, understand?" Otherwise he made no sound other than to emit a loud teakettle-like whistle at three horses grazing on a knoll half a mile away. In a delayed response, the three turned after a minute or so and began making their way slowly toward the barn.

Inside the farmhouse later that morning, Keller glanced at his wife of 32 years and said, "Martha here is the goer of the family. She belongs to the garden clubs and bridge clubs and everything. She tries to tell me I'm antisocial." Keller paused and looked at his wife as if for confirmation of what he was saying. "I don't know anything about being antisocial," he continued. "I only know I'm being true to myself. And I don't want people treating me any different just because I used to play ball.

"I've got nothing against baseball. It gave me all this I've got today. I enjoyed actually playing the game. It's just that the life of a ballplayer isn't normal. It was always too much bouncing around and living in hotel rooms and going too long on the road without seeing your family. There isn't a ballplayer alive who will tell you it's normal. This is normal, what I'm doing now."

It is with an apologetic air, as if he were guilty of the worst possible exploitation of his baseball days, that Keller advertises his farm in standardbred magazines under the name Yankeeland Farm, and gives his foals such names as Handsome Yankee and Yankee Slugger. "You've got to call them something, I suppose," he says sheepishly. His unassuming nature, in fact, prompts him to shrink from anything smacking of self-promotion, which makes him a refreshing anomaly among horse traders. There was the time that Keller attended the Tattersalls standardbred sales in Lexington, Ky. and a wealthy horse buyer approached him. "How are your colts this year, Charlie?" he asked.

"Oh, not so good, I'm afraid," Keller replied.

The buyer looked at him incredulously. "I'll be darned if you aren't the first breeder I ever heard say that about his own horses," he said. "Why, I'm tempted to buy one!"

One trotting enthusiast who went ahead and did just that was ex-Yankee Whitey Ford, who acquired a Keller-bred colt a couple of years ago even though, as Ford recalls, "Charlie didn't say a thing to try and talk me into it." The colt showed promise but eventually chipped a bone in his foot, and Ford recently sold him. Says Keller: "If somebody buys a horse from me and it doesn't turn out right, I feel bad." Fortunately, savvy horse buyers are impressed more by bloodlines and the breeder's past performance than by any fancy sales pitches, and not even his no-sell approach can obscure the fact that Keller consistently ranks among the top three or four breeders in average per-starter winnings. Much as this might gild his reputation—and, ultimately, his bank account—he typically has to be persuaded by friends to mention the fact in his advertising.

Although he may never approach the $100,000 or more that a Hanover Shoe or Castleton can command for a standard bred yearling—his best price so far is $30,000—Keller is doing well enough in the sales ring. In last November's yearling sales at Harrisburg, Pa. he sold 18 colts and fillies for $147,800, an average of $8,211 a head. Considering that it costs him roughly $3,000 to breed a harness horse and bring it to auction, that performance assured him of the kind of healthy profit for the year that eludes most breeders his size.

The fragile economics of the breeding business are such that a relatively small broodmare owner like Keller might not be showing any profit at all except for the fact that he owns syndicated shares of several stallions, an arrangement that entitles him to free stud services. To buy a top stallion outright would be risky and, for him, prohibitive. To have to pay stud fees for each foal would greatly increase his operating expenses. By contrast, consider the advantages of the $10,000 investment that Keller made for a one-sixth interest in a stallion named Hickory Pride several years ago. To outside breeders, Hickory Pride, a son of Star's Pride, trotting's top sire, stands for $3,500 for each live foal. So far he has sired no fewer than 25 foals out of Keller's broodmares—with no stud fees involved.

The horse that has done the most on the track to put Keller into harness racing's big leagues is Canadian-owned Fresh Yankee, a 7-year-old bay mare who, with the retirement of Nevele Pride, is probably the best trotter currently in training. A daughter of Hickory Pride out of the Keller-owned broodmare Pert Yankee, she is one of the outstanding race mares of all time. With purses to date of $519,428, she ranks second only to thoroughbred Northern Dancer, the Kentucky Derby winner, as the biggest money-winner in Canadian turf history.

It happens that Keller received all of $900 for Fresh Yankee when he sold her as a year-old filly in 1964. One reason was that she was a rather puny yearling, the result of a digestive ailment that had wasted her for several months. Remarkable as it seems in light of her subsequent success, the condition was serious enough at the time that another breeder might have cut his losses by having the filly destroyed. "I spent more than $900 on her in vet bills alone," Keller admits today. "But you daren't give up on a horse until you find out what's there." He nurtured Fresh Yankee to health and she was fast gaining weight at the time of her sale.

His slowness to write off a horse springs from the same cautious yet realistic streak that makes Keller equally slow to go overboard on one. "Charlie's an athlete," says Dr. Thomas Clark, a U.S. government veterinarian in Frederick and longtime friend. "His horses are athletes, too. He knows that things can happen to make a horse suddenly go good or bad, the same as they can with people." In Keller's own case, his baseball career was interrupted by duty in the Maritime Service in World War II and was hampered by a ruptured spinal disk that painfully hobbled him for many years. Considering his present involvement as a breeder, there is some irony in the fact that Keller's two sons, Donald and Charles III—both now married and living in Frederick (as is his daughter, Jean)—had promising baseball careers in the Yankee system cut short by spinal conditions almost identical to that of their father's.

