When Manager Johnny Keane of the St. Louis Cardinals benches a player, he does it with a touch so gentle as to leave the poor fellow with a feeling that he is being rewarded for industrious effort. Contrast this with the manager in Ring Lardner's short story, "Hurry Kane," who says to a pitcher: "You so-and-so so-and-so! You're going to stay right in there and pitch till this game is over! And if you don't pitch like you can pitch, I'll shoot you dead tonight just as sure as you're a yellow, quitting——!"
The difference between the two approaches is as much a commentary on baseball as it is on Johnny Keane. It was the fashion until not so long ago for managers to call ballplayers so-and-so's and——s and even harsher epithets lifted out of context from the Holy Bible and the Paradise Pool Parlor. Such expressions are not unknown to Johnny Keane, but they do not come naturally to him. He has been an approving observer of the grand metamorphosis, still in process, which has seen the major league ballplayer rise out of the muck. Once the typical pro was a social slob, unaccepted by polite society, oriented to the barnyard, devoted to cheap whisky and given to such scintillating bon mots as "We'reagonna make 'em shell the corn!"
The new ballplayer, epitomized by such gentlemen as Sandy Koufax and Bobby Richardson and Dick Groat and dozens of others, has been to college, or acts as though he has. He dresses in quiet good taste, he drinks in moderation, if at all, and he has a profound sense of his own human dignity. As Keane says, "You used to be able to treat a player like dirt, and I guess it worked because that's the way we expected to be handled, but that's not the way they expect to be handled now. These fellows are well paid. They live on a high level, and they try to meet their responsibilities in the public eye. They're not going to be treated like animals."
This new kind of ballplayer calls for a new kind of manager. Johnny Keane is the new kind of manager.
April 13, 1964
It would be pleasant to report that the St. Louis ownership carefully groomed Keane for his job and moved him into the breach at precisely the right moment of history in a master stroke of administrative judgment. It would also be untrue. Since S. M. Graffen became the first manager in 1876, the front office has made 53 changes, a league record. For the better part of two decades Johnny Keane toiled away unsung on the Cardinals" farms while the panjandrums in St. Louis tried on this manager and that manager for size. None of them fit, and Keane finally got the job almost by default in the middle of the 1961 season. During his three-month tenure that year, the Cardinals racked up the best record (47-33) of any National League team. In 1962, a rebuilding year, the team slipped, but last year the Cards finished second after throwing a genuine Bela Lugosi scare into the Los Angeles Dodgers in the closing weeks of the season. The attack on the Dodgers included a 19-out-of-20-game winning streak and moved San Francisco Giant Manager Alvin Dark to wire Keane at the end of the season: IN MY OPINION YOU DID A MASTERFUL JOB. THANKS FOR KEEPING THE NATIONAL LEAGUE PENNANT RACE ON A HIGH LEVEL.
While Keane was carefully explaining to all who would listen that he himself did not get a base hit or even a fielding chance during the streak, that the games were won by the likes of Curt Flood and Ernie Broglio and Bill White and Stan Musial, others were more inclined to accept Dark's diagnosis and credit Keane with the onslaught. These others included the baseball writers who voted him National League Manager of the Year by an embarrassingly wide margin over another typical representative of the new breed of manager, Walter Alston of the Dodgers.
Keane came out of south St. Louis, which means that he says "fark" for fork, "shart" for short and occasionally indulges himself in a patented Missouri regionalism that might be described as a double indicative parallelism. It is exemplified by Keane's statement: "That Curt Flood is a terrific center fielder is what he is." Johnny Keane himself is a little guy is what he is: he stands five feet eight and weighs 160 pounds, or 10 pounds over his playing weight; he speaks in a low, resonant voice that sound like Everett Dirksen's without the sugar content; he has clear blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair which he wears in a crew cut to obscure the fact that it is no longer luxuriant; his face is seamy and lined and leathery from the accumulated traumas of 25 years in the bushes. He doesn't drink ("unless I can't get out of it, and then I just sip a little to be polite") but, as though to balance the scales for his lack of visible sins, he smokes with wild abandon, disposing of 15 small cigars a day, and inhaling them at that.
