“He was, in fact, the closest thing to a saint that I came across in baseball,” remembered Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson about his 1964 St. Louis Cardinals manager, Johnny Keane.1 Maintaining a quiet, patient demeanor, punctuated with occasional well-timed outbursts of Irish temper, Johnny drew on his 17-year minor league managerial experience to guide the 1964 Cardinals to the National League pennant and a World Series victory over the favored New York Yankees.
John Joseph Keane had a long career as a minor-league infielder but never played in the major leagues. He was born on November 3, 1911, in St. Louis. His father regularly took young Johnny to Cardinals games. Johnny later joined the Cardinals’ Knot Hole Gang, a group of youthful fans. As a teenager, he played shortstop for a team in the St. Louis Muny League. He also enrolled in the St. Louis Preparatory Seminary to begin study for the Catholic priesthood. For a brief time, he tried to pursue both baseball and the priesthood but quickly chose baseball.
In 1930 he signed a minor-league contract offered to him by Cardinals scout Charlie Barrett.2 After a rookie season (and .304 batting average) with Waynesboro (PA) in the Class D Blue Ridge League, he moved up in 1931 to Springfield (MO) in the Class C Western League, playing 126 games and hitting .285. He batted .312 in 1932 and .324 in 1933 as the Western League moved up to Class A. In 1934 the Cardinals sent him to Houston in the Double-A Texas League, where he came down with malaria after a few games. Upon recovery he was sent to Elmira (NY) in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League, where he again hit .300 and earned a late-season promotion back to Houston. Keane seemed to be establishing himself as a definite major-league prospect.
In 1935, after a three game stay with Rochester of the International League, the Cardinals again placed Johnny at Houston, where he was the club’s scrappy starting shortstop by midseason. Then, in a game against Galveston on July 22, tragedy almost struck. Galveston pitcher Sigmund “Jack” Jakucki, who later pitched for the St. Louis Browns, was wild. In the bottom of the fourth inning he hit the first batter. The next hitter sacrificed, bringing up Keane, who hit Jakucki well. Jakucki’s first pitch hit Keane on the head, knocking him unconscious. His teammates carried him off the field.3
At the hospital the attending physician told the Houston Post that Keane “was very fortunate that the blow caused a long fracture (seven inches) and if there had been a depression, an operation would have been essential.” Keane was unconscious for six days and in the hospital for six weeks.4 The upset Houston team, which had been surging, fell back into the second division.5
During spring training the following season, Keane later recalled, Houston tested him to see if the beaning made him gun-shy, making him bat against the wildest pitcher in camp.6 Keane passed the test and played the full 1936 season with Houston, hitting .272 in 534 at-bats.
The 1937 season was a watershed year in Keane’s career. He met and married his wife, Lela Reed.7 Lela became a key source of support for Johnny throughout his baseball career. Keane played the entire season with Houston, hitting .267 in 595 at-bats. At the end of the season, Houston sent Keane back to Springfield and The Sporting News reported a rumor that he would become player-manager there.8
Instead of Springfield, the Cardinals offered to make Keane the player-manager of their Albany, Georgia, team in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. A disappointed Keane reportedly balked at the move and the Cardinals abruptly released him.9 Then cooler heads prevailed. With Lela’s full support, Johnny accepted the Albany post.10
Keane was an immediate success as a manager. In 1938 and 1939 he led Albany to first-place finishes. Describing his 1938 season, The Sporting News wrote, “The fighting Irishman from Texas led an inspired band of players to a walk-away in the Georgia-Florida League.”11 In 1940 the Cardinals moved Keane up to Mobile in the Class B Southeastern League, where his team finished in third place and lost in the first round of the league playoffs. In 1941 he moved back to Class D, to New Iberia in the Evangeline League, again leading his team to first place.
At the beginning of World War II, Johnny volunteered for military service. His 1935 skull fracture prohibited him from serving in the armed forces, so he joined the Brown Shipbuilding Company in Houston, supervising 50 employees in its procurement operations, and managing the company’s semipro baseball team. It was an important business-related experience for Keane, giving him an appreciation for both the operations and needs of large organizations. Lela later recalled Johnny’s pride in his work at Brown.12
In late 1945, as the minor leagues prepared to resume their operations, the Houston club hired Keane as its manager. In 1946 he suffered the first losing season of his career, as Houston went 64-89 and finished sixth. He rebounded sharply in 1947; Houston finished in first place, won the league playoffs and the Dixie Series (over Mobile, his old Southern Association club), and smashed all Houston attendance records. He achieved this despite having to use a patched-up lineup most of the season. Keane later recalled the year as his top thrill as a minor-league manager. In 1948 Houston finished third with an 82-71 record and lost in the first round of the playoffs. After the season Keane was named manager at Triple-A Rochester.
