This article was written by Tom Simon
Though now a Burlington bedroom community with plenty of supervised activities for children, Williston at the turn of the century offered few entertainment options for young Dave Keefe. One day when he was just a toddler, Dave and his older brother and sisters were playing with a corn-cutting machine, daring each other to place a hand as close to the blades as possible. Dave won the dare but in the process lost most of the middle finger on his right hand. His ring finger eventually became larger than normal, and when he was old enough to play baseball he discovered that by placing the ball between his first and ring fingers he could give it an unusual spin. That might have been the origin of what is now called the forkball, and many credit “Three-Fingered” Keefe (as he was known in his playing days) as its inventor.
The Keefes moved to a larger farm in East Montpelier but were forced to return to Richmond when Dave’s father died in 1911. Dave’s mother sent her youngest son, Harold, to live with relatives. Dave was sent to boarding school at Goddard Seminary. He spent his summers in Richmond and often visited relatives in nearby Jericho; during one of those visits Dave left a lasting mark that can be seen to this day by carving his initials in rock on what is now the University of Vermont’s forestry farm.
While at Goddard Keefe attracted the attention of Whitey Witt, then a young shortstop with the Philadelphia Athletics. The A’s signed Keefe to a contract and he made his major league debut on April 21, 1917. Keefe appeared in three games that season for the A’s, picking up his first major league win and compiling a 1.80 ERA before Philadelphia farmed him out to Harrisburg of the New York State League. Keefe compiled a record of 2-13 for Harrisburg, which withdrew from the league on July 10 with a record of 11-41. Going from one last-place team to another, he finished the season with Hartford of the Eastern League and went 4-9 despite a 1.43 ERA.
Keefe missed the entire 1918 season after enlisting in the navy during World War I. He returned to baseball in 1919 and once again started the season with the Philadelphia A’s. Keefe pitched a complete game in his only appearance, but the A’s again sent him to the minors, this time to Reading of the International League. There he went 10-17 with a 3.71 ERA for another last place club.
Finally spending the entire season with the A’s in 1920, Keefe responded with his best season in the majors. In 31 games, he was 6-7 with an impressive 2.97 ERA for yet another last place club. That year Keefe had a couple of memorable encounters with the Babe Ruth. On September 6 he struck out the Bambino three times. On the last day of the season three weeks later, Keefe had the dubious honor of serving up Ruth’s 54th and last home run of the season, setting a new major league record.
The A’s finished in last yet again in 1921 and Keefe went 2-9 with a 4.68 ERA, setting career highs in appearances (44) and innings pitched (173). Philadelphia released him after the season and he was claimed on waivers by the Cleveland Indians. Teaming with fellow Vermonter Larry Gardner, who became a lifelong friend, Keefe pitched in 18 games for the Tribe in 1922 but his ERA shot up to 6.25. At the age of 25, his career as a major-league pitcher was over.
Dave Keefe spent the next ten seasons in the minors, playing stints with Milwaukee, Portland (Oregon), Waterbury, Buffalo, Sacramento, Memphis, Knoxville, Providence, Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre. As a member of the Milwaukee Brewers he pitched in the first game at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, then known as Muehlebach Field, on July 3, 1923, and he threw out a ceremonial last ball for the final game played there in 1972.
While playing with Wilkes-Barre of the New York-Penn League in 1932, Keefe went to Philadelphia on an off-day to take in a game at Shibe Park. Needing to get in some exercise, he asked his old manager Connie Mack if he could pitch batting practice. Mack thought it was a good idea, as it would save wear and tear on his regular pitchers. Keefe took the mound and was a huge success, serving up soft ones to the likes of Al Simmons, Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Cochrane. After the game Mack asked him to stay on as a full-time batting practice pitcher. Keefe, who at the age of 35 realized he was going nowhere as a player, decided to accept the offer, thus becoming the first man ever hired by a major league team for the exclusive purpose of pitching batting paractice. He served in that capacity for 19 years.
“The thing I remember most about pitching batting practice,” Keefe said, “was the number of times I was hit by a ball. They didn’t have screens in front of us in those days and I was struck everywhere except on the bottom of my feet.” Relatives remember that he was often limping because of the hits he’d taken. Keefe also had the distinction of pitching batting practice for the American League before nine All-Star games. “That’s not a bad record,” he cracked, “when you consider I never even had a winning season in the majors.”
One All-Star Game Keefe missed was in 1938 when the Athletics came to Centennial Field during the break to play an exhibition game against the Burlington Cardinals of the Northern League. Before a crowd of 4,500, including several of Keefe’s relatives, Bud Kimball and future major leaguer Lennie Merullo homered to give Burlington a 5-2 lead entering the ninth inning. With two outs, up came Philadelphia center fielder Ace Parker, a two-sport star whose gridiron exploits later earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Parker dribbled a slow roller to the left side of the infield that should have ended the game, but the Burlington third baseman fumbled it to load the bases. The next batter, Billy Werber, doubled to clear the bases and the A’s held on for a 6-5 win.
