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LOTS OF FUN WITH A POISON PEN

Oct. 03, 1966
Oct. 03, 1966

Table of Contents
Oct. 3, 1966

Tonto Coleman
New Irish Ara
Romeo
The New Rams
Waterfowl
Poison Pen
Boxing
Motor Sports
Mountain Man
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

LOTS OF FUN WITH A POISON PEN

The man that Cleveland Coach Early Wynn is eying whimsically is Clif Keane, an irreverent humorist, a Boston sportswriter who gets his best stories from the athletes he needles the most

Here comes Clif Keane now, over to the visitors' dugout. "We'll have some fun," Clif says, playing with his tie. Keane's ties always hang right down to the very equator of his ample belly, which, during the basketball season, he refers to affectionately as "the game ball." Keane peers around for some ballplayers to needle. Nobody is safe from him. "Hey, you big oaf," he yells to the player with the crew cut. "Are you ever going to stop jaking and start hustling? What an overrated bum you are. One lousy season you hit the cheap home runs in the easy ball parks off the 10¢ expansion pitchers. Big deal." Strangers in the dugout shudder in the twilight sun and cough self-consciously at their shoes. The ballplayer with the crew cut is Roger Maris. "Hello, Clif, you old bum," Maris says, smiling benignly.

This is an article from the Oct. 3, 1966 issue

"Ralph Houk," Keane screams at the Yankee manager. "The toughest Ranger of them all! Swallows live bullets and spits them right out. Beats up guys on Pullman cars. Picks 'em right up by the hair. I'm glad I don't have any," he adds more quietly, massaging his fuzz. Houk sprays some tobacco juice. "Houk is the only manager you need a couple of oars to get to see," Keane explains. "The Vulgar Boatman. Oh, well, if you guys get any lower in the league you can always try Henley."

"Don't take that from him," Elston Howard calls, approaching the dugout, bat in hand.

"Put the bat down, Howard," Keane says. "With your average, you look silly holding a bat." Howard curses him, good-naturedly. "The way you guys are hitting, I couldn't get hurt around here." Howard feigns bashing him. "And you're too old to hurt anyone, Howard. You're starting to look like King Tut."

Down at the other end of the dugout. Maris finishes an interview, and the announcer gives him a clock radio as a gift. "Does it work?" Keane screams at him.

"Clif," Maris replies, "everything I have works."

"Except your bat," Keane says. The Yankees, beaten, go out for batting practice.

Clif Keane is available for such bantering, because he is, by profession, a sportswriter for The Boston Globe. The players refer to him as "Poison Pen," a name immortalized on a bumpy flight that the Boston Braves made around 1950. First Baseman Earl Torgeson started to imitate a news broadcast, reporting that the Braves' plane had crashed. The players did not appreciate this grisly performance until Torgeson came on with the punch line. "The first person identified at the crash site," he announced, "was Clif Keane of The Boston Globe. Keane was immediately recognized by the poison pen clutched firmly in his hand."

However, if Keane fails to show up at the park to bug them, visiting teams feel slighted and will inquire about his absence. "You really look forward to going out that runway at Fenway," Minnesota Manager Sam Mele says, "because you know Clif'll be there. Ribbing is a delight with him."

"Clif only needles you if he likes you," White Sox Manager Eddie Stanky adds. "Figure that out." There are many sides to affection.

"They call me a lot of things," Keane explains fondly. "Zoilo Versalles calls me 'Jack the Reeper.' He keeps this jar of honey and I steal it before the game. Rocky Colavito says I write with a sword. I like that. I want them to fight me. I don't kid anyone who can't take it or doesn't want it. And it's no fun if they just take it. I guess what I really want is to come out even."

At 54, Keane believes that he is mellowing, but few people he writes about would agree, even after they get the hatchet out of their backs. As a reporter, Keane remains a model of brutal objectivity—or objective brutality. When President Eisenhower visited Newport to play golf, the Globe dispatched Keane, a golf nut himself, to cover the action. Keane wired back a story that began by reporting that the President cheated on the fairways and in the rough. That was the last President the Globe has let Keane cover.