The Red Wings finished second in 1949, first in 1950 (they lost to Baltimore in the playoff finals) and second in 1951. In 1950 the team set an attendance record. Keane’s consistent minor-league success caught the eye of Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, who was looking for a new manager. Saigh interviewed Keane, but the job went to former St. Louis shortstop Marty Marion.
At Rochester, Keane worked for general manager Bing Devine. They meshed immediately, forming a highly successful career-long friendship. Reminiscing years later, Devine wrote that he was most impressed by Keane’s friendly demeanor and his intense work ethic.13
In 1952 the Cardinals reassigned Keane to their other Triple-A team, the Columbus Red Birds. The franchise had finished last and reportedly lost an estimated $151,000 in 1951. Armed with young prospects, Keane needed to quickly turn the team around and at least break even.14 He accepted the challenge, noting, “It’s my job to develop players but it’s also my job to win pennants and to lure fans through the gates.”15 But Keane experienced the three worst seasons (1952-54) in his minor-league career, posting a three-year record of 209-251 and finishing seventh, seventh, and fourth.
In 1954, after two dismal years, Keane rallied Columbus to a fourth-place finish, qualifying for the American Association playoffs for the first time. The Sporting News took note of his ability to develop low-cost talent into skilled, marketable players, showing a number of examples where he had taken castoffs from other organizations and enhanced either their trade or playing value to the parent club. One of the examples cited was Barney Schultz, who became a hero with the 1964 World Series winners.
While Keane was managing at Columbus, major changes were taking place in the Cardinals front office. In 1953 the prison-bound (tax evasion) Fred Saigh sold the franchise to August A. Busch, Jr.16 In 1955 the Columbus team was moved to Omaha, Nebraska,17 and manager Keane moved with it. In 1956 general manager Frank Lane interviewed Keane for a Cardinals coaching position, and was shocked when Keane asked to stay at Omaha. From 1955 through 1958, the Omaha Cardinals finished second, third, fifth, and fifth and reached the league playoffs twice.
Trader Lane (who once reportedly tried to trade Stan Musial) was fired in 1957 and was succeeded by Keane’s friend Bing Devine. Eventually the GM persuaded Keane to join new manager Solly Hemus’ coaching staff for 1959. Under Hemus the Cardinals were 71-83 in 1959 and 86-68 in 1960. In the first half of 1961, when the team started slowly (33-41) Busch replaced Hemus with Keane, who finished the second half with a 47-33 record.
Both Devine and Keane set about building a confident, contending team. They continued the development of key young players who would be 1964 stars: Bob Gibson, Ray Sadecki, Curt Flood, Bill White, Tim McCarver, and Julian Javier. Devine signed Curt Simmons as a free agent and added Dick Groat and Roger Craig via trades. These veterans were essential to the 1964 team.
Perhaps the most important issue facing the organization was how to effectively use future Hall of Famer Stan Musial. Starting in 1961, the Cardinals carefully monitored the 40-year-old Musial’s playing time throughout the notoriously hot, muggy, and draining St. Louis summers, making sure he remained fresh. Musial responded by remaining a positive contributor to the team throughout his final three years (1961-1963) as a player. At the end of the 1963 season, Musial became a Cardinals vice president.18
In late October 1962, Busch threw another ingredient into the Cardinals management mix by hiring the 80-year-old baseball front office legend Branch Rickey as a special personnel consultant to the team.19
Unfortunately for the Cardinals in 1963, the Los Angeles Dodgers had the best starting pitchers in baseball: Sandy Koufax: (25 wins, 311 innings pitched, 1.88 ERA) and Don Drysdale (19 wins, 315 innings pitched, 2.63 ERA). The Dodgers won 99 games and swept the Yankees in the World Series. The 1963 Cardinals were also a formidable team, winning 93 games. Their spirited effort simply wasn’t enough.20
With the high expectations established by their second-place finish, the Cardinals started the 1964 season sluggishly, as Philadelphia jumped to a large early lead. Seeking a spark to propel the team, Devine and Keane made a bold move. They traded starting pitcher Ernie Broglio to the Chicago Cubs for the immensely talented but largely unproved Lou Brock. When a cautious Devine asked Keane’s opinion on the potential trade, Johnny replied, “What are we waiting for?” Brock was eventually installed as the everyday left fielder. His speed, coupled with Keane’s willingness to use it, added a key ingredient of unpredictability to the St. Louis offense. A second important move was the July recall of Mike Shannon and installing him as the everyday right fielder. Shannon provided defensive prowess and additional hitting power.