Before his own troubles took their toll, there were few ballplayers any hardier than Charlie Keller. An outstanding athlete at the University of Maryland (he holds a degree in agricultural economics), he hit .334 as a rookie with the Yankees in 1939, then starred in their four-game World Series sweep against Cincinnati. On a memorable play at home, he collided with Reds Catcher Ernie Lombardi, separating Lombardi from the ball and leaving him so dazed that another Yankee followed Keller across the plate. When the familiar cries of "Break up the Yankees" were raised after the Series, a Cincinnati partisan snorted, "Break up the Yankees, hell. Just break up Charlie Keller."

Off the field during those days, Keller always seemed to be reading Zane Grey novels, pulp westerns and what he called "books of the day." Although he was popular both with teammates and fans, his down-home manner, he recalls, "made some people think I still had hay in my hair." His yeoman strength only added to the image, giving rise to such barbs as the one attributed to teammate Lefty Gomez: "Keller wasn't scouted. He was trapped." Then, too, there was that nickname, inspired by the gorilla who ravaged New York in the old movie King Kong, a burden Keller carries uneasily to the present day. Out in public a fan will still occasionally recognize him and ask innocently, "Say, aren't you King Kong?"

"Nope," Keller replies flatly.

"Hey, c'mon. You're Charlie Keller, aren't you?"

With that, Keller's tone becomes somewhat friendlier. "Yes, that's me," he says.

Despite his back ailment and all his misgivings about the life of a ballplayer, Keller kept going in baseball as long as he could. The money, naturally, was the main incentive, and he managed to salt away some fairly substantial savings on a salary that never climbed any higher than $27,500. Eventually, he found that he was "putting twice as much in and getting half as much out." In 1951, after two years as a pinch hitter with the Detroit Tigers, who had acquired him from the Yankees, he went home to Maryland to begin the rockiest period of his life.

Although he had grown up on a dairy farm, Keller considered that life too regimented for his present taste. It was variety he wanted, and that is just what he got. For one stretch he played golf from morning to night. Depending on what was in season, he hunted quail, grouse and rabbits. He got into marathon gin rummy sessions at the local Elks Club and followed the thoroughbreds over in Charles Town, W. Va. For two brief periods Keller returned to the Yankees as a coach. Finally, the ex-ballplayer found his way to the Frederick County fairgrounds, where harness horseman Joe Eyler was training trotters. By that time, Keller says, "I was starting to feel pretty useless. I was losing pride." He began jogging trotters around the track and before long told Eyler he had made up his mind to buy some broodmares.

Eyler remembers trying to discourage him. "I told Charlie you don't always get a mare in foal every year. I told him it isn't easy to breed the right mare to the right horse to produce the kind of colt that people with money will buy. I told him not every horse can be a great one. I told him everything—all the big and little problems. And Charlie said, 'Well, we didn't win every ball game on the Yankees either.' "

Starting a new career at the age of 39, Keller immersed himself in Sires and Dams, the multivolume register of standardbred bloodlines, with the zeal of a college student anxious to maintain his draft deferment. In the fall of 1957 he took his first three yearlings off to sale. As they were being led up the ramp into the waiting truck, the frightened animals balked violently. There was no loading chute on Keller's farm then, and he and several other men spent two hours vainly trying to coax the stubborn animals onto the truck before finally succeeding with the use of tranquilizers. The ordeal unsettled Keller, who had cared for the young horses for more than a year, during which time they had been tame as kittens.

He turned sadly to one of the other men. "If it's going to be like this, maybe I don't want any part of this business after all," he said.

As Keller was learning at that moment, the yearling sale is what horse breeding is all about. It is the culmination of three years of work that starts when first thought is given to possible breeding combinations. Those three years are evaluated in the seconds it takes to auction off the horses, a wrenching process that breeders inevitably compare with parenthood. "You fall in love with each bunch that comes along," says Del Miller, one of sulky racing's top all-round horsemen. "You help bring them into the world, you feed them, you worry about them—and then suddenly they're gone."

For all that, the business won a hold on Charlie Keller that dairy farming never could have. "You don't have to get up at 4 in the morning to milk horses," says Keller—yet his own average day is not all that much shorter. It runs from 6:20 a.m., when his clock-radio awakens him to the news, until after the sun slides behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form a curtain in the distance. After dinner, an open magazine in his lap, Keller often dozes off in the den, the walls of which are covered with photographs from both baseball and harness racing. Above the fireplace hangs an oil painting, a Christmas gift from his wife and children, of a bay mare named Gay Yankee.

Purchased by Keller as a yearling in 1956, Gay Yankee was the first of half a dozen fillies he has occasionally trained and raced before putting them into service as broodmares. She was also the most successful of them, winning $70,000 at a time when Keller badly needed cash to expand his budding operation. As a promising broodmare. Gay Yankee delivered three foals. One day in 1966 Keller noticed that the mare was behaving strangely. Later that same night she lapsed into a coma and died, the victim of a brain tumor. She was 11, an age at which broodmares ordinarily have seven or eight productive years ahead of them.

It is the horse breeder's mission not only to produce sound animals, but also to try to keep them sound. When two of his yearling colts ran slight fevers earlier this year, Keller hurriedly called the vet and worried mightily until their temperatures returned to normal. "You can't take any chances," Keller said. "There's always the danger of something like that running through your whole bunch." If nothing else, such experiences help build a sense of perspective. At the same time the colts took ill, a blizzard swept across Keller's farm, toppling two apple trees, freezing up water pipes in the horse barn and tearing off a dozen fence rails. The ex-ballplayer just shrugged. "The normal wear and tear of winter," he said. "Around here you don't even consider that sort of thing trouble."