For six years Keane studied for the priesthood, and the story has been circulated that the big, bad, secular Cardinals lured him away from this noble calling with the promise of a professional baseball contract. "That's not really true," says the candid Keane. "What happened is that I just discovered that I didn't have a true vocation for the priesthood." The fact is that he was a hotshot athlete, pursued by packs of sporting entrepreneurs who wanted him on their side. On Saturday afternoons, when fellow seminarians studied until 3, Keane cut classes to play first-string quarterback for a big high school under an assumed name. He sneaked off to play baseball in the fast St. Louis semipro leagues, mostly with former professionals. And during his years at Kenrick Seminary he was often forced to vanish from the classroom to play inside right for a semipro soccer team.
When the Cardinal organization discovered him Keane was on the verge of signing a professional soccer contract. Instead, he went out to Sportsmen's Park for a tryout, and there one of those events occurred that shape the future. As Keane puts it: "I went into the clubhouse scared and confused. The players hadn't come in yet, and the equipment man, Butch Yatkeman, gave me an old dirty uniform and a cap that didn't fit. I dressed and sat down to wait. The players started to come in and I got more nervous, and then Andy High—he was the regular third baseman then—Andy came up and said, 'Son, what are you doing here?' and I said, 'I'm gonna work out with the Cardinals.' He said, 'Come here a minute,' and he took a spotless uniform out of his locker and handed it to me and said. 'Take that thing off and put this on.' I'll never forget his kindness. Andy's a scout for the Dodgers now. but he's had an effect on the Cardinals. Whenever any boy comes out for a trial, he gets a clean uniform and a new cap." (And he gets it from an older, and presumably wiser, Butch Yatkeman.)
The Cards signed the half-pint shortstop off his workout that day and sent him to Waynesboro, Pa. in the old Blue Ridge League. Soon Keane had worked himself up to the Springfield, Mo. team, then managed by Eddie Dyer. One day a sportswriter said to Dyer. "Eddie, why do you keep that little shrimp? You know he's too small to make it in the majors." Said Dyer: "That little shrimp is a student of baseball. He'll be with the Cardinal organization a long time."
Indeed, there was no reason to assume that Keane was not headed for a playing job with the Cardinals; his hitting was always around .300, and his fielding was superb. Once he went 55 games without an error. Seething inside, he made four errors in the 56th game ("and I really committed five, but they didn't charge me with the first one," Keane explains).
In 1935, at the age of 23, he was enjoying a good season with the Houston Buffalos in the Texas League when the whole direction of his life was turned around again. Beaned by a hotheaded Galveston pitcher in retaliation for a game-winning home run in an earlier series, Keane went to the hospital with seven inches of fractured skull. He was unconscious for almost a week; his skin turned blood-red, and his temperature held at 105½. That was the end of the 1935 season for Keane, and in spring training the next year the Houston manager made him stay in the batting cage for 30 minutes while a very wild young pitcher on the roster worked him over. Keane didn't flinch, and he regained his old job as shortstop. But the next season the Cardinal organization decided that he was finished as a major league possibility. "I swear I didn't feel any different." Keane says. "I went up to the plate the same way and I swung the same. But apparently they noticed something that I didn't." What the Cardinals' brass had noticed was that Keane had a calm, forceful way with his fellow players; he was that great American cliché, the natural leader, and in 1938, at the age of 26, he was sent to manage the Albany, Ga. team in Class D. The team won two straight pennants under Playing Manager Keane, and from there he went on to other Cardinal farms like Rochester in the International League, Omaha in the Western League and Columbus in the American Association. Wherever he went, he was a success.
