SABR

Tim Keefe

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

One of the greatest pitchers in 19th-century major-league baseball, Tim Keefe won 342 games and still ranks among the top ten pitchers in lifetime victories. He was known for his change-of-pace pitch, which he used to establish a still-standing major-league record of 19 consecutive victories in 1888. “No more graceful, skillful and strategic pitcher ever tossed a ball over the plate to the bewilderment and dismay of opposing batsmen,” one writer wrote of Keefe in 1890.1 In addition to his pitching prowess, Keefe was also a leader in the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, which led a revolt of National League ballplayers to form the ill-fated Players League in 1890.

Timothy John Keefe was born on January 1, 1857, to Irish immigrants Patrick and Mary (Leary) Keefe, who at the time of his birth resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts.2 However, Tim was actually born in neighboring Somerville, probably at the home of a maternal relative.3 One of seven children, he had one older brother (Daniel) and five younger sisters (Katherine, Mary, Margaret, Ellen, and Anne). Tim’s father worked as a carpenter to support the family. By 1870 his father moved the family from Cambridge to Somerville, to the Inman Square neighborhood that straddles the town line between Cambridge, the location of prestigious Harvard University, and working-class Somerville.4

Where Keefe received his early education is unclear. By age 13 he and his older brother were listed as students in the 1870 federal census, presumably attending the Somerville public schools. Keefe likely attended Somerville High School in the footsteps of his older brother.5 Whether or not Keefe graduated from high school is unknown.

After his schooling, Keefe, like his father, worked as a carpenter.6 According to Keefe family legend, Tim’s father encouraged his son to learn mathematics and science, to be more of an engineer than just a simple carpenter, and disliked his forays into baseball.7 But Keefe kept at baseball, playing for local amateur teams and steadily working his way up the ranks. In 1877 he devoted more time to baseball than to carpentry when he played for the Our Boys team, based in Boston, which played a schedule during the week, not just on Saturdays, that ranged from college and independent professional teams to the Boston team in the National League.

An incident in the fall of 1877 helped to shape Keefe’s attitude about professional baseball in relation to making a living as a carpenter, while also establishing his strong feelings about labor-management relations. Keefe had worked 11 days between October 26 and November 8 to build a house on a lot of land on Springfield Street in Somerville, for which he had a verbal agreement to be paid $22 for labor and materials. When the property owner, who lived in Cambridge, took advantage of the Somerville carpenter and refused to pay him, Keefe sued him and filed a mechanic’s lien on the property.8 Keefe decided that if it took these lengths to collect wages as a carpenter, he would be just as well off as a professional baseball player. It was also one of the last times that Keefe acknowledged himself as “Timothy J. Keefe of Somerville,” as indicated in the land-lien recording. He moved out of his family’s house in Somerville, became an iterant ballplayer, and aspired to be a landowner in the more respected town of Cambridge.

In 1878 Keefe became a full-time professional ballplayer with the team based in the town of Westboro, about 25 miles west of Boston, where he played third base and outfield and occasionally pitched.9 When the team relocated to the town of Clinton midway through the 1878 season to use its new ballfield, Keefe stayed on. He played in the inaugural games staged at the site of today’s Fuller Field in Clinton, which Guinness World Records recognizes as the oldest baseball diamond in continuous use.10

Keefe played for four teams during the 1879 season. He began with Clinton, but when the team relocated to Natick in June 1879, Keefe left the team. He wasn’t out of work long. Keefe caught on with the Utica, New York, team in the National Association, an East Coast league with teams that spanned geographically from Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. In mid-June Utica was on a road trip through Massachusetts and was seeking a new pitcher to reverse its losing ways. After Keefe pitched Utica to victory in an exhibition game in Boston against Harvard University, Keefe became the team’s new pitcher.11 When the Utica team disbanded in mid-July, Keefe joined the New Bedford, Massachusetts, team in the same circuit, which was managed by Jim Mutrie. After debuting in the pitcher’s box on July 22 with a victory over Brockton, Keefe became New Bedford’s regular pitcher. However, by mid-September, New Bedford was one of just four remaining teams in the National Association, in which the Albany, New York, team had edged the Washington Nationals for first place. Keefe left the New Bedford team to join the Albany team and pitched two games at the tail-end of its 1879 season.

Keefe was Albany’s chief pitcher in 1880 in the three-team National Association, where he compiled a 7-9 league record, and pitched in numerous exhibition games against major-league teams, before Albany disbanded in early July. He made his major-league debut as an umpire in Boston on July 21. Once again, Keefe wasn’t unemployed for long, as the Troy team in the National League, just ten miles upriver from Albany, signed him. Keefe was victorious in his major-league debut on August 6, 1880. In this era of one-man pitching staffs, Keefe spelled pitcher Mickey Welch for a dozen games the rest of the 1880 season, compiling a 6-6 record with a delivery the Troy Daily Times called “very deceptive, hard to hit, and full of curves.”12

Because Keefe had experienced unlimited mobility in his first three years of full-time professional baseball, he expected to parlay his brief time with Troy into a better deal with another major-league team. However, the National League ballclub owners had agreed to implement the reserve clause for the 1880 season. It allowed each club to protect five players each season from jumping to another team. Keefe was one of the five players on Troy’s reserve list for the 1881 season.13 Because he was reserved, Keefe was compelled to accept Troy’s salary offer of $1,500 for the 1881 season and couldn’t negotiate to play for other teams.14 When Troy reserved Keefe again for the 1882 season, he tried to hold out for more money, but had to settle for the same $1,500 salary. “I was considered a robber because I held out for $2,100,” Keefe recalled later in life about being one of the earliest holdouts in baseball history.15 With his 1877 mechanic’s-lien experience fresh in his mind, Keefe embarked on a decade-long quest for increased fairness to players in baseball contracts, which culminated in his involvement with the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in 1885 and the formation of the Players League in 1890.

