Hal Keller: He put baseball under the gun


Hal Keller watches the Mariners work out in Tempe, Ariz., in 1985. “He was skeptical, as all older people are of new inventions,” said wife Carol Keller. “... But then he sat behind a guy that had [a radar gun] and he was more convinced.” (Harley Soltes/THE SEATTLE TIMES)
December 20, 2012

For 100 miles, Hal Keller didn’t say a word.

The farm director for the Texas Rangers had made the two-hour drive from Arlington, Tex., to Ranger Community College at the behest of Joe Klein, his assistant farm director, in May 1976. Both had come to scout Danny Darwin, an undrafted pitching prospect from nearby Bonham, who was drawing interest from at least 15 major league baseball teams.

Darwin had gone through a growth spurt recently, and his fastball had increased in velocity, earning him the nickname the Bonham Bullet. It was hard to quantify. But Keller was intrigued, especially since Darwin was a local product and the Rangers were still getting their footing in Texas after moving from Washington five years earlier.

But Keller didn’t get long to scout him that day. Darwin proceeded to give up eight runs in the first inning, the sort of red-flag performance that gives scouts pause.

On the car ride home, Keller didn’t say anything to Klein, his mind funneling through what he had just seen. But when the two pulled over to get gas, Keller broke his silence.


Hal Keller in 1980. Before radar guns, baseball scouts relied on a scale of 1 to 6 to describe how fast a pitcher threw. It wasn’t long before every team in major league baseball was using the radar gun as a tool for evaluation. (Barry Sweet/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“Joseph,” Klein recalled Keller saying, “you want to pay this guy how much?”

Keller, a Middletown, Md., native, died in June after a lengthy battle with esophageal cancer and diabetes. Hal, the younger brother of former New York Yankees all-star Charlie “King Kong” Keller, played baseball at the University of Maryland and had a 25-game stint as a catcher in the major leagues. He went on to become the first farm director of the expansion Washington Senators in 1961 and moved with the team when it left for Texas. He eventually spent two seasons (1984-1985) as the general manager of the Seattle Mariners.

But his greatest contribution to the game will always be the introduction of the radar gun to major league baseball, and there was no player that influenced his decision to first use it more than Darwin.

***

Despite Darwin’s shaky outing that May afternoon, Keller and the Rangers did sign him to a contract, out-maneuvering the Boston Red Sox while offering less money. The allure of Darwin’s sinkerball and local ties were simply too much to ignore.

Keller needed to protect his investment, so he and Klein began using a radar gun on Darwin when he arrived at a Sarasota, Fla., instructional league that winter. A year earlier, Michigan State University coach Danny Litwhiler had first used a radar gun, developed in conjunction with the rise of America’s highway system in 1954, on his pitchers, and penned a letter to every MLB team informing them of his discovery.

Previously, scouts simply relied on a scale of 1 to 6 to describe how fast a pitcher threw.

The radar gun was a foreign concept when Darwin showed up in Florida. As Klein put it, “People looked at us like we were nuts, but they were inquisitive.”

Even Keller had his doubts.

“He was skeptical, as all older people are of new inventions,” said Hal’s wife, Carol Keller. “He, like a lot of the scouts those days, had a radar gun in his mind. He just knew how fast a pitcher was throwing the ball compared to any other pitcher. But then he sat behind a guy that had one and he was more convinced.”

Keller would stand behind home plate with his radar gun held straight ahead, watching the movement of Darwin’s pitches to determine at what speed each of them was most effective.

“ ‘If you’re gonna put significant investment into a pitcher, you’re gonna need radar gun readings,’ ” Klein remembers Keller telling the Rangers front office.

Darwin was fascinated by the assurances the radar gun gave him, and he wasn’t alone.

“Everybody wants to know how hard they throw when you’re young,” Darwin said from his home in Sanger, Tex. “I got caught up in that. I’m not gonna say I didn’t. But they just kept talking about how hard I threw because of the radar gun. That’s all I remember.”

Darwin went on to have a 20-year career in the majors, finishing with a 171-182 career record and 3.84 earned run average. He later became a pitching coach in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system, using the radar gun in much the same manner as Keller and Klein did.

It wasn’t long before every team in major league baseball was using the radar gun as a tool for evaluation.

Today, the radar gun has become a fixture at ballparks big and small across the country. Most major league baseball stadiums and many television broadcasts even display the speed of each pitch thrown over the course of a game. Speed can be the determining factor when scouts go in search of the next pitching star, and pitchers who can’t throw above 90 miles per hour find it harder to jump-start their careers.

The radar gun does more than fill stat sheets; if it shows a decrease in velocity, it can be the first sign that a pitcher has suffered an elbow or shoulder injury. Its integration into baseball also paved the way for the radar gun to be used in other sports. Hockey players can now measure the speed of their slap shot, and tennis players are able to quantify their fastest serves.

For Keller, though, the radar gun was about something more than speed; it was about how fast it let you break in.

Mark Giannotto writes for the Sports section.

Mark Giannotto covers Virginia and Virginia Tech for The Washington Post.
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