Miraculously, however, he has never been hit in anger so far. Everybody, Keane particularly, emphasizes the "so far." He does, though, suffer minor abuses from every team he torments. Hank Bauer prefers a headlock. Jimmy Piersall punches Keane in the thigh. Clyde Lovellette, the basketball player who now fancies himself a lawman, used to steal Keane's typewriter. Billy Southworth invited Keane out to a clam dinner, then overturned the whole table on him.

Still, only Ted Williams has ever drawn blood—though even Keane thinks that Williams did not intend to wound him. Williams threw a baseball at Keane's legs. The ball hit a pebble, bounced high and cracked Poison Pen on the side of the head, breaking his glasses. Williams rushed up and offered to buy him two new pair, but Keane declined. "I'll get you, but I'll get you between the eyes," he told Williams.

Despite his battles with the Red Sox (and the Celtics, in season), Keane has only once been thrown out of a clubhouse—and that was the Baltimore Orioles'. In 1962, when Billy Hitchcock was manager, the Orioles had just come to Boston from Detroit, where they had accused Tiger Pitcher Jim Bunning of cutting up baseballs with his belt buckle. It was hot news, and Keane sidled over to the batting cage and started kidding the Orioles about it. "I don't just needle for fun, you know," he says. "Players tell you things when they know you and you're kidding around with them."

This time a couple of Keane's Oriole buddies immediately let on to him that the really funny thing was that their pitcher, Fat Jack Fisher, had also been cutting up the balls with his belt buckle. Keane wrote a story disclosing this, without identifying his sources (he still won't), and when Hitchcock awoke the next morning to find his team's darkest secrets spread all over The Boston Globe, he exploded. After various confrontations with Keane that afternoon, he finally sputtered, threw up his left arm, and with all the authority vested in him, pointed to the clubhouse door and cried: "Clif Keane, get out!" Embarrassed but proud, Keane strode out, to the giggles of the whole Baltimore team.

But, uh-oh, here comes Clif Keane now, into the Cleveland clubhouse. "We'll have some fun," he says, rubbing his hands together and peering over his bifocals for new targets. There are a lot of lines around Keane's eyes, but they are not like the crow's-feet on most people's, for they only appear when he laughs—or in the mere anticipation of hanging it on someone. This is what happens now, as soon as Clif sees Early Wynn, the pitching coach.

"Hey, you big dumb Indian," Keane calls warmly, "when're you going back to the reservation? You're so fat you couldn't get in the teepee anyway."

"You talk," Wynn says, thumbing at the game ball.

"When'll McDowell be really ready?"

"I'm only the coach, you're the expert," Wynn replies. Around Keane his antagonists seem to play the roles he assigns them.

"You're just an unpleasant man," Keane says. "No wonder we stole Manhattan from you guys."

Wynn remains in the impassively stoic character that Keane has set for him. "I got by Williams," he grumps, "and I got by Greenberg. I can get by you, Keane." Poison Pen roars, and the laugh lines bloom.

"A lot of people, when they first meet me, think I'm as juicy as last week's grapefruit," Keane says. "The first time I met Johnny Temple, I walked up to him and, with this very straight face, I said, 'John, you've just come over from the National League and you've seen a few games here now. Tell me, John, who would you take: Warren Spahn or Pete Burnside?' Temple just stared at me, numb. Then he turned and walked away, shaking his head. Every time he would come to town after that, he would always ask: 'Where is that who-would-you-take guy?'"

Clif has been a needler ever since grade school in the Dorchester section of Boston, according to Herb Ralby, another Globe reporter. The neighborhood that little Clifton Joseph Keane grew up in was almost entirely Jewish, so Keane was known throughout Dorchester as "The Harp"—or, in the flat Boston dialect, "The Hop." It was, however, a profitable distinction, for Clif was able to finance himself on the dimes he picked up turning electric lights on and off for Orthodox Jews who were forbidden to make such mechanical adjustments on their Sabbath.