For the 1881 and 1882 seasons, Keefe and Welch split Troy’s pitching duties, which then still required an underhand delivery; Buck Ewing and Bill Holbert alternated at catcher. Keefe had more opportunities to pitch in 1881, since a rule change that year moved the pitcher 50 feet from home plate, from 45 feet, which encouraged managers to use a two-man pitching staff. Keefe had an undistinguished pitching record with the mediocre Troy team, 18-27 in 1881 and 17-26 in 1882, over an 84-game schedule.

As one of the smallest cities by population in the National League, Troy was forced out of the National League after the 1882 season to make room for a team in the far more populous New York City. In September 1882, viewing the probable disbanding of the Troy franchise, various ballclubs from the American Association and the National League made offers to the better Troy players, such as Keefe and Ewing, for the 1883 season, which the Troy Daily Times regularly reported to readers. When it became public that the National League owners, at their league meeting on September 22, had voted to expel Troy, the imminent demise of the Troy franchise set off a flurry of rumors. Ewing was the prize, as he was considered the best catcher in the league. He enticed a $2,800 salary offer from the Detroit ballclub, and eventually signed for $3,100 with owner John Day of the New York ballclub in the National League that was in essence replacing Troy.16

With Day outbidding other owners for the services of Ewing, Keefe was able to negotiate a hefty salary increase for himself by deftly playing Day against both the Troy management and other bidders. As the New York Herald reported in mid-October, “The [Troy] players have been coquetting, however, to a considerable extent, holding off from signing with the various managers, and thereby increasing the bidding by saying that they intended remaining in Troy, while at the same time they declined signing with that club.”17 Keefe no doubt relished his final interaction with the Troy club at an October 10 meeting at which management agreed to his salary demand, but he then refused to sign a contract to that effect and left the meeting.18 Three days later the Troy Daily Times reported that several Troy players had signed with the New York City team.19 Keefe signed with Day for a $2,800 salary, nearly double his Troy salary, which was good for both the 1883 and 1884 seasons.

Day wound up obtaining New York City ballclubs in both the National League and American Association, so he had Jim Mutrie split up the signed players between the two teams. Day already had John Ward as the primary pitcher for the National League team, so Mutrie made Mickey Welch the change pitcher there while Keefe was assigned to the Metropolitans team that Mutrie would manage in the American Association. Welch later said that the decision to allocate pitchers was based on the fact that Welch pitched better to catcher Ewing, the key Troy player, while Keefe was best with Holbert.20 Keefe may have volunteered to play for the Metropolitans, to reunite with Mutrie from their days at New Bedford and to pitch to batters who had never seen his delivery before. Also, in the fall of 1882, the American Association and National League didn’t recognize each other’s reserve clause, so in theory Keefe had greater flexibility for future salary negotiations with the Metropolitans (although that changed in February 1883, partially as a result of Day’s signing of Ewing and Keefe). By early November, Keefe was firmly affixed to the Metropolitans roster in the American Association.21

Mutrie paired Keefe with Jack Lynch as the Metropolitans’ two-man pitching rotation in 1883, for the lengthened 98-game schedule, and in 1884, when the schedule was expanded again, to 112 games. Keefe, who had been a mediocre pitcher with Troy, blossomed with the Metropolitans. He racked up impressive pitching records of 41-27 and 37-17 during his two years with the Metropolitans, including a league-leading 359 strikeouts in 1883. In 1884 Keefe led the Metropolitans to the American Association pennant, before they faced the National League champion Providence Grays in a best-of-three-games World Series. Keefe lost both of the first two games, then umpired the third, inconsequential game.

With his $2,800 salary with the Metropolitans, Keefe earned far more than he’d ever make as a carpenter. He began to wear tailored suits, to emulate a well-heeled Cambridge citizen, which distanced himself from the blue-collar background of his father, a carpenter, and his brother, a plumber. He taught himself subjects to compensate for his lack of a college education, studying accounting to understand business and shorthand to take good notes of meetings. In New York he was exposed to the theater and other social activities of wealthy people that he could never experience in ethnically stratified Boston, which provided few such opportunities for those of Irish ancestry.

Keefe’s performance with the Metropolitans led Day to hatch a plan to reunite Keefe with his former Troy teammate Mickey Welch as the pitchers for the 1885 season on his National League team, to be managed by Mutrie. Day orchestrated a ruse to transfer Keefe and teammate Dude Esterbrook from Day’s American Association team to his National League team by having Mutrie take them both on a boat trip to Bermuda. On the ship Mutrie gave both players their ten-day release from their contracts with the Metropolitans, and then 11 days later signed them to National League contracts.22 Day and Mutrie had to hide the two players from the other major-league teams because at the time the ten-day release worked like today’s waiver wire, so any team could acquire the player’s contract during that ten-day period before the player was freed from the reserve clause and could negotiate with other teams.

