This article was written by Thomas J. Brown Jr.
Jack McKeon never made it to the major leagues as a player but he eventually made his mark in the majors as a manager and general manager during his long career in baseball. Along the way he earned numerous accolades and will be remembered as one of the more colorful managers and general managers in baseball.
John Aloysius McKeon was born on November 23, 1930, in South Amboy, New Jersey. His parents were William and Anna McKeon. They had four children, two boys and two girls. McKeon’s father owned a garage, a taxicab, and a towing business and spent most of his days working at one of his businesses. His father imparted a love of baseball on his son from an early age. “My dad started the ‘McKeon Boys Club,’ and we played other local teams,” Jack said. “I was managing and making out schedules when I was 12. My brother (Bill Jr.) and I put up chicken wire in Dad’s garage, which served as our batting cage.”1 (Bill Jr. played in the Milwaukee Braves system as a catcher.)
McKeon attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in South Amboy. His passion for baseball did not wane as he grew older. He said, “[I would catch a game in the afternoon, turn [my uniform inside out and rush across town to catch in a city league game.”2 He graduated from high school in 1948 and his play attracted the attention of pro scouts. His father did not want him to follow in his footsteps, and insisted that Jack attend college.
His parents were devout Catholics and they imparted their faith to McKeon, who remained faithful to his Catholic upbringing throughout his life. He told an interviewer that it might have been divine intervention that finally got him into baseball. Every evening as he returned to his dorm at Holy Cross College, McKeon stopped at the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He prayed for her divine intercession, always asking her to persuade his father to let him leave school and play baseball.3
McKeon attended college for one semester before persuading his father to let him sign a pro baseball contract. The elder McKeon finally relented but only before getting his son to promise to get his college degree later. McKeon would eventually take offseason courses at Seton Hall University and Elon College to fulfill his promise. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Elon in 1957. He missed his graduation because he was busy managing Missoula of the Pioneer League. Eventually the university mailed him his diploma.4
McKeon signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and played in their minor-league system from 1949 to 1954. The Pirates assigned him to Greenville (Alabama) in the Class-D Alabama State League. The right-handed McKeon caught in 116 games that season. He batted .251 and while he had 98 hits, only 14 were for extra bases.
“I got $450 to sign and I made $215 a month. That’s not too much money, but I came home with $600,” McKeon said in 2015. “Of course, you could stay with a family for $5 a week, and it might cost you $1.50 to eat, all day.”5 What mattered most to McKeon was that he was playing baseball. Little did he know that his career would last another 62 years.
McKeon played one game for the York (Pennsylvania) of the Class-B Interstate League at the start of the 1950 season before being sent to Gloversville-Johnstown (New York) of the Class-C Canadian-American League. He played in 72 games and his batting average slumped to .215 with the Glovers.
In 1951 McKeon served in the Air Force at Sampson Air Force Base in upstate New York. While there, he was the player-manager of the base’s baseball team. He left the service and played for Hutchinson (Kansas) of the Class-C Western Association in 1952. Although he still struggled at the plate, batting .218, he played solid defense.
During spring training in 1953, Danny Murtaugh, who was managing the Pirates’ Double-A New Orleans Pelicans, asked him if he ever considered being a manger. “I guess he thought I had some things going for me,” McKeon said. “When I got my first big-league job, I kind of leaned on Danny for advice. He was good about it.”6
At Class-B Burlington-Graham (North Carolina) of the Carolina League in 1953, McKeon played in all 140 games, and batted only .181, so the Pirates sent him back to Hutchinson team in 1954. He hit .207 in 46 games before returning to Burlington-Graham, where he continued to struggle at the plate, hitting just .133 in 17 games. His hopes of making the big leagues were starting to dim, and he returned to college, continuing his studies at Elon. McKeon said Branch Rickey, who was running the Pirates, called him in the fall of 1954 and encouraged him to continue his studies.7
In 1954 McKeon married Carol Isley, whom he met while playing in Burlington. As of 2018, they had been married for 64 years and lived in North Carolina.