The minors in those days were not exactly the place where one would expect to find a young man who had spent six years in a seminary. Keane's quiet manner and limited use of colorful language marked him, to some of the less knowing, as a sort of Lord Fauntleroy, which he was not—a fact learned the hard way by one fan in New Iberia, La. "This guy was riding me all season long," Keane recalls, "and all I could do was take it, even though I couldn't understand it, because I was managing the New Iberia team and this guy was a home-town boy and we were winning the pennant. Well, I was never a good loser, and one day we lost a game, and as we were walking down the runway between the stands I saw him stick his head through the chicken wire and get ready to lace me some more. I never broke stride. I walked right past him and popped him as I went by. They got me out of bed at 2 in the morning and said there was a warrant out for my arrest for assault and battery. The heckler turned out to be the son of one of the leading citizens of New Iberia. So I went to see a white-haired old judge in the morning, and he said, 'Did you pop somebody last night?' I said, 'Yes, sir, I did.' He said, 'Was he heckling you pretty good?' I said, 'Yes, sir, he's been heckling me all season.' He said, 'Well, all right, your fine is $5 and we'll forget about it.' "
Even at his angriest, Keane found himself handicapped in any sort of argument because his opponents could use words he had never learned to use comfortably. Once Umpire "Frenchy" Arceneaux threw him out of a game in the Texas League after Keane had reached back for a little extra in the vituperation department. Skulking in the dugout, his limited supply of cuss words completely exhausted, Keane suddenly thought of a final, devastating riposte. "Arceneaux!" he shouted. "You know what you are, Arceneaux? You're just a mean man is what you are!" Having torn this passion to tatters, Keane jumped up and banged his head on the dugout roof and had to be helped off the premises. "Oh, I was a rowdy fella," he says now, laughing at himself.
In 11 of his 17 years as a minor league manager, Keane brought his teams to third-place finishes or higher and won five pennants, and even the myopic Cardinal front office had to begin considering him for the big job. After his Rochester team won the league championship in 1950, Keane underwent his first grisly experience as a managerial bridesmaid. Fred Saigh, then owner of the Cardinals, wired Keane to fly to St. Louis under an assumed name and check into the Chase Hotel, where a room would be reserved for him under the same name. Saigh let it be known that Eddie Dyer was going to be replaced and the job would be filled by Marty Marion, Mel Ott or Keane. Feeling like a philandering husband, Keane signed the Chase's register with the false name and gave his bags to a bellboy, who promptly said, "I hope you get the job, Johnny." For three days Keane sat by a silent phone, taking all his meals in the room. Then he went to the Cardinal office, where the rumor was rampant that he was in. "But something happened between 11 and noon," Keane says. "Later Mr. Saigh took me to lunch and told me he was giving the job to Marion. People told me later it was because I hadn't spoken up. But I didn't think it was my place to go up there and lobby for the job. That didn't seem to be the way to do it."
In 1952 Keane was bypassed again when Marion was fired and Eddie Stanky named manager. Three years later Keane was leading his Omaha team to a second-place finish when Stanky was kicked put and Harry Walker named in his place. All during these bridesmaid years Keane was laboring under the misapprehension that good, honest toil in the Cardinal vineyards would be rewarded. Others were equally naive about Keane's chances. Once when the job fell open, the Houston Press quoted an unnamed Cardinal player as saying, "There will be a near rebellion of the players if Keane doesn't get it." Charles Johnson wrote in the Minneapolis Star in 1955: "Each time there is a vacancy at the main offices in St. Louis, Keane is passed by. What a sad commentary on the operations of major league baseball clubs."
Keane contented himself with a few mild off-the-record remarks to the effect that he had always felt managers could prove themselves in the minors and thus win jobs in the majors, an attitude that showed he might have known his catechism but he did not know his history, at least his St. Louis Cardinal history. In those years the Cards' front office was following the ancient precept that managers are gate attractions in themselves and therefore should be former stars from the majors. So Marion was followed by Stanky, and Stanky by Walker, and Walker by Fred Hutchinson, and Hutch by Stan Hack, and Hack by Solly Hemus, while Keane slowly was forced to the realization that his record as a successful Triple-A manager was good only for free admission to Busch Stadium. He fell to ruminating over a conversation he had had several years earlier with Frank Lane, who, as general manager of the Cardinals, had wanted Keane to come up to the parent club as a coach.
"I don't want to come up as coach," Keane had told the voluble Lane. "I want to come up as manager."
"What?" Lane had said. "Why, you're just as crazy as anybody I've ever met. The thing for you to do is come up here and let the major league people at least know who you are. Nobody knows who you are!"
In 1959 Keane belatedly took Lane's advice and joined the Cardinals as a coach, thus becoming, at least passively, a major leaguer. And when Solly Hemus was fired in 1961 Keane got the managing job with no further shilly-shallying.
