"End of the Race for a Family Farm"
The Baltimore Sun
November 26, 2006
They're at the top of the stretch ... On the outside, Efficiency. Here comes Town Cheer! ... Yankee Cashmere is trying to sweep from ninth ... Yankee Cashmere comes from last to take the stretch lead! A magnificent drive to ... win the Cadillac Breeders Crown!
Twelve years later, the thrill isn't gone."Fortunately, there have been many good races. This is one of them," says Chaz Keller on an early-November morning as he watches a video replay of Yankee Cashmere's 1994 miracle finish. "I still get goose pimples."
Yankee Cashmere, now retired and a broodmare, has the run of a picture-perfect pasture that lies just outside the door of this restored farmhouse in Frederick. So do more than a hundred other standardbred horses: the pride of Yankeeland Farm. The neighbors have no idea what elevated company they're in, even though luxury homes nuzzle right up against Yankeeland's green grass, slowly encircling the farm like a lasso. Or a noose.
"They just know it's a nice, pretty place that has horses," Keller chuckles. Those horses will be gone soon. The harness industry's annual sale in Harrisburg is where Yankeeland usually offers up a crop of frisky yearlings. It's primarily a breeding operation, with a select few pacers and trotters kept for racing.
This year, however, is different. In a few days everything is going on the auction block, all but new colts and fillies that will be unloaded when they mature. This is not a typical "dispersal," the racing community's euphemism for a going-out-of-business sale. For one thing, Yankeeland is financially sound. It's also not a typical farm. The man who put the Yankee in Yankeeland was the late Charlie Keller, Chaz's grandfather - a Maryland farm boy who pounded a baseball hard enough to invite comparisons with another local hero: Babe Ruth.
Charlie Keller roamed the outfield with New York Yankee's legend Joe DiMaggio, making the All-Star team five times, earning three World Series rings - but never really leaving the farm. When his playing days ended in the early 1950s, he bought land on the outskirts of Frederick, then added some racehorses, then more. Over the years, two sons and three grandsons helped him rise to the top of a second sport. Now, with the suburbs creeping ever closer and with no younger Kellers inclined to share the workload, a family dream is being dismantled. The Harrisburg auction marks the beginning of the end of Yankeeland.
Family-owned and -operated Yankeeland Farm is an anomaly. Charlie Keller could have called it Fantasyland. Little guys with no fortune behind them aren't supposed to reach such rarified heights in horse racing. Windylane Hanover was Trotting Mare of the Year in 2003. Muscles Yankee and Yankee Paco both took the Hambletonian Stakes, harness racing's biggest prize. All of them are spiritual descendants of Fresh Yankee, winner of seven world titles in the 1970s.
"It was probably one of the most unique farms in the country," says Craig Landa, a Baltimore County veterinarian who has tended Yankeeland horses more than 20 years.
"Pound for pound, that farm has had tremendous impact on the breeding industry," says Jim Simpson, president and CEO of decidedly more corporate Hanover Shoe Farms in Pennsylvania. Is there another Yankeeland on the horizon? Will somebody pick up their smaller-is-better baton?
"No," declares Simpson.
The older mares have enough horse sense to know something's afoot. They're being groomed more frequently. "They're getting pretty and gussied," says Chaz Keller, who has to force a smile whenever talk turns to the demise of Yankeeland.
When he was a boy, his granddad warned him about becoming "attached" to colts. The horse business, like professional baseball, chews up romantics. Stable hand Wade Cooney, at 60 a seasoned Maryland horseman, resists waxing sentimental. "In the 13 years I've been here, the traffic has gotten three times as bad," he says. "It's time for the land to be used for something else."
Like Cooney, Keller isn't sure what he will do next. He has a degree from Lafayette College but chose to work at Yankeeland because he's not suit-and-tie material. At 46, married with two children, he has a lingering bashfulness about him. Sometimes Keller's body contorts while talking, as if he's back in grade school trying to muster the courage to ask a girl if he can carry her lunchbox. Lately, he finds himself staring at the farm buildings and surrounding landscape, soaking up the memories. There are "a lot of lessons" to be learned on a horse farm. And he had a good teacher: a larger-than-life grandfather with hands the size of barbecue mitts.
"He was like John Wayne to us," says Keller.