At age 8 or so he started playing golf over at Franklin Park. During his youth, Boston weather permitting, Keane played golf four or five times a week. However, as soon as his first child was born he swore off the game and did not pick up a club again until all three of his children were in their teens. Then he went back to the course, this time with his wife Bernice in tow. He taught her well. Today Bernice Keane is the perennial champion of the Meadow Brook Country Club. Clif's children have prospered, too. Dennis, 27, went to Harvard and Harvard Business School; Jacqueline, 23, graduated from Wheaton; and Ronald, 21, is now a senior at the University of Massachusetts.

Keane never went to college, nor did he ever write a newspaper story until he had been with the Globe for 13 years as a copy boy and real-estate space salesman. But since he began a quarter of a century ago he has covered virtually every sport, including a memorable dog show. A famous dog died, but Keane, unaware of the dog's esteem in the canine world, did not mention the fact until near the end of his story. The managing editor called him in to find out why. "A dog died," Keane replied. "I buried it."

Keane is as adept with mimicry as with mockery. Three years ago, when the Celtics had a long wait between planes in Chicago, Keane entertained a crowd that grew to 200 by imitating, one after another, every player there, the coach and the two referees who were present. His better baseball imitations are of Rocky Colavito warming up and Brooks Robinson fielding off balance. He never let up on Harvey Kuenn, a 200-pounder who hits singles. One day he brought Kuenn a bag of pebbles that he scattered in front of the plate—the easier, he explained to Kuenn, to chop cheap hits off. "The only thing you ever scared with your bat were the worms," he told him.

Strangely, Keane's poison pen is seldom used for writing, and many feel he would have had much greater success as a broadcaster. Some Globe staffers think that the paper itself has not given Keane enough free rein for his special talent for invective. "A couple of years ago," Keane says, "they suggested I move over and do a job on politics. You can't help but be funny with Massachusetts politics. You know, maybe that would have been better, but I figured it would be a big switch after so long. It's hard enough breaking in 20, 25 new players around the league each year. It's hard work kidding. It's serious business being funny when you're doing it for a purpose. I get exhausted. I really do. You can't ever lay an egg or you lose them. You've got to keep them interested, keep them coming closer."

So get ready, Detroit, here comes Clif Keane now. "We'll have some fun," Clif says, fooling with his tie. "Watch out, look who's here," Hank Aguirre cries. "Oh, God, I've got to wind my mind," Larry Sherry screams, trying to find a hiding place. Too late.

"Stick it in his ear, Sherry," Keane yells. Sherry winces. "Stick it in his ear! How many batters have you hit since I last saw you, Sherry? We ought to send you after the Viet Cong." Quickly, he turns around.

"What are you snickering at, Aguirre? If you ever pitched here I'd have to start with a hearty breakfast to make it through the day."

"More people go to sleep reading you in the paper than watch me pitch," Aguirre retaliates.

"With the left-field wall, the 'green death,'" Keane says, "you'd be so scared if they ever made you pitch here they'd have to keep a heart specialist in the bullpen. There's more dog in you than in an Airedale, Aguirre. The SPCA wouldn't let you pitch here."

Keane pauses for air, and someone inquires about the attendance. "A lot of people will come dressed as empty seats tonight," Keane says. Catcher Bill Freehan appears. "Here he is," Keane cries, "the man who catches on roller skates. I'm sorry, Freehan, I didn't recognize you without your bandages. This is the first time I ever saw you that you didn't look like a hot cross bun." Clif is twirling his tie, and looking around for new targets. The laugh lines are out in force. Aguirre tries to sneak away to run some laps, but Keane spies him and lets him have it again.

Aguirre pauses now on the edge of the dugout, laughing and trying to think of a comeback. But he can't, so he just chuckles and says, "Wait here, Clif. I'll be right back." There's no problem about that. You can always find Poison Pen in the dugout, having some fun. Wait just a second there, Aguirre. Now, who would you take—John Steinbeck or Clif Keane?

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