When an employee hangs around an organization for 15 or 20 years and then gets promoted to a big job, it usually is because he has been hanging around for 15 or 20 years and the boss is so embarrassed at having passed over him so often that he simply cannot bring himself to pass over the poor boob again. But the man with longevity in his favor often has little else to offer, and Johnny Keane quickly set out to prove that he was the exception. He looked over his raw material—the Cardinal roster—and his eyes became fixed, as anybody's would, on the name of Stan Musial. "Stan was on the bench," Keane says, "and as far as the Cardinals' organization was concerned, he was through as a player. He'd had it. I went over to him, and I said, 'Stan, I want you to play. What are you resting for? You haven't got far to go. Let's run the string out, but let's run it out on the ball field.' Stan Musial is the greatest guy in the world, and he reacted right away. He said, 'That's just exactly what I want to do, Johnny.' He played out a good season, and in 1962 he almost won the batting championship."
If you ask Stan Musial how he was able to squeeze those final three years out of his aging frame, Musial will answer unhesitatingly: "Johnny Keane." At a dinner in St. Louis in 1962, Musial said: "From the day he took over the Cardinals, Johnny Keane let me know that I was not only wanted but needed. He instilled enthusiasm and inspiration in me, and helped me find myself again."
For his own part, Keane yields to no man, woman or child in his wide-eyed awe of The Man. "One of the biggest honors and privileges of my life," Keane has said, "has been to put on a Cardinal uniform the same as Stan's, dress in the same clubhouse as Stan and be on the same field and club as Stan. Think of all the good words in the English language, and they all fit Stan." If it were up to Keane, Musial would still be playing for the Cardinals. Once a reporter asked Keane how long Musial would be able to hit major league pitching, and Keane answered: "Till he's 65."
With the left-field problem solved, Keane turned his attention to center, where a brooding Curt Flood was in and out of the lineup and unable to untrack his vast natural talents. Keane had managed Flood in the minors, and the day Keane took over the Cardinals he told his protege: "You're my center fielder." That solved the center-field problem, and it has remained solved ever since.
Now Keane examined the pitching roster. Two of the best pitchers in the league, Ernie Broglio and Larry Jackson, were in the bullpen, their arms and their spirits corroding, when Keane arbitrarily returned them to starting roles. "It was no great stroke of genius," Keane says. "Maybe they should have been in the bullpen. But the fact was that we couldn't win without them. I had to make them starters."
Broglio, with no special help from Keane, found himself quickly, but the rugged Jackson was another matter. He had been plagued by an inability to finish games, and the problem had become more mental than physical. Keane went to him, "and I told him he was going to start and he was going to finish. If he got in trouble out there, that was too bad; he was going to finish the game anyway. Well, we go out to San Francisco and I start him for the first time. He's getting bombed. His timing was off, and pretty soon they've got five runs off him, all earned. I said, "He's staying in. We've got to get him over this hump.' He allowed two more runs, and at the end of the eighth inning he was walking to the dugout with Carl Sawatski, our catcher, and I overheard Jackson say, 'Now in the ninth, Carl, I want to stay with my fast ball. It's my best pitch today.' Here he's allowed seven runs and he's figuring on finishing the ball game! We scored two runs to go ahead 9-7, and Jackson went out there in the ninth and he breezed. That was the day Larry Jackson came back. Who did it? Larry Jackson did it." In his first dozen starts after Keane took over, Jackson finished eight games and won eight.
Keane made other moves, some of them more controversial. He banned poker. "I know it seems like a petty thing," he has explained since, "but it had gotten out of hand. As a coach, I had seen those games on the plane. There was never any silver on the table—just bills, piles of them. They'd raise on every card. There were a lot of young players in the game, and I knew they couldn't get off that plane after losing $200 and still keep up their morale. There was a lot of bitterness, and I just figured they should be bitter at the other ball clubs, not at each other. I felt like an old mother hen, but I knew what I was doing was right, so I told 'em no more poker. There was a little grumbling, mostly by a few players who were getting rich off the game, but they came around."
