During baseball’s 1980 winter meetings in Honolulu, Hal Keller was walking through the lobby of the host hotel with his two sons, when he saw future Hall of Famer Rod Carew.
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"I had not seen Rodney in years,’’ remembered Keller. "I walked up him, and said, ‘I don’t know of you remember me.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah. You taught me to hit.’"
"I didn’t of course,’’ said Keller, "but when he said that, I did stand pretty tall in the eyes of my boys.’’
Truth is Hal Keller stood tall in the eyes of most anybody associated with professional baseball. The man who brought the radar gun to the game, and the younger brother of Charlie King Kong Keller, Hal Keller died in his sleep in the early hours of June 5.
No cause of death was given, but Keller, who would have turned 85 on July 2, recently underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatment for esophageal cancer. He also fought a long-term battle with diabetes that led to amputation of a foot.
He was hospitalized a week ago because of trouble swallowing, which led to dehydration. On Thursday asked to be allowed to go home, where he was under hospice care until his death.
"He told three doctors he had a wonderful life and had done everything he wanted to do,’’ said his wife Carol. "He said he wanted to go home. He said he didn’t want to spend 10 years in a nursing home."
Born on a farm in rural Maryland, Keller grew up in the Baltimore area, graduated from the University of Maryland, and then, after a tour of duty with the Army during World War II, embarked on a professional baseball career that began as a catcher in the farm system of the original Washington Senators and ended with a brilliant legacy of success in scouting and player development.
Of course, Keller, who also happened to be a world-class bridge player, wasn’t sure he was worthy.
"The toughest job in baseball is the job of an area scout," Keller once said. "I’ve never done that. I always saw the cream. The area scout, he has to sit there through 100 games with no players in hopes of finding one."
And those area scouts who worked with Keller found plenty of those "ones" in the nearly half-century that Keller was an active part of professional baseball, including Carew, who was discovered and signed by Herb Stein, an area scout for the Minnesota Twins when Keller was their East Coast crosschecker.
"It was before the draft, and Herb was anxious," said Keller. "There was another left-handed hitter on that team, too. So there were always scouts at the games. One day there was a doubleheader. The other guy didn’t play the second game and the scouts started to disappear.
"I told Herb, ‘There’s your answer. There’s not anybody interested in Rodney but you. You’ll get him.’"
Stein did get him, and Keller did offer Carew a hitting tip that Carew never forgot.
"He came to spring training and couldn’t hit a ball in fair territory,’’ said Keller. "Rodney would hit line drive after line drive. They all went into the left field stands. He held his bat high. One day, I said, ‘Rodney, lay the bat down. Get yourself closer to the strike zone.’ He did. The rest is history.’’
Keller’s history is impressive, even beyond Carew.
After a playing career, which included brief stints in the big leagues in three seasons, was prematurely ended by a back problem, Keller started teaching school and coaching baseball. Former pitcher Joe Haines, a minor-league teammate of Keller’s who married the sister of Senators’ owner Calvin Griffith, persauded Keller to take a summer job managing the Senators’ team in Superior, Neb., in 1958.
He then went to work for the expansion Senators when they were formed in December 1960, rejoined the original Senators, who became the Twins, as the East Coast cross checker for two years (1963-64) and then moved into the front office with the Senators, going with the team when it moved to Texas, and then joining the Seattle Mariners, initially as the farm and scouting director and later as the general manager.
He finished out his career scouting for Detroit and the Angels, finally retiring on Oct. 30, 1999, when Disney took over ownership of the franchise. That was the day before the Oct. 31 expiration of scouting contracts and the new Angels regime, headed by Tony Taveras, ordered the firing of 15 scouts, mostly veterans.
"They didn’t give anybody any reason or severance,’’ Keller said. "We got a one-day notice.’’
With Texas, Keller introduced use of the radar gun, "which may not make me popular with some scouts,’’ thanks to the recommendation of former outfielder Danny Litwhiler, then the coach at Michigan State.
"Immediately we signed (Dave) Righetti, David Clyde, Len Barker, Tommy Boggs, Jim Clancy and Danny Darwin,’’ said Keller. "We went from having no arms to a lot of power arms.’’
The Rangers also drafted and signed impact offensive players during Keller’s days, including Bill Madlock, Tom Grieve, Jeff Burroughs, Lenny Randle, Mike Cubbage, Roy Howell, Mike Hargrove, Jim Sundberg, Roy Smalley, Bump Wills and Pete O’Brien. Other pitchers included Walt Terrell, Tom Henke, Pete Broberg and Joe Coleman.
In his years with the new and old Senators, Rangers and Mariners, Keller never had a big budget to work with, but made the most out of what he had.
"When I went to Seattle it ranked last in pay for scouts, and when I left with were in the top third,’’ said Keller. :We didn’t have a lot of scouts, but I felt we needed to take care of them.’’
The Mariners only had six scouts, but the results spoke volumes.
During the four years he was scouting director, before he became general manager, players drafted and signed by the Mariners included right-handed pitchers Mike Moore and Bill Swift, left-handed pitcher Mark Langston, outfielder Phil Bradley, and shortstop Spike Owen.
"I had a lot of good people working for me," said Keller modestly. "They found a lot of good players."
And they found it good to work for Keller.
Veteran scout Bill Kearns, who has been on the Mariners staff since the franchise’s formation for the 1977 season, recalled Keller initially taking over the scouting department in Seattle. A younger front office type called Kearns a couple of times to see if he had talked to Keller, yet, and Kearns had not.
Finally, Kearns decided maybe he had better call Keller. When Keller picked up the phone, Kearns introduced himself.
"Whaddya want?" Keller asked.
"I just wanted to say hello," Kearns said.
"OK, call when you need something,’’ replied Keller.
Kearns was caught off-guard.
"I thought I might be going to get fired,’’ said Kearns.
To the contrary, Kearns became one of Keller’s key talent finders.
"I had six scouts,’’ Keller said when reminded of the incident. "They covered the big leagues, the minor leagues, and all the amateurs in the United States and around the world. I told Bill a few years later, we all had enough on our plate that if a guy did his job, I had other things to worry about, and Bill always did his job.’’