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"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.