With equal dispatch Keane solved the problem of Mickey McDermott, a veteran pitcher who suffered from a chronic lack of a sense of time. Night after night McDermott would come in after the 2 a.m. curfew, and Solly Hemus, in his final week of managing the team, had slapped the wandering pitcher with a $500 fine. On his own third night as Cardinal manager, Keane noted that McDermott was still on the town after the curfew, whereupon he fired him on the spot. "He's off the payroll and club for good," the new manager announced. "He has turned in his uniform and been given transportation to his home in Miami Beach, and [General Manager] Bing Devine will dispose of his contract." Later Keane explained his apparently peremptory action: "I made it plain when I talked to the players in my first clubhouse meeting in Los Angeles that I would enforce the rules, and I used the threat of public disclosure to help discourage any violations. We've got a young team—a bunch of fine, clean-cut kids—and I'll not have them either exposed unfairly to temptation or get the idea early that rules are meant to be flouted. Mickey has had a lot of chances in his career, and the Cardinals gave him one this year. I'm sorry he didn't take it."
Keane has had no trouble with curfew violators since the McDermott affair, nor does he harbor any ill will toward the playful pitcher. "I have a friendly feeling for that big guy," Keane said recently. "There's nothing vicious or bad about him. He's just a big guy who doesn't care about time, and that's the way it is with him. But he's a perfectly decent human being."
It is characteristic of Keane, and perhaps dates to his religious training, that he finds it all but impossible to remain annoyed with anyone, and vice versa. In spring training last year Keane and Special Consultant Branch Rickey had a loud brouhaha about the ability of Jim Harris, a rookie infielder. Keane holed up in the clubhouse and refused to discuss the incident, and Rickey stomped out to his car in a huff. Not long afterward, while sportswriters were still analyzing the irreconcilable differences between the two men, Rickey announced, "If the direction is maintained [i.e., if Keane remains manager], this club is a pennant winner.... His judgment and handling of pitchers both on and off the field deserve great credit." Scratch one feud.
Keane engaged in another public skirmish with Don Drysdale, after the big Los Angeles pitcher slid into frail Second Baseman Julian Javier and almost broke the Dominican in half, and then compounded the felony by winging a couple of supersonic fast balls in the general vicinity of the Cardinal hitters' solar plexuses. Certain cruel observers went so far as to accuse Keane of ordering his pitchers to retaliate, whereupon Drysdale, nobody's Aunt Lily, said, "If Keane wants to retaliate, I'll be around all season." Drysdale said he hadn't thrown at anybody, and Keane said that Drysdale was a liar—and the funny thing about it was that inwardly Keane was admiring Drysdale with all the enthusiasm of a knotholer for his hero. "Why, he only did exactly what I would have wanted my own players to do," Keane now confesses. "He was really hustling."
For much the same reason Keane maintains a deep respect for Bob Shaw, the San Francisco pitcher. "A few years ago," Keane says, "Shaw drilled one of my players. Bob Gibson was pitching for us, and he just waited for Shaw to come to bat. Boy, Gibson really drilled him! He bored a hole right below Shaw's ribs; it must have gone in three inches. Shaw knew it was coming, and he knew why it was coming. He didn't look at Gibson, he just went right down to first base. That's my idea of a real pro."
Keane was even able to salvage some positive values from the worst crisis of his Cardinal career: the celebrated set-to with Ray Sadecki. The young Cardinal left-hander faced five batters in a lethargic relief role; he allowed a single and two home runs, and put the other two men on base with his own errors. All five runners scored, and Keane was enraged. Consistent with his inviolable rule that no player may be criticized in front of the others, Keane invited Sadecki to his office after the game. "I told him it was one of the poorest performances and efforts I had ever seen on the diamond," Keane says, "and it was. He didn't agree. I fined him $250, and he said he wanted to be traded; he said he couldn't pitch for a manager who questioned his effort. He didn't budge an inch, and he hasn't to this day. Well, that's exactly what he should have done, if he really felt that he had put out his best effort. I still think I was right, but that's not important. He still thinks he was right. That kid's a fighter. He's the kind of ballplayer I want on my team. I wouldn't want any other kind."
