Sam Crawford was a little smaller than Joe DiMaggio and about that much bigger than Willie Mays. He was an Edwardian augury that bigger wasn't necessarily going to be better in the most skilled of American athletics, no matter how megalomaniacal the Ford Fricks and Bowie Kuhns and Roone Arledges might let the game become.

Crawford hung it up in 1917 after his 2,964th hit (including more triples than anybody ever made or probably ever will), and 40 years later somebody noticed that there were some people in the Hall of Fame with fewer than half that many. So they let him in, at 77.

In 1966, when scholar-author Larry Ritter went to interview this old jock out of Wahoo, Neb., he expected Crawford to quote Rube Waddell, that magnificient flake, and Sam did, at length. Ritter didn't expect "Let the dead past bury its dead," from Robert Ingersoll who was "more a skeptic than an atheist," Wahoo Sam explained.

But Crawford had not turned his back on the past. "Those who forget the past," he quoted Santayana, "are condemned to repeat it."

Then Crawford told Ritter about the 1897 Baltimore Orioles, the team of Wee Willie Keeler, whose 44-game hitting streak is baseball's second longest. Billy Martin would understand: "For Christ's sake," the Oriole stars would say to manager Ned Hanlon "shut up and leave us alone and we'll win." They won: Three firsts and two seconds in five years, and Hanlon was replaced by the third baseman, guy named McGraw.

But the one who found ways to beat you, the fact remained in Crawford's 86-year-old memory, was Keeler, who was Wee: three-eighths of an inch shorter and not an ounce heavier than Albie Pearson "A hundred and forty pounds," Crawford marveled, "but he played in the big leagues for 20 years and had a lifetime average close to 350."

It was 19 years and .345, and Three-Finger Brown could tick off the people who topped it since Grover Cleveland (the president, not the pitcher). "He choked up so far he used only half the bat," Crawford continued, "and then he'd just peck at the ball, just a little snap swing. He'd always hit the ball somewhere where they ain't, Keeler may actually have said some time, although it has that aprocryphal flavor one finds in archives). He could fly to first, and you couldn't strike him out."

In MacMillan's splendid Baseball Encyclopedia that latter hyperbole seemed literally, shockingly true. From 1897 through 1909 the One Great Scorer has not marked a strikeout against Willie Keeler's name. But a cross-check shows that Honus Wagner was in the league 13 years before he ever fanned, or frowned, at a curve ball.

Strikeouts were credited to the Waddells and Cy Youngs all those years but they were regarded as victimless crimes, for some reason. Cliff Kachline, curator of the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, doesn't know why.

Joe Sewell, another tiny man, went to bat 608 official times in 1925 and walked back with the bat in his hand only four times. So maybe Willie Keeler never did strike out in that 1897 season. He made 243 hits, and Mordecai Brown wouldn't have to take his glove off to count the people who topped that. Wee Willie hit .432, and if he'd waited four more years to do it, Hornsby and Sisler and Cobb and Lajoie would have had another "modern" to look up to - down at?

That was a 130-game season and Keeler sat out two. So he had only 562 at-bats. Given the 631 cuts George Sisler had to make his 257 hits - a 58-year-old record - William Henry Keeler might have pecked out 273 hits and Ty Cobb might have demanded they dissect the ball - or Keeler.

Keeler's streak wasn't all singles. During the year he had 27 doubles, 19 triples and somewhere, one home run (the prevailing ground-rule double rule was 235 feet). In the streak there were 82 hits - 11 doubles and 10 triples.

Four times that season Keeler made five hits in a game. A record, yes, but tied later by guys named Cobb and Musial. The five-hit games, incidentally, were not part of the 44-game streak.

There were some bunts in the streak. Willie Keeler came into the big league in 1892 and left in 1910. In 1894 there was a rule change: "Batter charged with a strike for hitting a foul bunt." In 1909 there was another rule written: "Bunt on a third strike is a strikeout . . ."

There was the manifest possibility that a little man, choking halfway up a little bat and controlling it like a pool cue, could make an old man out of a pitcher - several pitchers, perhaps - if there were no rule to stop him from bunting, and bunting, and bunting . . .