The secret behind those big hands - which seemingly could crush stone and overpower any fastball - was milking cows. That's what Charlie Keller always insisted. He was born in 1916 and raised near the Catoctin mountains in Middletown. Population: 800 mostly diligent, sober-minded German immigrants. By age 7, Charlie already was milking with a vengeance on the family dairy farm. Then the economy ran dry.
"They lost everything in the Depression," recalls Martha Keller, Charlie's 90-year-old widow. "He finally got a scholarship to Maryland. He dug ditches at the arts and science building."
The pay was $15 a month for 50 hours of campus chores. He played basketball as well as baseball, and, befitting a gifted cow milker, majored in agricultural economics. On a ball field, he was fast, smart, and hit like a mule can kick. Martha has proof: a scrapbook filled with yellowed news clips she began collecting shortly after they met in college. The headlines speak louder than tight-lipped Charlie ever did. "Most Promising Player in Washington Area," "University of Maryland Star Signs with Yankees," "Keller, Maryland Plowboy, Batting .440 for Newark."
He signed a $2,500 contract after his junior year. The Yankees sent him to their top farm club, the Newark (New Jersey) Bears. By then, Keller had acquired the "King Kong" nickname he despised, but had an undeniably monster season, batting .353 and being selected 1937 International League Rookie of the Year. The kid was almost too good to be true - Jack Armstrong in spikes. Polite but tough. Modest but confident. Didn't drink anything livelier than milk. He went to bed so Farmer-John early teammates dubbed him "Mattressback."
In 1939, Keller made the parent club. He had a splendid rookie season, followed by a spectacular World Series. The Yankees swept the Cincinnati Reds in four games - during which Keller led the team in home runs, runs scored, runs batted in, and batting average. That year opened and closed the book on two historic careers. Yankee great Lou Gehrig retired, and a mad-genius outfielder named Ted Williams made his debut with the Boston Red Sox. Charlie Keller would wind up outhitting Williams by seven points (.334 to .327), prompting sportswriter Grantland Rice to take the measure of the disparate rookies.
"Keller is the more serious type. No player ever kept in better shape," Rice wrote in a column. "Williams ... may be intense enough at the plate, but he leans toward the lighter side of life. ... At the ages of 21 and 23 both have their chance to go a long, long way for many, many years."
The town of Frederick was itching to throw a parade for Charlie Keller after his triumphant World Series. Everybody was pumped but the honoree. "Nothing doing on the parade stuff," Keller said. He did, however, give his consent to a lower-key, sit-down dinner. Charlie was atop the baseball world, a rising star of the game he loved. But it was just a public means to a very private end.
"That's why he was playing ball," explains Martha, flipping through her faded scrapbook. "He wanted a farm someday."
To celebrate their 50th anniversary in the horse business, the family published last year a book titled Yankeeland: The Farm The Kellers Built. Subconsciously, they might have been writing an advance obituary. Dan Bittle - Chaz's cousin who handles client relations - acknowledged that "there are more bad days than good days." On the last page, Charles III - Chaz's father, who manages the books - let slip, "I don't know if the farm will go another generation in our family."
They're swept up in tides of change felt in rural areas all over the state. Charlie Keller purchased four parcels of almost contiguous land on the fringe of once-sleepy Frederick. But the town spread around him, like coffee spilled on a road map. "It gets tougher and tougher to raise horses in this environment," says Chaz.
Neighbors' dogs occasionally get loose and chase $100,000 horses around the pasture. Vandals smash barn windows. It has become an adventure to drive a manure truck down a former country lane where cars go 50 mph. Property values keep escalating, and the Kellers are sitting on 300 acres of prime land. Also, Brett Bittle - Dan Bittle's younger brother - moved to New Jersey, a better location for him to train standardbreds, but it takes him away from the farm. The fragile condition of the state's horse racing industry isn't a factor. More than anything else, it's a matter of the new blood and fresh legs needed to keep a hands-on farm functioning. There are 10 great-grandchildren, but nobody in that next generation feels the magnetic pull of Yankeeland.
The Kellers take great pride in relying on minimal outside help. They get by with only five full-time employees. "That's one of the major reasons for our success," says Chaz. "We pay attention to details."
That means Kellers muck their own stalls, repair fences, feed horses.
Charlie set that tone early on. A handshake was a contract. And none of that buyer-beware nonsense. Charlie Keller always let clients know if a horse was sick or ever lame. "He was a man of his word," says John M. Egloff, a Gettysburg veterinarian who knew him well. "If he said an egg would hatch a horse, you could put a saddle on it."