In signing with Day’s National League team, Keefe seems to have negotiated a three-year contract, since he received the same $3,000 salary for each of the 1885, 1886, and 1887 seasons. Given his performance in 1885 and 1886, he almost certainly would have desired to dicker with Day about an increased salary, but there is no public record of such activity as there would be in his salary-negotiation attempts just a few years later. Keefe also likely received a sizeable salary advance in 1885 from his future earnings, since he began to invest in real estate at this time. Keefe cautiously dipped his toe into the real-estate market by investing $2,000 into a mortgage on a property in his hometown of Somerville, whose owner was required to repay the $2,000 plus interest within one year or the property would revert to Keefe.23

Keefe made his New York City debut in the National League on April 24, 1885, with the team now known informally as the Giants, which had six future Hall of Fame players (Keefe, Welch, Buck Ewing, Roger Connor, John Ward, and Jim O’Rourke). Behind Keefe’s 32-13 pitching mark, the New York Giants made a run at the National League pennant, but finished in second place behind the champion Chicago team, led by John Clarkson, a Cambridge native.

Transferring to the New York Giants changed Keefe’s life in many ways, most notably situating him as a teammate of John Ward, who had recently graduated with a law degree from Columbia College. Ward led the players’ revolt against the National League owners, which began with the establishment of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players in October 1885; at the group’s first meeting in November 1886, Ward was named president and Keefe was selected to be secretary-treasurer.24 Ward often characterized the negotiation plight of the professional baseball player as no better than that of livestock or slaves. Given Keefe’s early experiences in Troy with baseball negotiations, he completely agreed with that assessment. Although he was now well paid, Keefe still fought for the rights of the average ballplayer.

Keefe had his finest National League season in 1886, when he led the league with 42 wins, 62 complete games, and 535 innings pitched, as the league expanded its schedule to 126 games. The key to his pitching success was his brain, not his brawn. Throughout the 1880s, Keefe successfully adapted to continual rule changes that modified how and from where pitchers could throw the ball, lowered the number of balls a batter needed for a walk, and elongated season schedules.

“Keefe is said to be one of the most scientific pitchers in the country – that is, he uses his head as well as his hands while in the box,” the Boston Globe commented in 1885, adding that Keefe had the lowest ratio of hits per nine-inning game in the league.25 Keefe had similar speed and the curveball of other pitchers, but deception set him apart from the other top pitchers of the era. “His strength, however, was in deceiving the batsman,” the New York Tribune explained. “His real effectiveness lay in his change of pace. He could pitch a speedy ball with the same preliminary movements as he used with a slow cut-curve; consequently the batsman never knew just what kind of a ball to expect when he was pitching.”26

“Change of pace for pitchers was important in those days,” Keefe said decades later. “It was then, as now, largely a case of outguessing the batter.”27 In this regard, he gave a lot of credit to his catcher, Buck Ewing. “People who followed the game say that I was a pretty good pitcher myself. Well, anybody could pitch if Ewing was catching them,” Keefe believed. “He knew how to steady a pitcher, knew all the points of the batsmen in the league and used those points to great advantage. He was always constantly up to the many tricks of the game and never forgot a weakness of his opponents.”28

Besides pitching at different speeds, Keefe threw with different arm motions, often side-arm and underhand (submarine style, in today’s parlance) even though the overhand delivery had been legalized in 1884. He also made liberal use of the entire pitcher’s box, throwing from different angles (not simply straight on to the batter) and taking multiple steps before releasing the ball, not always pitching from a set position. Keefe was a master of the multistep hop, skip, and jump delivery, which he described in 1888 as combining “plenty of speed and strength and a series of gymnastics to terrify the batter,” in which “the pitcher had the batter completely at his mercy.”29 As Keefe recalled later in life, “We were pitching from a 50-foot distance then, and honestly, I sometimes used to wonder how they even hit us, with those advantages which we had.”30

Midway through the 1886 season, Keefe purchased a piece of land in Cambridge that totaled 29,950 square feet (about three-quarters of an acre) on the northerly side of Cambridge Street, between Irving Street and Trowbridge Street.31 Keefe paid $2,000 cash and financed the remainder of the $5,614.50 purchase price with a mortgage taken back by the seller, Mary Brown, wife of Frank Brown of Baltimore. The land, about one-quarter mile from Harvard and across the street from the estate of Frederick Rindge, seemed to Keefe to be ripe for development.32

After he purchased this land in Cambridge, newspaper accounts almost always referred to Keefe or his family as being from Cambridge, not from his real home in Somerville at 54 Springfield Street. For example, in the summer of 1887, the New York Times reported that “Keefe, of the New-Yorks, has gone to Cambridge, Mass., where his father died yesterday.”33 Patrick Keefe actually died in Somerville and had lived in Somerville for nearly 20 years.34 Keefe, who was born in Somerville and had resided there since he was a boy, likely perpetuated the myth that his home was in Cambridge, since this highbrow address was far more prestigious than working-class Somerville. This myth helped to support his persona as the gentlemanly “Sir Timothy,” the nickname he acquired around 1888 based on his unflappable demeanor and desire for fairness. The “from Cambridge” line also made for good association with another great 19th-century pitcher, John Clarkson, who truly hailed from Cambridge.

In 1887 a rule change required Keefe to abandon the “hop, skip, and jump” delivery by pitching from a fixed position, with the “pitcher compelled to keep both feet on the ground and face the batter before delivering the ball,” and keep his right foot on the back line of the pitcher’s box and allowed to take only one step forward.35 Other rule changes were instituted that year to reduce the advantage of the pitcher, such as needing four strikes for a strikeout (up from three) and five balls for a walk (down from six), and allowing a hit batsman to take first base. Batters also were credited with a base hit for a walk that year. While the new rules stifled the success of many pitchers that year, Keefe adapted by focusing more on his scientific approach to deceiving the batter.

