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.