Teddy and Charlie
Of those two rookies that made such a splash in 1939, the baseball gods chose to smile more favorably upon Ted Williams. He wound up having a Hall of Fame career. Congenital back problems clipped Charlie Keller's wings. He soared above most peers, but never achieved immortality. There were 11 solid years with the Yankees and a brief stint with the Detroit Tigers before injuries caught up with him in 1952.
But character counts. The Yankees paid homage to his by holding Charlie Keller Day on Sept. 25, 1948. The 65,607 fans who showed up included a Maryland delegation led by Sen. Millard E. Tydings. Keller was showered with golf clubs, a fancy watch and a pile of other gifts. He would have been just as happy with a lifetime supply of flannel shirts. Farming was life. Long after he had gone gray, Keller was still cleaning horse stalls at Yankeeland and still getting about 40 letters a week from baseball fans. He virtually worked every day until shortly before dying of colon cancer in 1990 at age 73.
Donald Keller, who labored by his dad's side for 30 years, said Charlie savored the simplest of farming pleasures: "He liked feeding horses and liked just listening to them eat."
No joy in Yankeeland
Preparations began before dawn at the Pennsylvania State Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg. Hooves got buffed with baby oil; manes were combed. Show Sheen was sprayed on flanks to give them extra luster. "I didn't sleep much last night," says Chaz Keller. "Every now and then I have to walk outside and compose myself."
A barn as big and boxy as an airplane hangar has been turned over to Yankeeland Farm for display of their dispersal stock. Forty-nine mares are about to be sold. Each horse has its own temporary holding stall. Prospective buyers are free to browse. They examine teeth, pat rumps, check gait.
The Harrisburg sale attracts an international crowd. Swedes, Australians, Italians and Canadians are milling about. There's even a large contingent of Amish hoping to pick up old racehorses to pull their buggies. Charlie Keller III flew up from his retirement home in Florida, obliged to bear witness for his father. He has the glazed expression of a soldier steeled for combat. "It's emotional," he mumbles, "and, to tell you the truth, I'm not sure I'm gonna get through it."
The auction ring is at one end of what resembles a small-college gymnasium, with rows of folding chairs on the floor for active bidders. Chaz Keller is leaning against a concrete wall in the back when Windylane Hanover, the plum of the Yankeeland tree, is brought onto a horseshoe-shaped stage. He looks seasick as the auctioneer launches into a rapid-fire, pitch-and-roll spiel:
" ... one of the best-quality mares in the history of our sport ... bibbitty-bah, bibbitty-bah, bibbitty-bee ... $300,000 ... bibbitty-bah, bibbitty-bah, bibbitty-booo ... and she's in foal ... bibbitty-bah, bibbitty-bee ... $400,000 ... $450,000 ... "
Going, going ... gone for $600,000!
One by one, pieces of Yankeeland fly away. Dodger Blues ... Marvelous Yankee ... Missymae Bluestone ... Bashful Yankee ...
Dan Bittle sits high in the arena bleachers with his wife. "It's tough. It's 51 years," he says softly. "But it's rewarding to see the public likes what you did."
... Spiffey Yankee ... Yankee Tomboy ... Yankee Icon ... Merry Yankee ...
Chaz Keller watches until Yankee Cashmere - the gritty mare that captured the Canadian Breeders Crown; one of the racehorses they held on to and that cousin Brett trained - enters the ring. That's his tipping point. He walks outside to his pickup truck and drives home to Frederick. "I couldn't stand to see her auctioned off. Those are the bloodlines that my grandfather started when he first got into the business."
Yankee Cashmere goes for $7,000. The cumulative sales total at day's end hits $3,657,500. There's no celebration. The Kellers themselves quickly disperse, gone to wrestle with their emotions and their ghosts. Much of what any person accomplishes in life amounts to hoof prints in the sand. Time washes it all away. Yankeeland will get plowed under by developers eventually, the barns and fences knocked down. But Charlie Keller's values and passion will endure for a while yet. The family bloodlines are good, the work ethic intact. Once racing gets into your system, you need a full-body transfusion to be rid of it.
Chaz Keller says he will keep his hand in horses somehow. Meanwhile, on the long drive back to Yankeeland, a thought occurred: Most of the mares were sold to American bidders, the home team. "I guess that's pretty encouraging," he says. "They'll be able to stay here, and we'll be able to follow their offspring."
© 2007 The Baltimore Sun and may not be republished without permission.