Even with these Cardinals moves, Philadelphia remained comfortably in the lead. At the beginning of August, the Phillies led the sixth-place Cardinals by seven games. Based on Keane’s strong recommendation, the Cardinals then made a seemingly innocuous but critical last move; they summoned journeyman reliever Barney Schultz from Triple-A Jacksonville. St. Louis began to creep closer to tiring Philadelphia. In mid-August the Dodgers’ hopes for a repeat received a crushing blow when Sandy Koufax suffered a season-ending injury to his elbow while sliding into second base.21
Fearing a repeat of the 1963 near-miss, a deeply disappointed Busch began planning for the post-Devine/Keane era. On August 17, with the Cardinals still nine games behind Philadelphia, Busch asked for and received Devine’s resignation. Based primarily on the recommendation of Rickey, he hired Bob Howsam to replace Devine.
Citing the availability of Leo Durocher, sportswriters speculated that Keane would be the next to go. Seeing the fate of his career-long friend Devine and uncertain that with all the off-the-field distractions the club could overtake Philadelphia, Keane feared for his job. Anticipating his dismissal, Johnny carried a resignation letter with him during the last frantic weeks. Both Lela and their daughter Pat helped him draft the letter.
Keane’s fears proved correct. Busch and Durocher held a clandestine meeting in late August to discuss Durocher’s becoming manager in 1965. Busch always denied offering Durocher the job, but Durocher said, “When a man says to me ‘Do we have a deal,’ and I answer, ‘We have a deal,’ and we shake hands on it, what does that mean?”22
Amid this swirl of front-office activity and uncertainty, the pennant race momentum shifted dramatically away from Philadelphia and toward St. Louis. Leading by 6½ games with 12 games to play, the Phillies lost 10 games in a row, including three to the Cardinals.
The Cardinals played their last six high-pressure games at home. At every game, Lela sat at field level by the Cardinals dugout within Johnny’s view. As she had for so many games throughout his managerial career, she kept score. When they won the pennant on the last day of the season, the couple celebrated with an emotional embrace and a kiss. As cheering fans watched, she broke down and cried.23
After the Cardinals unexpectedly beat the favored Yankees in the World Series, Keane had one more surprise to offer. On October 16, during a post-Series news conference, Keane politely refused the hefty new contract Busch had offered him and resigned. On the same day the Yankees fired their manager, Yogi Berra, and four days later they hired Keane. It came to light later that toward the end of the season, as Keane’s job was reportedly in jeopardy, he had opened a line of communication with the Yankees. The Sporting News subsequently named Keane the National League Manager of the Year and Devine the National League Executive of the Year.
In 1965 Keane began his new career as the manager of the Yankees. He took over an aging team that suffered some key injuries during the season and finished 77-85, a disappointing sixth in the American League. In his book, Ball Four, pitcher Jim Bouton strongly criticized Johnny’s frantic effort to energize the veteran Yankee club. However, he also points out that the players always considered Keane an outsider and resisted him from the start. As he pushed them, their resistance quickly turned to hate. Their whispered criticisms became personal.24 Through it all, Keane, with Lela and Pat’s unwavering support, remained focused on trying to get the team’s course corrected.
The Yankees fired Keane in early May of 1966 after the Yankees started slowly.25 The Yankees were 4-16 at the time. It was the first time he had been fired in his 22 years as a manager. He and Lela spent the rest of 1966 in Houston enjoying their two young and boisterous grandsons. Late in the year, on the day his Yankees contract expired, he was hired by the California Angels as a special assignment scout beginning in 1967. Unexpectedly, on January 6, 1967, Keane suffered a fatal heart attack in his Houston home.26 He was 55 years old. Lela died in 1992. As a major-league manager for six seasons, Johnny’s cumulative record stands at 398 wins 350 losses. His 17-year minor-league managerial record stands at 1,357 wins and 1,166 losses.27
Upon his death, members of the Cardinals and Yankees who played under Keane reflected on his life-long love of baseball. “Johnny was one of the finest guys that ever happened to be in baseball,” said Stan Musial. “He was a gentleman and a real credit to the game.” “There isn’t a thing I know that you can say bad about him,” said Ken Boyer. “As a manager, he demanded respect and he got it. He expected a lot from his ballplayers, and rightly so. He was not an easy man on players, but he was a good manager.” Whitey Ford, whom Keane had managed for a little over a season, called him “a true gentleman and a fine baseball man.” “He was a fine gentleman,” remembered Elston Howard. “He’ll be missed by people in all fields of sports.”