McKeon planned to manage the Pirates’ Hutchinson team in 1955 but the opportunity never materialized when the team folded before the season. Instead he started the season as a part-time player with Fayetteville (North Carolina) of the Class-B Carolina League, a Baltimore Orioles farm team. In midseason the manager was promoted and McKeon became player-manager.
He said all but two players on the team were older than he was. (McKeon was 24.) One of his pitchers showed up every four days since he had another job, and other players showed up as needed. His relief pitcher would show up by the sixth inning every night for the same reason.8 Yet McKeon led the team to a 30-22 record during his two months at the helm. “I kept my dream of getting to the big leagues but just changed the direction,” he said of his time with Fayetteville.9McKeon realized that “all these guys were hitting .250 or better and I was only hitting .180 so I became a good salesman. I convinced people that I could be a manager.”10
At the time, many minor-league managers also played, and McKeon was no exception. He managed the Missoula, Montana, Timberjacks of the Class-C Pioneer League from 1956 to 1958. The team was independent in 1956 and McKeon said that when he took the job, the owner said, “We have three players. Can you find us some more?” He went on the road to scout amateur leagues in North and South Carolina to find players.
He led the team to 61-71 record and a seventh-place finish. He batted .170 that season. The following year, the team became a Washington Senators affiliate. McKeon’s team finished in fourth place that season with a 62-64 record. He played in 102 games and batted .217. Years later he said, “I was the only player who hit three ways: left, right, and seldom.”11
In 1958 McKeon enjoyed his biggest success as both a player and a manager up to then. He batted .263, hit 8 home runs, and had 51 RBIs. Manager McKeon led the team to a second-place finish with a 70-59 record.
The Senators were pleased with McKeon’s efforts and moved him to Fox Cities of the Class-B Three-I League for 1959. The team, based in Appleton, Wisconsin, finished in fourth place with a 59-67 record. He returned to North Carolina for the 1960 season when the Senators made him the manager of Wilson of the Carolina League. At 29, he dropped “player” from his job description; for the first time, he was just the manager. Wilson had a 73-65 record and finished in second place. In 1961 McKeon led the team (83-56) to a first-place finish. The team was now an affiliate of the Minnesota Twins after the Senators moved in the offseason.
The Twins continued to be impressed with McKeon’s leadership and promoted him to the Triple-A Vancouver Mounties (Pacific Coast League) in 1962. He led the team to a 72-79, seventh-place finish. The team moved to Dallas-Fort Worth in 1963 and became the Rangers. McKeon stayed at the helm and managed them to a 79-79 record.
When the Twins moved their Triple-A affiliate to Atlanta for the 1964 season, McKeon moved with them. The Crackers, now playing in the International League, ended up with a 55-93 record. McKeon stepped aside after the season and served as a scout in the Twins organization for the next three years.
By 1968, McKeon was restless to get back on the diamond. He joined the expansion Kansas City Royals and managed their winter instructional league team in the winter of 1968. When the season ended, he took the reins of High Point-Thomasville in the Carolina League. The team played just up the road from McKeon’s home in Burlington. The team was independent but had 14 players signed by Royals on their roster. Despite a 69-71 record, the team made the playoffs in the two-division league, and won the league championship.
McKeon managed the Triple-A Omaha Royals (American Association) from 1969 to 1972. He called this “the turning point of my career.” He explained: “That led to my first big-league job. And it just so happened I was in the right organization to achieve that.”12
McKeon compiled a 298-259 during his four years in Omaha. The team finished in first place and won league titles during his first two years as manager. McKeon was chosen as the American Association manager of the year in both years. Omaha’s only losing season during McKeon’s tenure came in 1971, when the team finished 69-70.