Keefe followed up his fantastic 1886 season with a solid 35-19 record in 1887, which included one tie game that generated some everlasting fame. On August 20 Keefe held a 5-3 New York lead in the top of the ninth inning when Philadelphia loaded the bases with no outs. Pitcher Dan Casey, the next hitter, “then raised the crowd to its feet by hitting safely to right, bringing in McGuire and Irwin” to tie the game.36 When the Giants failed to score in the bottom of the ninth, the game ended 5-5. Thus began the inspiration for baseball’s most famous poem, contend Jim Moore and Natalie Vermilyea, authors of the book Ernest Thayer's “Casey at the Bat”: Background and Characters of Baseball’s Most Famous Poem. Moore and Vermilyea postulate that Thayer, then living in San Francisco, read about Casey’s exploits in The Sporting News, which included the phrase “Casey was at the bat,” and modeled the pitching character in his poem after Keefe.37

Keefe and many of the Giants (including John Ward, who had married actress Helen Dauvray during the 1887 season) participated in a postseason baseball tour in the fall of 1887, which began in New Orleans and culminated in San Francisco, where Thayer did interview the Giants and cover several of their games for the San Francisco Examiner. One game in particular seemed to draw Thayer’s attention, the November 26 game against Stockton, which the Giants won, 26-0. Men named Billy Cooney and Dan Flynn played for Stockton that day. Cooney and Flynn were the exact names of two characters in Thayer’s poem, published in June 1888.38

During the winter of 1888, a New York writer wrote about Keefe’s dissatisfaction with the reserve clause that held him captive to the Giants: “It is true that Keefe has been made uneasy by the unbusinesslike and you may say dishonest policy of other club officials. He has said to Mutrie: ‘Jim, I think it is not right to compel me to stay in New York and play ball for the money I get from the New York Club, when I have been offered one and one-half times more salary to pitch in another League city as soon as I get my release.’ That is all Tim will say, but it is enough. He has been approached by some one in whom he has faith and whom he knows talks with authority. The sum he has been offered is at least $7,500 a season. It is not at all strange, therefore, that Keefe grows restless and talks about the slavery of pitching seven months for $3,000.”39

Keefe was in no hurry to rejoin the Giants for the 1888 season, as he held out for a higher salary in his contract negotiations with Giants owner John Day. That spring Keefe made his first appearance as a college baseball coach, at Amherst College.40 In the late 19th century, professional baseball players were college baseball coaches only in the sense that they trained players before the season. The student who was captain of the college team was effectively the coach, since he negotiated the team’s schedule and made the playing decisions.

Keefe wanted $4,500 to play for the Giants in 1888, a 50 percent increase over his $3,000 salary each of the previous three years; Day offered him a $4,000 salary.41 The New York Herald reported that “Keefe went to his home in Cambridge, Mass., yesterday” to contemplate Day’s $4,000 offer.42 It was during this holdout that Keefe once let it slip that he didn’t live in Cambridge, as the Herald wrote, when he told a Boston writer that he had “found a telegram from Mr. Day, which had been received at my home in Somerville.”43 Keefe seemed determined to sit out the season if he didn’t get what he thought was a fair price for his services: “I might have to wait a long time. They might not send for me this season. I am not trying to play any bluff. When I get my business affairs fixed up and the weather is warmer we will fix it up if they want me, and I will jump in.”44 Keefe held out until May 1 when he finally agreed to Day’s $4,000 offer.45

Despite the late start, Keefe led the National League with 35 wins and 335 strikeouts during the 1888 season. One reason for his success was that the league expanded to a 140-game schedule that year. This forced Mutrie to use a three-man pitching rotation, which provided Keefe with more rest between starts. A second reason was that Keefe had started to court Clara Helm, a wealthy socialite and the sister of Ward’s wife, whom he had met on the train trip from California to the East Coast in February 1888. During his holdout in April, newspapers had falsely reported that the two were to soon wed; Keefe blushingly contradicted the marriage rumor.46 Clara was a frequent spectator at the Polo Grounds during the 1888 season, often observed “gazing intently” at her boyfriend’s effort on the baseball diamond.47

The highlight of the 1888 season for Keefe was a 19-game winning streak from June 23 to August 10. This win streak remains the major-league record (through the 2012 season), now shared by Keefe with Giants pitcher Rube Marquard, who tied the record in 1912. On August 14, Keefe was defeated by Chicago in his quest for a 20th consecutive win. Later that evening Keefe and many of the Giants attended a theater show where DeWolf Hopper recited publicly for the first time Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.”48

In the midst of his record winning streak, Keefe defeated Philadelphia on July 28, when for the first time the Giants wore all-black uniforms with white lettering on the shirts.49 Although later derided as “funeral clothes,” the new togs were then called “Nadjy uniforms,” based on a popular comic opera then playing in New York City in which one actress wore a “black bat” dress that had splashes of white on an all-black background. Keefe is often said to have sold the uniforms to the Giants, which can’t be documented, but he may have pitched the idea for them to the Giants. The Nadjy uniforms were certainly a spark for the new sporting goods firm of Keefe & Becannon, which Keefe started in January 1889 with former Metropolitans teammate Buck Becannon.50

The Giants won the 1888 National League pennant and played the St. Louis Browns of the American Association in a postseason World Series that fall. Keefe won four games (the first, third, fifth, and eighth games) to propel New York to victory in the best-of-ten-games match. After winning the series, Ward participated in Chicago owner Albert Spalding’s world tour that winter along with a number of other ballplayers. However, after Ward’s ship had left San Francisco for Hawaii, the National League owners announced a fixed salary-classification structure (maximum $2,500) that they proposed to implement without input from the Brotherhood, which would depress salaries and eliminate contract negotiations. Keefe, who was still in New York City opening up his sporting goods store, was thrust into being the Brotherhood spokesperson while Ward was overseas.