“Johnny,” Bing Devine, Johnny’s Cardinal mentor reflected, “was like one of the family. I have never known a finer man.”28
Johnny and Lela are buried together in Houston, Texas.
This biography is included in the book "Drama and Pride in the Gateway City: The 1964 St. Louis Cardinals" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by John Harry Stahl and Bill Nowlin. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
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National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
1 Gibson, Bob and Wheeler, Lonnie. Stranger to the Game, The Autobiography of Bob Gibson, New York, New York, Penguin Books, 1994, Page 43.
2 Lyons, Johnny, “New Post Challenge to Keane,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.
3 Layer, Bruce, “Keane Hurt When Hit By Pitched Ball,” Houston Post, July 23, 1935.
4 Lyons, “New Post Challenge to Keane,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.
5 Lyons, Johnny, “Sports Chatter,” Houston Post, July 27, 1935.
6 Lyons, “New Post Challenge to Keane,” The Sporting News, December 5, 1951.
7 Frantz, Joe B., “Keane, John Joseph”, The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, Austin, Texas, June 6, 2001; Gabriel Schecter, research associate, National Baseball Hall of Fame, e-mail to author, August 26, 2008.
8 “Caught on the Fly,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1937.
9 “Brief Bits Of Gossip,” The Sporting News, December 23, 1937.
10 Asinof, Eliot, “The Word for Johnny Keane Is: Patience”, The New York Times, New York, New York, May 30, 1965.
11 “Johnny Keane Reappointed as Pilot of the Albany Travelers,” The Sporting News, February 5, 1939
12 Eck, Frank, “Life’s Never Dull for the Keane Family,” Pacific Stars and Stripes, February 3, 1965.
13 Devine, Bing, The Memoirs of Bing Devine, Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing LLC, 2004.
14 Gillespie, Ray, “Cardinals’ Farm System Revamped to Curb Losses,” The Sporting News, February 20, 1952.
15 Young, Clarence, “Cardinal Chain $650,000 In Hole for ’51, Says Saigh,” The Sporting News, February 13, 1952.
16 “Busch, Brewer, Buys the Cardinals; Pays $3,750,000 for St. Louis Club,” United Press, New York Times, February 21, 1953.
17 “Columbus Group Pledges Advance Sale of $200,000,” The Sporting News, November 17, 1954.
18 Gillespie, Ray, “Keane Sparked My Comeback, Stan Tells Fans,” The Sporting News, December 1, 1962.
19 Russo, Neal, “Birds Toss Flag Eggs In B.R.’s Basket,” The Sporting News, November 10, 1962.
20 Thorn, John, Palmer, Pete, Gershman, Michael, Total Baseball, Sports Publishing, Pages 1571, 1436 and 2213.
21 “Digest of 1964 Diamond Highlights”, The Sporting News, January 2, 1965.
22 Burnes, Bob, “Matthews-Busch Marriage Recalls Card ’64 Hassle,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, February 26, 1977.
23 Reichier, Joe, “Johnny Keane’s Wife Felt Pennant Pressure,” Associated Press, October 7,1964
24 Bouton, Jim, Ball Four, Wiley Publishing, New York, New York, 1990
25 Koppett, Leonard, “Emotion, Not Strategy, Fired Keane,” The Sporting News, May 21, 1966.
26 “Johnny Keane Dies; Managed Yanks and Cards”, New York Times, January 8, 1967. So that he could do his scouting job, Keane had just purchased a new automobile during the morning of the day he died.
27 “Johnny Keane,” www. Baseball-reference.com, BR Bullpen, Year-by-Year Managerial Record, accessed December 6, 2007
28 Durso, Joseph, “Keane’s Death Shocks Baseball”, New York Times, January 8, 1967.