At the time, McKeon was facing a decision about whether he should continue to manage at the minor-league level or look for a chance to coach with a major-league team. When he took the job in Omaha, he said, “I made up my mind that I would stay managing until age 44, and if I didn’t get to the big leagues by then I would take a coaching job. And fortunately I got there at age 42.”13
McKeon reflected on the difference between managing in the minors and the majors. In the minors, “my goal was to develop the players. When you are in the majors, your goal is to win. I learned that the more that I developed my players, the more I won. If I could make my players 10 to 15 percent better each year, then I was successful.”14 He said it was his ability to develop his players that eventually got him to the major leagues as a manager.
The Royals made McKeon their manager in 1973. He replaced Bob Lemon, whose team went 76-78 record during the previous strike-shortened season. Playing in their new ballpark, the 1973 Royals improved to 88-74 and a second-place in the American League West. It was a record number of wins for the young franchise.
One of the highlights of McKeon’s inaugural season at the Royals’ helm came when the team arrived in New York to play the Yankees. His hometown of South Amboy honored its native son. As McKeon recalled, “They honored me with proclamations and gifts and what have you. My mother and my wife and my kids were there. My mother leaned over and said, ‘Boy, your dad would be proud of you.’ With that I just figured that I had reached my goals, making the major leagues and making my parents proud.”15
The Royals slumped in 1974 and finished fifth in the division with a 77-85 record. The team improved in 1975 and its record was 50-46 on June 23 when the Royals fired McKeon, replacing him with Whitey Herzog. The Royals said that the reason for the change was that “there was really no rapport between the team and Jack.”16
McKeon returned to managing in the minor leagues in 1976. The Atlanta Braves hired him to manage Triple-A Richmond (International League). The team finished with a 69-71 record. Oakland owner Charlie Finley hired McKeon to manage the A’s in 1977. Finley was in the process of getting rid of all his star players before they could enter the free-agent market. Even with the diminished talent, McKeon managed the team to a 26-27 record, when he was fired by Finley on June 8 and replaced with Bobby Winkles. When McKeon asked why he was fired, Finley told him that “a change had to be made.” Several days earlier, McKeon said, Finley had told McKeon he was proud of the job the manager was doing.17
McKeon stayed with the A’s as an assistant general manager. The team played well when the 1978 season began. But Winkles had become frustrated with Finley’s meddling. At one point there were rumors that Finley was going to make Winkles wear earphones so he could talk to him in the dugout.18 Winkles resigned on May 22. At the time the team had a 24-15 record and was in first place.
Finley put McKeon back in the dugout to manage the team almost a year after he was fired. Asked why he was bringing McKeon back, Finley said: “He is smarter this year.”19 The team stayed in first place through the middle of June but Finley had not learned his lesson with Winkles’ resignation.
Finley continued to meddle with managerial decisions. An example: Finley insisted on starting the A’s two draft picks from that season’s June draft, so the team would know if they were ready for the majors.20 Draftee Mike Morgan was given a start against Baltimore. “He pitched well for the first four innings but then he got in trouble so I decided to take him out,” McKeon said. “I got a phone call in the dugout. It was Charlie. He told me to keep him in the game. When Morgan reached the seventh inning, I decided to pull him but then the phone rang again. It was Finley and he told me that I needed to keep him in the game. He said that Morgan’s high-school coach was up there and had told him that Morgan had pitched 10 innings on previous occasions.”21
McKeon stayed as the A’s manager for the rest of the season. The team struggled in the final months of the season and finished 45-78 with McKeon as manager. McKeon’s analysis: “You couldn’t win no matter what” with Charlie Finley.22
McKeon joined the Montreal Expos organization for the 1979 season, managing the Triple-A Denver Bears (American Association) to a 62-73 record. McKeon saw the effect of Denver’s high altitude on hitting. On July 4, “We were down 14-7 with a runner on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. We scored nine unearned runs, with Jim Cox hitting a three-run homer to win it, 16-14.”23
The 1980 season found McKeon in San Diego. He started the year as assistant to general manager Bob Fontaine. The team struggled in the first half of the season. Owner Ray Kroc and club President Ballard Smith fired Fontaine during the All-Star break and gave the job to McKeon.