After again coaching the Amherst College nine during March 1889, Keefe conducted his second holdout in as many years prior to the 1889 season. This time, though, he presented a better case that he had viable alternatives to pitching for the Giants. Newspapers noted that he was busy getting the Keefe & Becannon sporting goods business off the ground. He also leaked details of his real-estate investment, some of which the newspapers exaggerated. “Another cause for this independence, it is said, is the sudden increase in value of some property owned by Tim at Cambridge, Mass.,” the New York World reported. “Recently the town officials decided to erect a public library and selected as a site for it the ground owned by Tim … [who] when offered a fair price for the property refused the offer. He had refused several others since, the last being $30,000. Tim, it is said, holds off for $50,000 and is confident of obtaining that sum.”51

By 1889 the library in Cambridge was already under construction across the street from Keefe’s property on Cambridge Street, on land donated by Frederick Rindge; what could possibly inflate the $5,614 purchase price of Keefe’s land were two new high-school buildings that were to be built partially on other Rindge land, but which needed further land acquisitions.52 Cambridge English High School and the Manual Training School were both built in 1892 but, unfortunately for Keefe, the town planners decided not to expand north of Cambridge Street to acquire land for the new public high schools.

Keefe wanted a $5,000 salary to play for the Giants during the 1889 season, but Day offered him only $4,000, the same level as the previous season. “Yes, it is true that I have asked for an increase,” Keefe told newspaper reporters. “I have played good ball for the New York Club, the organization has made money, and I do not think that my demands are unjust. … If my terms are not agreed to I will attend to my sporting goods business and give up the diamond until matters are arranged to my satisfaction.”53 Day responded, “Keefe is a nice gentleman and a clever ball player, but I don’t think that his services or those of any other baseball player are worth more than my [$4,000] figure.”54

Two weeks into the 1889 season, Keefe and Day were still at loggerheads in their salary negotiation. On May 9 newspapers reported that Keefe said he’d accept $4,500, but not Day’s offer of $4,000.55 That day, with all four Giants pitchers either injured or sick, Buck Ewing pitched in the game against Boston. New York won, but clearly Keefe’s services were needed. Day caved in and offered Keefe the proposed $4,500 compromise.56 Keefe accepted and pitched his first game on May 10.

Keefe produced only 28 wins in 1889, as he missed a seventh straight 30-win season during a year of many distractions. His Brotherhood activities sapped some energy, including the meeting on July 14 at which the Brotherhood quashed an earlier plan to stage a strike and instead hatched a new plan to form a competing Players League for the 1890 season. Keefe also shed his bachelor days when he married Clara Helm on August 19, 1889, in Worcester, Massachusetts.57

Despite the many distractions during the 1889 season, the Giants won a second straight National League pennant and met Brooklyn of the American Association in the World Series that fall. Mutrie had overused Keefe down the stretch in order to edge Boston in the neck-and-neck battle for the pennant, with Keefe nailing a victory on the last day of the season to clinch the title. However, a tired Keefe was ineffective in the opening game of the 1889 World Series, and only pitched briefly in relief in one other appearance, as Ed Crane started five (and won four) of the eight meaningful games in the Series to lead the Giants to victory over Brooklyn.

In November 1889 the Brotherhood announced the formation of the Players League to compete with the National League. Keefe and most of the Giants players joined the New York team in the Players League, which was financed by Edward Talcott, Cornelius Van Cott, and Edwin McAlpin. Keefe and Ewing were the player representatives on the club’s board of directors.58 Keefe’s sporting goods firm, Keefe & Becannon, was awarded a three-year contract to supply the official Players League baseball, which became known as The Keefe Official Ball.59 Keefe & Becannon also supplied uniforms and equipment to many of the Players League teams. Keefe’s firm made a huge bet that the league would succeed, calling the firm in its advertisements “Outfitters to the Players’ National (Brotherhood) League and Manufacturer of The Keefe Official Ball.”60

While Keefe was intellectually committed to the Players League movement, he wasn’t entirely committed financially. In mid-December 1889, Keefe transferred ownership of his real-estate property in Cambridge to his mother.61 This move ensured that creditors couldn’t reach this asset for legal judgments against him (or his firm Keefe & Becannon, which was a partnership, not a corporation) if the Players League failed. Six days after Keefe transferred his real-estate property to his mother, the New York Giants served papers on Ward as they pursued a legal injunction to stop Ward (and by implication Keefe and the other confederates) from jumping to the Players League and thus enforce the reserve-clause aspect of his National League contract.

Among a lot of nasty name-calling and legal action, the Players League fought for spectators with its National League counterparts. Keefe had an uninspiring season with the Players League Giants. He secured his 300th career victory on June 4, although to no fanfare at the time. His season ended prematurely when he broke the index finger on his pitching hand on August 19. He tried to pitch on September 8, but lasted only one inning.

Almost all teams in both leagues lost money. The competition in New York City financially crippled Day of the Giants, as he lost tens of thousands of dollars and was nearly bankrupt. While the Giants of the Players League came close to breaking even, Talcott and the financial backers took advantage of Day’s precarious financial situation and quickly negotiated a deal after the season ended. They agree to merge the two teams with the resulting team to play in the National League and the Talcott faction, not Day, in charge. With the flagship New York team abandoning the Players League, the league itself soon imploded and ceased to exist by January 1891.

