Ichiro's run rivals Wee Willie's

Ichiro's run rivals Wee Willie's

If Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki is really one of baseball's best-kept secrets, what about Wee Willie Keeler?

As Ichiro becomes the first Major Leaguer to have nine consecutive seasons with 200 or more hits, he's becoming a household name. At least among baseball fans.

So is Wee Willie.

It's Keeler's record achieved from 1894 through 1901 that Ichiro will surpass. At last glance Ichiro needed just four hits to reach 200 for the season. Wonder what the coverage was like when Keeler set the record? More about him later.

If Ichiro, 35, played most anywhere but Seattle, I'm certain he'd be in the news constantly. This may be unfair, but I believe many of his amazing feats since arriving from Japan in 2001 have almost gone unnoticed. Maybe not unnoticed, but certainly not given the importance they deserve.

"What's the name of that player who's getting all those hits in Seattle?" a friend who follows baseball closely asked the other day. "You don't hear much about him, do you?"

My reply: If Ichiro were Derek Jeter, can you imagine the coverage he'd be getting? The Yankees shortstop is taking over a coveted record held by the legendary Lou Gehrig and the New York media is in a tizzy. It's quite deserved, but the fact Jeter plays in New York and not in Seattle has a lot to do with it.

Reaching 200
Below is a look at when Ichiro has reached the 200-hit mark in each of the past eight seasons.
Total hits
2001Aug. 29132@ TB242
2002Sept. 22155LAA208
2003Sept. 20151@ OAK212
2004Aug. 24123TB262
2005Sept. 25156@ DET206
2006Sept. 16147@ KC224
2007Sept. 3135@ NYY238
2008Sept. 17150@ KC213

With Keeler's 107-year-old record all but in Ichiro's grasp, baseball writers are suddenly saying this will be Ichiro's ticket that seals his trip to the Hall of Fame.

I agree, but to be honest, until now I haven't given it much thought, even though he's a nine-time All-Star, has won eight Gold Glove Awards and has all those hits. He took a .331 batting average into this season.

Keeler, who died in 1923 at the age of 50, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939.

During 19 seasons Wee Willie batted over .300 16 times and once over .400. He was his league's batting champion twice.

Ichiro has baseball fans and reporters talking once again about Keeler, who at 5-4 or 5-7 -- the record books differ on his height -- and 140 pounds was one of the smallest Major Leaguers in history.

But he could hit -- and bunt.

Because of Keeler's ability to bunt, the rule was changed to make a third-strike foul on a bunt attempt a strikeout.

It was also Wee Willie, playing for John McGraw's (original) Baltimore Orioles, who perfected the "Baltimore Chop."

He'd hit the ball so hard on the ground that it would bounce so high he'd be on first base before the fielder could make a throw.

I walked by his plaque in Cooperstown once and somebody came up from behind and whispered: "Hit 'em where they ain't."

Active leaders in 200-hit seasons
Ichiro Suzuki88
Derek Jeter116
Michael Young85
Vladimir Guerrero114
Juan Pierre84
Miguel Tejada113
Alex Rodriguez133
Todd Helton102

That, of course, was Wee Willie's favorite adage. "Keep your eye clear, and hit 'em where they ain't," was what he actually said, referring to the fielders.

Keeler would have been an excellent coach for most of today's Major Leaguers who refuse to learn how to effectively bunt. I become frustrated watching players, so lacking in fundamentals, unable to execute something as simple -- and important -- as a sacrifice bunt.

Ichiro seems to have many similar aspects in his game as Keeler. Keeler, like Ichiro, hit from the left side and was an outfielder with good defensive instincts. He's bigger (5-11, 172), but like Keeler isn't a power hitter.

Wee Willie ended his career in 1910 with 2,945 hits. My guess is he didn't reach 3,000 because that number wasn't considered a milestone in his era.

Keeler's name surfaced prominently in 1978 when Pete Rose was chasing Joe DiMaggio's 56-game consecutive hits record. Rose was stopped after 44 games on July 31 in Atlanta.

Rose fell one short of Keeler, who hit safely in 45 games between April 22 and June 18, 1897.

DiMaggio set his record in 1941.

Rose had 10 seasons with 200 or more hits, but they came between 1965 and '79. Ty Cobb had nine, beginning in 1907 and ending in '24.

Ken Griffey Jr. wasn't referring to Keeler when he discussed Suzuki's approach to hitting with MLB.com, but he could have been.

Griffey said he's impressed with all the "infield hits Ichiro gets. He has an arsenal of weapons that most of us don't have. He can beat out a ball he barely hits. He can hit home runs and drive balls into the gaps."

Keeler, by comparison, of his 216 hits in 1898, all but 10 (seven doubles, two triples and a home run) were singles. He won the league batting title that season with a .385 average. The year before he hit .424. and collected 239 hits in 129 games.

I should mention Suzuki had 262 hits in 2004 when he surpassed George Sisler's Major League record of 257 set in 1920.

Bottom line: If Wee Willie Keeler is in the Hall of Fame then Ichiro Suzuki should -- and will be -- too.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.