McKeon remained the general manager of the Padres through the 1988 season. It was during those years that he earned the nickname “Trader Jack.” He explained: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like trades. If another GM asks me if I want a certain guy, I rarely say no. Maybe I don’t have a need for a guy but maybe I can acquire the guy anyway, and trade him for someone that I do need.”24
Kroc, the Padres owner, was frustrated that the team had not had a winning season since he became owner. New GM McKeon “asked Mr. Kroc if there were any players on the roster that he considered untouchable. When he said ‘No,’ I said, ‘Good, let’s shake things up.’”25
The first big deal of McKeon’s tenure as general manager came at the end of the 1980 season. He acquired Terry Kennedyin an 11-player trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. That deal was the start of his efforts to build the Padres into the team that would win the 1984 National League pennant. Other players McKeon acquired through trades were Garry Templeton(from the Cardinals in a trade for Ozzie Smith), Graig Nettles, Carmelo Martinez, and Dave Dravecky.26
McKeon continually moved players during his tenure with the Padres. “If I can improve the Padres with a trade, I’ll consider anything,” he said. “I’m a gambler. I always have been. I’m aggressive and I’m confident. I’m not worried about making a mistake because I think I’m going to be right much more often than I’m wrong.”27
Sometimes McKeon made trades to help out other teams. Dallas Green, the Cubs general manager in 1983, wanted Scott Sanderson from Montreal but couldn’t come up with players the Expos would trade for. McKeon heard about this and told Green, “I’ll get him for you.” So, I called John McHale, the Expos general manager and said ‘You need a good relief pitcher. I’ll give you Gary Lucas.’ And I swung the deal for all three clubs. [Green got Scott Sanderson, the pitcher he wanted. [McHale’s Expos got Gary Lucas, the relief pitcher they wanted.”28
During his years with the Padres, McKeon never hesitated to make a trade. Many of them made headlines across the baseball world. But that was not his goal. “That’s how this business works. Like [I’ve said, I’m not in this business to rip people off. I’m here to smoke cigars and make a trade or two.”30
McKeon returned to the dugout in 1988. The team started the season with a 16-30 record. On May 28 skipper Larry Bowawas fired and McKeon took over as manager. He also remained as general manager. “I like both jobs,” he said. “It’s Skipper Jack from 2:30 until midnight and Trader Jack the rest of the time.”31 He led the Padres to a 67-48 mark for the rest of 1988 season. As McKeon remembered it, “I had put together the team through trades and drafts. I might as well prove that we were on the right track.”32
McKeon said it was an asset to the team for him to be both manager and general manager. “The guys don’t want to be honest with themselves. When I was general manager, they would come to me and I would tell them that if you have any complaints, talk to the manager. When I became manager, guys were complaining and I called a team meeting in Atlanta. I told them, ‘You guys ought to get on your hands and knees and thank the lord that you have a job. I tried to trade you but I can’t find anyone to take you.’ We went on to win 20 of the next 28 games as I recall.”33
After the season, Chub Feeney, the Padres’ president, told McKeon that he didn’t care for the idea of one man holding both jobs. McKeon’s success in the dugout led to pressure from the organization and the players for him to choose the manager position. He eventually persuaded Joan Kroc, who ran the team after her husband died, to let him keep both jobs. “I think he likes being in the dugout chewing tobacco or chomping on a cigar before a game,” Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog said.34
McKeon stayed as the Padres manager in 1989 and the team finished 89-73. But the Padres struggled in 1990. They had a 37-43 record at the All-Star break. McKeon resigned as manager, and made first-base coach Greg Riddoch his successor. He kept the GM portfolio, but several months later he was fired by the Padres’ new owner, Tom Werner.
McKeon was out of baseball for the 1991 and 1992 seasons. He returned to North Carolina to spend more time with his wife and family. McKeon returned in 1993 when the Cincinnati Reds signed him as a scout and then senior adviser for player personnel under general manager Jim Bowden. He served in that capacity until July 25, 1997.