Keefe was in serious financial difficulties after the collapse of the Players League. Since Keefe & Becannon was a partnership, Keefe was responsible for his share of the firm’s unpaid debts. The firm had lost money on the first year of the contract to supply baseballs to the Players League, but expected to make it up in the next two years. The firm was also owed money by the teams that had bought uniforms and equipment. Creditors soon sued the firm and its two partners for unpaid bills. After the firm of Keefe & Becannon was officially dissolved in July 1891, a receiver paid off its obligations at cents on the dollar.62

During the winter of 1891, Keefe re-signed with his old team, the New York Giants of the National League, for the 1891 season. Ever the negotiator, Keefe held out for his $4,500 salary paid in 1890, but settled for a reduction to $3,500 for the season.63 However, the Giants used Keefe sparingly during the first half of the 1891 season and he was released in July; he then signed with the Philadelphia team.

In the winter of 1892, Keefe returned to college coaching and began a stretch of six straight winters coaching the Harvard baseball team to help its pitchers prepare for the coming season.64 Harvard was just a quarter-mile from his property in Cambridge, and about a mile from his parents’ home in Somerville where he stayed when not in New York City.

Keefe pitched his last major-league game on August 15, 1893, and was released by Philadelphia the next day. The lengthening of the pitching distance to 60 feet 6 inches reduced the effectiveness of the 36-year-old pitcher. He obviously left on good terms, since he umpired Philadelphia’s game on August 17. Upon his retirement as a ballplayer, Keefe was the career leader in strikeouts with 2,564 (a record broken by Cy Young in 1908) and had the second-most career victories with 342, just behind Pud Galvin.

By 1894 Keefe continued to suffer financial strain following the Players League debacle, which was compounded by the nation’s severe economic depression. To raise money, Keefe sold off the majority of his still-undeveloped Cambridge property (albeit in his mother’s name) and retained just a small corner lot on the Trowbridge Street side of Cambridge Street.65 Reluctantly, Keefe returned to baseball to work as an umpire, a move he regretted. “I did not like umpiring,” he later acknowledged. “Did you ever see a man who did?”66

Keefe served as a National League umpire from August 3, 1894, to July 6, 1896. He hoped that he could add value to baseball through his integrity and vast knowledge of the game. Instead the ballplayers gave him little respect on the diamond, arguing and complaining about any call that didn’t go their way. The fans at the ballpark weren’t much better, as Joe Vila of the New York Sun recounted in a tale of abuse that Keefe once had to endure when he umpired at the Polo Grounds: “In a grilling battle between the Giants and the Bostons, however, Keefe, absolutely honest, made several close decisions against the New Yorks. Before the game ended Keefe was the target for a volley of abuse. He was hooted and hissed and finally a mob tried to handle him roughly as he made his way to the dressing room. Believe me, boys, Keefe actually broke down and wept. The admirers of former days had turned against him in less than two hours.”67

After an incident in St. Louis in July 1896, Keefe telegraphed his resignation to the league president, saying: “My sole reason for leaving the field yesterday and for then and there determining to sever my connection with the national game forever is that base ball has reached a stage where it is absolutely disgraceful. … The continual senseless and puerile kicking [by the ballplayers] at every decision has been infinitely trying to me and I have been considering for some time whether I had not better resign.”68

Keefe found more respect as an umpire in the Eastern League, where the players were more intent on advancing to the National League than showing up an umpire. He served as a minor-league umpire from August 1896 to September 1897.

The last straw for Keefe with baseball was a snub by Harvard, when the school did not renew its baseball coaching relationship with him for the 1898 season. Harvard instead opted to use the services of Boston Nationals pitcher Ted Lewis, a Williams College graduate. As Boston Herald writer Jake Morse reported in his column in Sporting Life, “It was a radical change on the part of the Harvard Athletic Committee to appoint a young pitcher like Ted Lewis in place of Tim Keefe, who has been coach at Harvard for so many seasons.”69

Keefe became a recluse following his snubbing by Harvard. During the summer of 1899 one writer noted, “One rarely hears the name of Tim Keefe mentioned now. The former great pitcher seems to have dropped entirely out of sight and sound.”70 Indeed, over the next quarter-century until his death, Keefe stayed out of the public eye with only rare exceptions.

Keefe chose family over baseball. In 1898 his brother Daniel, a member of the Massachusetts militia, was involved in the Spanish-American War; with a wife and three young children, Keefe’s brother could no longer look after their widowed mother. Keefe built two multifamily houses on the remaining piece of land he owned on Cambridge Street in Cambridge, one house at 1653 Cambridge Street and the other at 89 Trowbridge Street.71 His mother (who technically still owned the property) and his two older sisters, Kate and Mary, moved from Somerville to live in one of the apartments in the house at 1653 Cambridge Street.72 Keefe, who divided his time between New York City and Cambridge, earned an income from renting apartments in the multifamily buildings. After his mother died in 1909, Keefe moved into the house on Cambridge Street with his sisters, who both never married. By 1910 Keefe was also single, having divorced his wife, Clara.73 He and his wife did not have any children.

