Baseball in Wartime

Baseball's Greatest Sacrifice


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Those Who Died That Others Might Be Free

 

Purple HeartArt Keller

 

Date and Place of Birth: July 28, 1916 Octavia, Nebraska
Date and Place of Death: September 29, 1944 Vosges, France
Baseball Experience: Minor League
Position: Catcher
Rank: Corporal
Military Unit: Company D, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division US Army
Area Served: European Theater of Operations

Art Keller was a semi-pro All-American and with the St Louis Browns for Spring Training in 1943. Then military service beckoned and the young catcher was off to serve his nation in Europe.

Art Keller with the House of David TeamArdys B. “Art” Keller, the son of George and Amy Keller, grew up on his familiy's farm near Octavia, Nebraska. He gained recognition as a hard-hitting catcher with American Legion junior ball teams in the nearby towns of David City and Schuyler. After graduating from high school in 1934, he played amateur baseball for two years with Schuyler in the Elkhorn Valley League. In 1936, he had a brief trial with the Palestine Pals of the newly formed Class C East Texas League before being released in May.

Returning home he joined the Nebraska Powers, the semi-pro team of the Iowa-Nebraska Light and Power Company of Lincoln, which played in the Lincoln Baseball League. The Powers were Nebraska State semi-pro champions in 1937, and advanced to the National Baseball Congress tournament at Wichita, Kansas, where Keller was an All-America selection. Keller attracted a lot of attention at the Wichita tournament and it was rumored he would join the New York Yankees organization. However, by the beginning of 1938 he had not received an offer and was recommended by Johnny Bretzer, manager of the Woodmen team of the Lincoln City League, to John R. Tucker, manager of the House of David club—a famous barnstorming team with a religious background renowned for their long hair and beards—which toured rural America playing amateur and semi-pro teams in exhibition games.

On January 24, 1938, Tucker wrote to Keller inviting him to join the House of David team, offering him $160 a month, with the team taking care of hotel bills and transportation, while Keller would be responsible for meals and laundry.1 As the team’s starting catcher, Keller traveled through 44 states and parts of Canada, playing 168 games and batting .322. His teammates included House of David veterans George “Andy” Anderson and Jesse “Doc” Tally. Among the other players were former minor leaguers Walt Nawoj, Sam Munitz, Bill Pike, Herbert “Hub” Hansen, Arnie Velcheck, Cliff Clay, Myron Apple, Morris Young, and Merritt Hubbell, younger brother of Carl Hubbell.

On August 22, Keller was back in Lincoln, Nebraska, as the House of David played the Lincoln team at Landis Field. Before a crowd of 1,350, the House of David put together a three-run ninth-inning rally to clinch the game, 8–7. Keller had a big night with three hits and threw out three Lincoln base runners. Playing with the House of David gave Keller the exposure he needed. He was signed by the St. Louis Browns’ organization in February 1939, and joined the Springfield Browns of the Class B Three-I League, where he batted .266. Keller, 23, joined the San Antonio Missions of the Texas League for spring training in 1940, but was returned to Springfield for the regular season. It was a year of highs and lows for the young catcher. The team got off to a flying start, winning its first seven games, but then went into a slump. Keller was hampered by injuries for much of the year and batted .280 in 56 games, but the season ended on a personal high; he married his hometown sweetheart, Ruth Peters, on August 31, at St. Charles, Missouri, with a wedding party staged at Springfield’s Lanphier Park later in the day.

Keller was back with Springfield for a third campaign in 1941. In 87 games he batted .293 and hit eight home runs, helping the club to a Three-I League playoff birth. But on September 11, two games into the best-of-five series against Cedar Rapids, Springfield lost the services of its young catcher when he was hospitalized for an emergency appendectomy.

Corporal Ardys B KellerIn 1942, Keller made a leap through the Browns’ organization to the Toledo Mud Hens of the Class AA American Association - one level below the major leagues - and shared catching duties with Hal Spindel (who would make it to the Phillies in 1945). In 64 games, he batted .269 and made just two errors in 63 games behind the plate, prompting the Browns to invite him to St. Louis in September. Spring training at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1943, saw Keller as one of four catchers on the Browns’ spring roster. While veterans Frankie Hayes and Rick Ferrell were certain to make the club, Keller and Joe Schultz (who had hit .330 with Memphis in 1942) were vying for the third-string spot. Not until April 12, nine days before opening day, did manager Luke Sewell make a decision to keep Schultz and return Keller to Toledo on 24-hour option. Splitting the Mud Hen catching duties with Red Hayworth, Keller played 79 games and batted .229. The team finished fourth and was quickly eliminated by the Indianapolis Indians in the American Association playoffs, and Keller’s last game of the season was as a late-inning replacement for Hayworth in the fourth game of the playoffs on September 24.

Two weeks later, on October 6, 1943, Keller entered military service with the Army. Carried on the St. Louis Browns’ National Defense Service List, he was inducted at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and was assigned to the 36th “Texas” Infantry Division’s infantry training unit at Camp Blanding, Florida. In May 1944, he was promoted to corporal and assigned to a cadre as an instructor, serving in that capacity until he was transferred to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. In July 1944, Keller left the United States for overseas duty and joined Company D of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division in Paestum, Italy. For six weeks he was stationed with his brother, Sergeant Dale E. Keller.

On August 15, as part of the American Sixth Army Group, the division made an amphibious assault landing against light German opposition in the Saint-Raphaël area of southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. A rapid advance opened the Rhone River Valley, and Montélimar fell on August 28. The 36th Infantry Division then advanced to the Moselle River at Remiremont and the foothills of the Vosges mountain range, where they met with bitter resistance in the steady rain and thick wilderness. On September 29, 1944, near the French town of Biffontaine, Corporal Keller was killed in action. He had been in military service less than a year.

 

Year

Team

League

Class

G

AB

R

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

AVG

1936

Palestine

East Texas

C

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

1939

Springfield

Three-I

B

60

158

20

42

0

3

6

27

.266

1940

Springfield

Three-I

B

56

164

21

46

9

3

3

28

.280

1941

Springfield

Three-I

B

87

294

45

86

16

2

8

57

.293

1942

Toledo

American Assoc.

AA

64

193

15

52

6

0

0

17

.269

1943

Toledo

American Assoc.

AA

79

231

19

53

10

1

0

18

.229

 

Keller was carried on the St. Louis Browns’ National Defense Service List when he entered military service

 

 

Added July 15, 2006. Updated April 12, 2011.

 

Copyright © 2011 Gary Bedingfield (Baseball in Wartime). All Rights Reserved.