By 1944 Babe Ruth had been retired from baseball for nine years, but he agreed to come out of retirement and take some swings to raise money for the war effort even though he was suffering from an injured knee. It was Dave Keefe’s mission to pitch to let him hit the ball out of the park, a job for which he appared to be ideally qualified. The place was Shibe Park, and Philadelphia pitcher Bert Kuczynski, on temporary leave from the Navy and sitting in the A’s dugout, described what happened in Kit Crissey’s book Teenagers, Graybeards and 4-F’s:
Under normal circumstances, Keefe was able to throw ball after ball right down the middle of the plate, but this day he just couldn’t get them over. The first ball he pitched was all right, and Ruth hit it off the right field wall. The crowd went wild, expecting better clouts to come, but Keefe was unable to groove any for him. After laying off several bad ones, Ruth began to lunge at any that were reasonably close. All he could do with them was hit grounders or pop flies. He aggravated his knee in the process and finally had to stop without hitting any out of the park. Earle Brucker was catching Keefe, and when he returned to the dugout he was furious. He kept saying under his breath, “That so-and-so Keefe, he clutched tonight. He blew the big occasion.” Boy, was Earle burned!
Dave Keefe stayed in close contact with his siblings. His nieces and nephews always looked forward to his occasional trips to Vermont when the A’s were in Boston. They remember him as quiet, ruddy-complexioned man who looked younger than his age. Uncle Dave brought them bats, balls and gloves, including a game-used catcher’s mitt formerly belonging to Philadelphia’s All-Star catcher, Buddy Rosar. A sharp dresser who wore expensive suits and silk stockings, Keefe also sent dozens of ties to his nephews, some of which still hang in their closets. He took particular pride in his posture, standing with his back to a wall 15 minutes each day to make sure he stood up straight.
In 1950 Dave Keefe became traveling secretary for the A’s and stayed with the team when it moved to Kansas City in 1955. The job involved arranging tickets, rooms and details of each road trip for every member of the team’s road party. Because of Keefe’s meticulous attention to detail, traveling with the A’s was usually trouble-free, but even Dave had his awkward moments.
Once when he was road secretary in Philadelphia some of the players became confused and boarded the wrong train. As it pulled out, the players who were on the right train laughingly waved goodbye to their teammates. The sight was not amusing to Keefe, who had the train stopped and retrieved his players. On another occasion the A’s arrived by train in New York and there was some confusion as to the location of their bus at Grand Central Station. Alex Kellner, a veteran pitcher, began walking briskly across the lobby and the other players followed, assuming he had learned the location of the bus. As it turned out, Kellner was going to the men’s room. Keefe was the only person able to locate the bus and when it pulled up in front of the Warwick Hotel the doorman was amazed to see only one man get off.
One night in the late 1950s the A’s were on a flight from Detroit to Chicago when they encountered a severe thunderstorm. The propellor-driven plane was unable to get above the turbulence and lightning flickered throughout the cabin. As the plane neared Chicago the captain came on the intercom and announced that lightning had knocked out the control tower at Midway, then Chicago’s main airport, necessitating a landing at O’Hare. Keefe immediately demanded to see the stewardess, who was none too anxious to leave her seat. “Go tell the captain we can’t land at O’Hare,” Dave said. “Our bus and baggage truck are at Midway.”
When Washington was a member of the American League, Keefe still booked the Kansas City team into the Shoreham Hotel long after other teams had moved out in search of better rates or a location more convenient to R.F.K. Stadium. “They took care of us during the war when rooms were hard to get,” Dave explained, “and you don’t forget things like that.”
Keefe loved his job as traveling secretary. “I’ve always considered it, and still do, the best and only position in baseball for me,” he told an interviewer in 1967. Later that year, however, the A’s announced that they were moving to Oakland. Rather than move to California, Keefe decided to retire.
Though his 50-year career in professional baseball had come to an end, Dave Keefe still spent much of his time around baseball diamonds. During the Kansas City Royals’ first year of existence in 1969, he accompanied the expansion team on a road trip at the invitation of Royals owner Ewing Kaufmann. Every year he went to the Royals’ spring training camp in Fort Myers, Florida, arriving in early February and staying at the Bradford Hotel, where the Philadelphia Athletics had stayed back when they trained in Fort Myers in the 1930s.
Keefe was a lifelong bachelor. “I’m not sure why he didn’t marry and I never asked because he was a man who did not like to talk about himself,” wrote Joe McGuff, sports editor of the Kansas City Star, “but I suspect he had concluded that a wife might object to the amount of time he spent at the ball park or traveling with the team, and he was not the sort of man who liked to make changes in his lifestyle.”
The only major concession to change that Keefe made was in regard to the automobile. He had never learned to drive, but at the age of 65 he purchased an expensive car, taught himself to drive in the parking lot behind the left-field fence at Municipal Stadium and drove off to Florida for spring training.
Keefe took a room at Kansas City’s Berkshire Towers Hotel in 1955 and remained in that same room for 23 years, even after the hotel was sold and renamed the Baptist Retirement Towers (and in spite of the fact that he was a devout Catholic). In February 1978, Keefe was preparing to attend spring training when the Towers went up in flames. The 81-year-old escaped unharmed but reentered the burning building when he realized a woman who was a friend of his was trapped. Keefe inhaled too much smoke on his way out and died in St. Mary’s Hospital in Kansas City on February 4, 1978. His body was transported to Richmond where he was buried in the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Cemetary, just down the street from an old ball field where he probably played as a youth.
Two days after Keefe’s death, Joe McGuff wrote the following tribute in the Kansas City Star:
The awards that are presented on baseball’s winter dinner circuit usually go to someone who has led his league in home runs, saved a franchise or developed a pennant winner.
Dave Keefe did not qualify in any of these categories and as a result he was never called on to step before a microphone and receive a standing ovation. It is a shame because Dave did something much more important: He devoted his lifetime to baseball.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.