While Keefe remained out of public view, his name carried on in corrupted versions of the poem “Casey at the Bat” that began appearing in about 1900 in a number of anthologies of humorous verse. These versions of Thayer’s poem substituted the line “He signaled the pitcher” with “He signaled to Sir Timothy,” and more specifically indicated Keefe through the change of the term “the writhing pitcher” to “the New York pitcher.”74

In February 1906, Keefe consented to an interview to discuss former teammate Buck Ewing, who was critically ill at the time and would die later that year. According to Keefe, Ewing was “the greatest all around ballplayer, I would say without hesitation, that the game has ever produced.”75 Beyond his extensive remarks about Ewing as a ballplayer and leader (he credited Ewing as the reason why Giants won the pennant in 1888 and 1889), Keefe said: “Well, I try to keep up with baseball fairly well. I run in to Boston occasionally to see a game on the American League grounds … but I can’t see really, for the life of me, that the players of today excel those of the period just before the Brotherhood broke up. It seems to me that was the most prosperous time that the game has ever known. Certainly there are no better batters today than there were then.”76

In July 1912 New York Giants pitcher Rube Marquard tied Keefe’s record for 19 consecutive victories. However, as Marquard approached the 19-win threshold, there was no mention of Keefe’s name, since most baseball observers believed Marquard was chasing a record of 20 wins set by Pat Luby in 1890. After the fact, Luby’s streak was found to be only 17 wins, and only then was Keefe’s name thrust into the spotlight as the rightful record holder.77 If Keefe had an opinion about Marquard tying his record, he did not share it with any baseball writer for publication.

In 1928, Boston Globe sportswriter Ford Sawyer ran across Keefe at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, where “the 70-year-old real estate owner is unknown to the vast majority of the thousands who are urging on their Boston favorites.”78 Keefe, who now regularly attended ballgames once a week, told Sawyer that baseball was “fundamentally the same old game” as back in the 1880s, and that he particularly liked to watch Ty Cobb.

Tim Keefe died on April 23, 1933, in Cambridge and is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery.

In 1936, at the time of the first BBWAA election for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Keefe’s pitching exploits for the New York Giants in the 1880s were largely forgotten, as he received just one vote on the 78 ballots cast for the 19th-century stars component of the initial Hall of Fame class.

Keefe was more famous in the 1930s as the mythical pitcher in “Casey at the Bat,” since Dan Casey did promotions to further his titular fame from the poem’s title. At a “Casey Night” in May 1938, the 76-year-old Casey took swings at a minor-league game in Baltimore. He missed the first two serves from Rogers Hornsby, the former major-league star who was Casey’s foil as the pitcher, but on the third pitch he stroked a hit to left field, rather than strike out as his namesake had done in Thayer’s poem. As for his success, Casey said, “Hornsby didn’t have as much on the ball as Tim Keefe did” back in that inspirational August 1887 game.79

In 1964 Keefe was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee. Since he had no children, several nieces and nephews, the children of his younger sister Ellen, represented him at the induction ceremony.80

A sign honoring Keefe today adorns Tim Keefe Square in Cambridge, at the corner of Cambridge and Trowbridge Streets, in front of the house at 1653 Cambridge Street where Keefe had lived for the last two decades of his life.

 

Sources

Books

Bryan Di Salvatore, A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

Roy Kerr, Buck Ewing: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012).

William McNeil, The Evolution of Pitching in Major League Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006).

Jim Moore and Natalie Vermilyea, Ernest Thayer's “Casey at the Bat”: Background and Characters of Baseball’s Most Famous Poem (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994).

Newspapers

Lee Allen, “Cooperstown Corner,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1964.

Harold Kaese, “Keefe Fanned Mighty Casey,” Boston Globe, February 9, 1964.

T.J. Keefe, “Curves or Liners: The Vexed Question in Base Ball Circles, Boston Globe, October 21, 1888.

Ford Sawyer, “He Pitched 19 Straight Wins,” Boston Globe, May 27, 1928.

Philip Shirley, “A Chat with Keefe,” Sporting Life, February 24, 1906.

“A Declining Baseball Star: Timothy J. Keefe, Once the First Pitcher Among Baseball Players,” New York Tribune, October 4, 1891.

“Tim Keefe, Noted Pitcher, Is Dead,” Boston Globe, April 24, 1933.

Boston Globe, 1877-1897.

Harvard Crimson, 1892-1897.

New York Herald, 1888-1891.

New York Times, 1883-1893.

New York World, 1888-1891.

Sporting Life, 1885-1897.

Troy Daily Times, 1880-1882.

Websites

Ancestry.com, Cambridge Directory and Somerville Directory.

Baseball-Reference.com, Tim Keefe playing record.

Archives

Massachusetts State Archives, Boston, Massachusetts, birth, death, and marriage records prior to 1910.

Middlesex South Registry of Deeds, Cambridge, Massachusetts, land records from 1870 to 1920.

U.S. Census Bureau, federal census records for decennial years from 1860 to 1930.

 

Notes

1 Sporting Life, May 31, 1890.

2 The Cambridge Directory for 1857 lists the Keefe family as living on Columbia Street, near Hampshire Street. The 1860 federal census (Series M653, Roll 508, Page 324) lists the Keefe family as living in the working-class Cambridgeport section of Cambridge.

3 Birth records for 1857 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 106, Page 204).

4 The 1870 federal census (Series M593, Roll 631, Page 396) lists the Keefe family as living in Somerville, but associates no street names with respondents. The Somerville Directory lists the family in 1873 as living at Columbia Street, near the marsh, and in 1877 at 68 Concord Avenue. The 1880 federal census (Series T9, Roll 546, Page 339) lists the Keefe family as living at 52 Springfield Street in Somerville, which is located about 50 yards from the Cambridge town line.

5 His brother Daniel “received his education in full at the Somerville grammar and high schools,” according to a 1901 biography. See Charles Winslow Hall, Regiments and Armories of Massachusetts: An Historical Narration of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, with Portraits and Biographies of Officers Past and Present (Boston: W.W. Potter, 1901), 52-53.

6 Somerville Directory, 1877. Keefe also reported his occupation as cabinetmaker in the 1880 federal census (Series T9, Roll 805, Page 344), even though he was a professional baseball player by that time.