Ray Knight, the Reds manager, was causing disruption in the dugout and disillusionment in the Reds front office. The Reds were 43-56, nine games out of the lead in the National League Central Division when Knight was fired. McKeon was asked to take over as manager. “McKeon is going to take over this ballclub on an interim basis through the end of the ’97 season to help stabilize the situation,” said Bowden, who believed that McKeon’s more even-tempered approach would be more helpful to the team.35 “We feel that a change might help the progression of our young guys between now and the end of the season.”36 McKeon managed the team to a 33-30 mark for the rest of the season.
McKeon stayed on as manager in 1999 and the team continued to improve. He led them to 96 victories and a tie for the National League wild-card slot. However, the Reds were defeated 5-0 by the Mets in a one-game tiebreaker at Cinergy Field. McKeon was named 1999 National League Manager of the Year.
The Reds acquired center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. in a trade with the Seattle Mariners on February 10, 2000. Griffey hit 40 home runs in 2000, but the Reds’ record fell to 85-77, and they finished 10 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. After the season, McKeon was fired. Bowden said, “Jack has been a part of the development of the good, young Reds players you see on the field today. But the organization has decided to take a different decision in its leadership from the dugout.”37
McKeon retired from baseball and returned to his home in North Carolina. He was mostly enjoying life, spending time with his wife and grandchildren, but said that while he enjoyed working in his garden during the day, he hated “[sitting in the same damned chair till midnight, watching games. That used to be my working day.”38 That would change. Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria fired manager Jeff Torborg in May of 2003 and asked the 72-year-old McKeon to take over. He jumped at the chance.
When Torborg arrived in Florida, he called a team meeting. His impressions? “I saw these guys that weren’t prepared. They didn’t have a good work ethic. I told the players that I don’t need this job. I am here to show you how to win. If you want to pay the price, we can play in October. But it’s all up to you. How bad do you want it? If you want it, we’re going to have to change a few things. Change your attitude, change your work habits, you’re going to have focus a little bit better and you’re going to have to leave your egos at the door. It took a few weeks but they bought into my program.”39
The Marlins went 75-49 under McKeon’s leadership. McKeon used his experience to guide his young team. He “didn’t need computer readouts or piles of data to tell him how to manage. He’s from the old school; he told his players to … do the best they can, relax and have fun.”40 Josh Beckett, one of the Marlins’ young stars, described McKeon’s approach: “He’s a fun guy to play for. He expects a certain amount out of you, and if you don’t give it to him, he won’t even talk to you. He ignores you. That’s his way of motivating you. It gets under your skin, but that’s how he is.”41 McKeon worked the young players extremely hard. “I rode them,” he said. He told Beckett that “I’m going to make you a 20-game winner.”42
The result was that Marlins made the playoffs as the NL wild-card team in 2003. Before they faced the Giants, who had finished with the best record in the National League, McKeon said, “[The pressure is on everybody else because we aren’t supposed to win.”43
The Marlins beat the Giants in the Division Series, three games to one. Then they won the pennant by beating the Chicago Cubs in seven games. In the World Series, the Marlins faced the Yankees. McKeon’s young Marlins team beat the Yankees in six games to claim the club’s second World Series championship. After the Series, the New Jersey native said that he had always “wanted to have my first World Series in Yankee Stadium. Win or lose, I wanted to play it in Yankee Stadium.”44
McKeon won his second Manager of the Year award, becoming the first manager who was hired during a season to be honored with the award. At 72, he was the oldest manager to win a World Series.
The win was special for McKeon. He was general manager the last time one of his teams made the World Series. “I always was hoping that I’d get one more chance. After 1999, it kind of left a sad taste in my mouth. Then getting fired the next year. After all the years in baseball, you never were afforded the opportunity to even make the postseason, let alone get to the World Series. That’s why this has been a great ride.”45
McKeon managed the Marlins for two more seasons. The team finished 83-79 both seasons. His 2005 team looked was a contender but lost 12 of their last 17 games to finish in third place in the division.