Despite a rare flare-up of the Sadecki or McDermott variety, Keane remains convinced that a manager's main job is to keep his ballplayers happy, to suppress his own emotional needs and angers, and to bark and boss as little as possible. "My theory is to harness the man's own intelligence and keep him feeling like a human being, someone who is wanted, someone who is part of the team," he says. "The biggest job in managing is off the field, not on. Too much dissension comes from bawling players out in public. They'll pout for three or four days, and you don't get any effort out of them. And that's what a manager is there for: to get the full effort, whatever road you have to take, whatever the cost to your own feelings. We're not in this job to satisfy our own needs. If we're mad, we just have to swallow it. We've got to take it and go on in and forget it."
Keane is a past master at holding in his own furies. He simply waits till the team is fast asleep and then goes out for long, ventilating walks. He has been following this practice for years. Allen Russell, who was president of the old Houston Buffalos, remembers getting a phone call from Keane at 3 one morning after the team had blown a game in San Antonio. "He says, 'Allen, you want to take a walk?' We walked all over San Antonio. When the sun came up, I said, "Johnny, people'll think we're nuts." He'd have walked all day!"
Perhaps because of those long, frustrating years in the boondocks, Keane venerates major leaguers, especially those he is supervising himself. "Ballplayers nowadays are in better shape than they ever were," he says. "They have to be. The competition is tougher, the travel is murder, the schedule is longer. The players of today are the best in history. You don't have to run their lives. If they don't take care of themselves they just naturally lose out, and that's the worst punishment. If they drank and caroused the way some of the old ballplayers did, they wouldn't last a week in the majors. You can't be a stumbling drunk and play at this level. It used to be you could."
Not surprisingly, one of Keane's favorite people is Walter Alston, who shares many of Keane's attitudes and characteristics. The two played together on the Houston team in 1937. Both are strong and quiet, and their conversations, though tinged with respect fop each other, are sparser than Keane would like them to be. "I can sit down and talk to Walter in the dugout," says Keane, as though annoyed at the fact that they now find themselves vigorous competitors, "but he'll never talk without an invitation. I stop him coming through our dugout and I sit him down and make him talk to me. I admire Walter very much."
Like Alston, Keane has an almost mystical capacity for arousing rapport. "Now Johnny's on top," says an old friend from minor league days, "but I still feel a sympathy for him. Any group, of people that wants him, he'll show up like a puppy dog, and he'll make a simple little speech, maybe throwing in a few references to Stan Musial, because it's just about impossible for him to talk without mentioning Musial, and he'll sit down with that wide-eyed look of his, and you'll feel a kind of sympathy for" him welling up inside you, and you'll say to yourself, 'What the hell am I feeling this way for?' I don't know. Maybe it's that beaning he got, or the run-around he had to put up with for so many years before he got the job. Or maybe it's just because he's one sweet little human being in a day when there aren't many like him."
Whatever the reason, Keane affects almost everyone in the same way, and nowhere more than in his adopted home town of Houston. Guy Savage, an old pro broadcaster, had to cut short his laudatory introduction of Keane at a recent dinner because he felt an urge to burst into tears. Typically, Keane was there to receive an award for "outstanding service to kid baseball." A few nights later he received his Manager of the Year award at a bigger dinner in Houston, and in about a hundred well-chosen words thanked the St. Louis Cardinals and Stan Musial in approximately equal measure.
There is a shortcut to understanding Johnny Keane, and that is to ignore the dinners and ball games and rhubarbs and public pronouncements and simply watch him with his dog. Pierre is an 8-year-old poodle whose favorite activity is to jump into bed with Keane, snuggle up as close as he can get and fall fast asleep, all four feet pointing at the ceiling. His second favorite activity is chewing up the toys of Keane's two grandsons. When Keane sees Pierre gnawing away, he'll say, "Hey, what's going on there?" and take the toy from the dog. Minutes later, Pierre goes to work on another plastic toy. "You stop that!" Keane says, and now he sounds angry." Pierre keeps right on chewing, and Keane picks up the wreckage. Now Pierre heads for a pitcher of cream on the coffee table, and Keane says, "All right, now you're gonna behave yourself!" He rushes over to the table, gives Pierre a menacing look and removes the pitcher to a higher table, while the dog begins to search for another plastic toy.
Pierre the poodle knows what kind of a guy Johnny Keane is.