7 Lee Allen, “Cooperstown Corner,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1964.

8 Land record dated November 30, 1877, at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds (Book 1458, Page 103).

9 “The Clintons of ’78,” Boston Globe, March 24, 1889.

10 Karen Nugent, “Heirloom Diamond: Clinton Ball Field Crowned as World’s Oldest,” Worcester Telegram, October 4, 2007.

11 Boston Globe, June 14, 1879.

12 Troy Daily Times, August 19, 1880.

13 Minutes of the National League meeting held on October 5, 1880.

14 All pre-1890 salary figures are from the National League report reprinted in Sporting Life on April 5, 1890.

15 Ford Sawyer, “He Pitched 19 Straight Wins,” Boston Globe, May 27, 1928.

16 Roy Kerr, Buck Ewing: A Baseball Biography (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 34-35.

17 New York Herald, October 13, 1882.

18 Troy Daily Times, October 11, 1882.

19 Troy Daily Times, October 14, 1882.

20 John Kieran, “When They Were the People,” New York Times, January 25, 1938.

21 New York Clipper, November 11, 1882.

22 New York Times, March 27 and April 13, 1885.

23 Land record dated March 13, 1885, at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds (Book 1696, Page 197).

24 Bryan Di Salvatore, A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 175, 189.

25 Boston Globe, October 14, 1885.

26 “A Declining Baseball Star: Timothy J. Keefe, Once the First Pitcher Among Baseball Players,” New York Tribune, October 4, 1891.

27 Sawyer, “He Pitched 19 Straight Wins.”

28 Philip Shirley, “A Chat with Keefe,” Sporting Life, February 24, 1906.

29 T.J. Keefe, “Curves or Liners: The Vexed Question in Base Ball Circles, Boston Globe, October 21, 1888.

30 Sawyer, “He Pitched 19 Straight Wins.”

31 Land record dated July 26, 1886, at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds (Book 1759, Page 132).

32 G.M. Hopkins map of Cambridge, 1886.

33 New York Times, July 9, 1887.

34 Death records for 1887 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 383, Page 213); Somerville Directory, 1873 to 1887.

35 Keefe, “Curves or Liners.”

36 New York Times, August 21, 1887.

37 Jim Moore and Natalie Vermilyea, Ernest Thayer's “Casey at the Bat”: Background and Characters of Baseball’s Most Famous Poem (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994), 209.

38 Moore and Vermilyea, Ernest Thayer's “Casey at the Bat,” 221.

39 Sporting Life, February 9, 1888.

40 Boston Globe, March 12, 1888.

41 Sporting Life, April 18, 1888; New York Times, April 20, 1888.

42 New York Herald, April 20, 1888.

43 Boston Globe, April 24, 1888.

44 Sporting Life, April 25, 1888.

45 New York Times, April 27, 1888.

46 Boston Globe, April 24, 1988.

47 “Ladies Who Love the Game,” New York World, May 6, 1888.

48 New York Times, August 15, 1888.

49 New York Times, July 29, 1888.

50 The Nadjy uniforms were highlighted in a Keefe & Becannon advertisement in Sporting Life, March 20, 1889.

51 “Twirler Tim Is Rich,” New York World, January 14, 1889.

52 “The Rindge Gifts,” in The Cambridge of 1896 edited by Arthur Gilman (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1896).

53 New York Times, April 18, 1889.

54 Ibid.

55 New York Times, May 9, 1889.

56 New York Times, May 10, 1889.

57 Marriage records for 1889 in the Massachusetts State Archives (Volume 399, Page 480). The marriage was not publicly revealed until four days later when it was reported by newspapers on August 23.

58 New York Times, December 10, 1889.

59 Sporting Life, December 17, 1889.

60 Sporting Life, June 28, 1890.

61 Land record dated December 17, 1889, at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds (Book 1947, Page 522).

62 New York Herald, July 19, 1891.

63 Sporting Life, March 21, 1891.

64 Harvard Crimson, January 16, 1892.

65 Land record dated March 19, 1894, at the Middlesex South Registry of Deeds (Book 2259, Page 228).

66 Shirley, “A Chat with Keefe.”

67 Joe Vila, “Without Mercy is the Average Partisan Base Ball Fan,” Sporting Life, April 13, 1912.

68 New Haven Register, July 9, 1896.

69 Sporting Life, November 13, 1897.

70 Sporting Life, July 8, 1899.

71 G.W. Bromley & Co.’s Atlas of Cambridge shows the property as undeveloped in 1894, but with two houses on it in 1900.

72 The 1900 federal census (Series T623, Roll 656, Page 129) lists Keefe’s mother and sisters, along with three boarders who were law students at Harvard, but not Keefe himself. Keefe could not be located within the 1900 census.

73 Keefe reported his marital status as divorced in the 1910 federal census (Series T624, Roll 596, Page 142), He reaffirmed this status in both the 1920 census (Series T625, Roll 707, Page 230) and the 1930 census (Series T626, Roll 916, Page 8).

74 Martin Gardner, The Annotated Casey at the Bat: A Collection of Ballads About the Mighty Casey (New York: Clarkson Potter, 1967), 24; Boston Globe, September 25, 1917.

75 Shirley, “A Chat with Keefe.”

76 Ibid.

77 Sporting Life, July 13, 1912.

78 Sawyer, “He Pitched 19 Straight Wins.”

79 Washington Post, May 20, 1938.

80 Harold Kaese, “Keefe Fanned Mighty Casey,” Boston Globe, February 9, 1964.

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