At the end of the season McKeon announced that he would retire. “The last couple of years, I haven’t had as much fun as I’d like,” he said. “Since I’m the leader, I’ll take full responsibility for the poor year we had.”46 McKeon stayed with the team as an adviser although he said that he was open to other offers. “Sometimes you need to step back and maybe take a breather for six or seven months and get recharged. I haven’t given up the thought of managing again.”47
McKeon held the adviser’s post for five years. The Marlins struggled early in the 2011 season and Edwin Rodriguezresigned as manager on June 20, after the team had lost 10 straight games and 18 of 19. McKeon was brought back as interim manager. He said, “I love doing [the managing, and I decided to come back here and give it my best shot to get this team back to respectability. That’s what I aim to do.” 48
When he was hired, McKeon became the second oldest manager in major-league history, after Connie Mack, who was 87 when he managed his last game. (Mack also owned the team he managed, the Philadelphia Athletics.) McKeon was hired to finish out the season while the club searched for someone to take over when the team moved to a new ballpark in 2012. At his introductory news conference, McKeon said “I’ve managed since I was 14 years old. I’ll probably manage until I’m 95.”49
Under McKeon, the Marlins were 40-50. They did not make the playoffs as many had expected at the beginning of the season but they played better under his leadership. When Dusty Baker, the Reds manager, heard about McKeon’s hiring, he said: “They’re looking for the same magic from Jack they had before.”50
When he came on board, McKeon shook things up with the young Marlin players. He had been in baseball for more than 40 years and was not interested in “relating” to the players. “Someone’s got to come in and show them some discipline,” he said. “These guys are rushed to the big leagues. They’re babied all their lives. They don’t know how to play the game, because of the inexperience. It’s just like having kids or grandkids. There’s a certain amount of discipline that’s necessary.”51
For 2012 the Marlins had a new manager, Ozzie Guillen. McKeon stepped aside and returned to his retired life in North Carolina. “My family, I think I owe it to them to be with them a little bit,” he said. “They were very gracious to let me come down this time.”52
When he retired, McKeon had won more than 1,000 games as both a minor-league and major-league manager. His record in the minor leagues was 1151-1152 and in the major leagues it was 1050-990. As of 2018 he was the only manager in Organized Baseball to accomplish this feat.
As of 2018 McKeon still lived in Elon, North Carolina, with his wife, Carol. Their three children, Kasey, Kelly, and Kristi, have all been involved in baseball. Kasey was a former minor-league player in the Detroit Tigers system. He later became a scout with several major-league teams and as of 2018 was the director of player development for the Washington Nationals. As a scout for the Padres, Kelly signed major leaguer Greg Booker, who married his sister, Kristi. Jack’s grandson Kellan scouts for the Phillies. Two other grandsons, Avery and Zach Booker, were assistant coaches for the Greensboro College baseball team.
Throughout his playing days, McKeon never lost his Roman Catholic faith. When he was playing or managing, he attended Mass daily. He credited his success to his faith in many ways. When he was fired by the Reds in 1999, he prayed to St. Therese of Lisieux. “She’s the prodigy of miracles, and I needed a miracle,” McKeon said. “I don’t know God’s plan but I don’t think my career has been fulfilled. And then came the Marlins.”53
McKeon said in an interview with the author that he would never stop loving the game. He still “like[s how it’s a kid’s game. Grown men play it, but when you really look at it, for what it is, it’s a bunch of fun.”54 He said he watched baseball as much as possible and “manages every game that I see.”55
If Trader Jack has his way, he may still make it back into baseball someday. He just trusts that God will show him his plan. McKeon said it best: “Instead of taking things so seriously, worrying and fearing failure, you simply do what you can, be generous with those around you, and let God take care of everything else.”56
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for box-score, player, team, and season pages, pitching and batting game logs, and other pertinent material.
This biography appears in San Diego Padres: The First Half Century (SABR, 2019), edited by Tom Larwin and Bill Nowlin. To order your free e-book or get 50% off the paperback edition, click here.