At age 18 Larry McKeon lost 41 games in 1884, just seven short of John Coleman’s all-time major league rookie record for losses set in 1883. Two years later, still just 20 years old, McKeon threw his last big league pitch, and long before he turned 25 his pro career was over.
McKeon was born in New York City on March 25, 1866. Otherwise, his childhood and lineage thus far are a blank, as is the way he threw and batted, although it is unlikely it would have gone unmentioned during his entire three-year stay in the majors had he been a southpaw. In the January 7, 1906, Chicago Tribune sportswriter Hugh Fullerton claimed that “Hustling” Dan O’Leary discovered the 5’10” and 168 pound McKeon and catcher Jim Keenan playing for a team in upstate New York and brought them to Indianapolis to play for his independent club. McKeon was a second baseman at the time, but O’Leary, after observing him playing catch with Keenan, told him he was now a pitcher.
Many of Fullerton’s stories were only partly accurate at best, especially those that emanated from the self-aggrandizing O’Leary. While it is true that McKeon did play for O’Leary’s club in 1883, the facts are that he made his pro debut in 1883 with New Haven but as a pitcher, and when the independent club disbanded in May the 17-year-old hurler only then went to unaffiliated Indianapolis along with his veteran batterymate Keenan. Reputedly “exceedingly swift,” he first gained national attention on July 12 when he lost 1-0 to Hugh Daily of the Cleveland National League club in an exhibition game.
The following year McKeon accompanied Keenan and many of his other Indianapolis teammates (but not O’Leary who had had a falling out with the club’s officers) to the American Association when it expanded to 12 teams. After receiving the novice major league club’s Opening Day starting assignment and losing by a close 4-2 count to Tip O’Neill at St. Louis in his big league debut, McKean threw a no-hitter in his second appearance five days later at Cincinnati that ended in a scoreless tie when it was abbreviated by rain to only six innings. He otherwise got off the mark poorly by losing his first eight decisions and causing the Hoosiers’ management immeasurable headaches with his drinking and unruliness, but as the season progressed his work improved and by October he was regarded as one of the better young pitchers in the loop. Starting well over half his team’s games in 1884, McKeon collected 18 of the Hoosiers’ 29 wins, but due to the poor quality of the team behind him his 41 losses also led pitchers in all three major leagues.
When the rebel Union Association ceased operations after the 1884 season and the AA trimmed to eight teams, McKeon‘s Indianapolis club was among the casualties and descended to the minor Western League in 1885. In June 1885, the Detroit National League entry bought out the Indianapolis franchise for $4,000 in cash but a total of $5,000, the additional $1,000 being stock in the Detroit club, with the proviso that $2,000 would be paid immediately and the rest would come only if all the key Indianapolis players signed with Detroit as agreed. But when the two most coveted members of the Hoosiers, McKeon and Keenan, made a deal on their own and jumped to Cincinnati in the AA instead, Detroit reduced its buy-out price to $2,000 and the transaction became the subject of a lawsuit.
Despite not joining the Reds until June 26, McKeon led the team in wins with 20 after previously posting an 11-2 ledger with Indianapolis. The following spring when he reported to Cincinnati he sported a new “brick colored, tan barked mustache.” By May, his Reds teammates were urging him to shave it off, claiming it was a “Jonah,” but it was too late. Earlier that month a fire had destroyed McKeon’s family home and all its contents, and meanwhile an arm injury he had incurred during one of manager Opie Caylor’s vigorous sessions of gymnastics and calisthenics in spring training worsened, reducing him to throwing only “slow balls.” The June 14, 1886, issue of The Sporting News noted that McKeon was already “considered the most tiresome pitcher in the profession” because he took so long between pitches, wiping his pitching hand endlessly on the bottom of his trousers and all the while staring a batter in the eye, striving to make him nervous and impatient. His ailing arm only increased his penchant for stalling. Yet he was still capable of an occasional good effort. At one point in 1886, McKeon won three games in a row before his arm betrayed him again in early August and Cincinnati released him. He returned to his home in Indianapolis and soon arranged for it to be announced in the local press that he had been released only because the Cincinnati club was losing money and needed to save the cost of his salary. Obviously eager to dispel the impression that his arm was gone, McKeon had hopes of signing with Detroit, now a National League pennant contender with spectacular hitting but holes in its pitching staff. Rather than joining a team in the pennant hunt, however, the best deal he could cut was to coax Dave Rowe, manager of the NL’s weak Kansas City entry, into giving him a trial. He was dropped after three starts resulted in two bad losses and a 4-4 tie. McKeon’s major league coda came in the morning end of a doubleheader at Kansas City on September 15 when the game was halted after seven innings with his Cowboys trailing Detroit 14-2 so that both teams could enjoy a leisurely noon meal between games.
In the spring of 1887, McKeon was given a brief look by Indianapolis’s new entrant in the National League but was not signed when he pitched indifferently in his one exhibition appearance and faded badly in the late innings. Although he was probably invited to try out only because the new club was having a difficult time signing some of the players awarded to it, McKeon and many of his local admirers were indignant when he was released, claiming that he had been jettisoned by club directors who had been investors in the old Indianapolis club and still held a grudge against him for the loss of money in the Detroit deal.
McKeon eventually hooked on with a new Kansas City entrant in the Western League and was bombed 20-3 by St. Joseph in his first start on April 28, 1887. Rather than quit when the humiliating defeat proved conclusively that his arm was all but gone, McKeon moved to first base and ended the season hitting .333 in 106 games. The mark was deceptively high, however, because walks were counted as hits in 1887. That winter McKeon worked in the city assessor’s office in Indianapolis while he tried unsuccessfully to convince Harry Spence, the new manager of the local NL franchise, to make him the team’s first baseman. After also failing in a bid to connect with the pitching-thin Cleveland AA entry when he pitched poorly and had to be relieved by Bob Gilks early in the Blues’ 5-1 exhibition-game loss to Binghamton’s Frank Chapman on June 8, McKeon joined the Lafayette, Indiana, club in the independent Central Inter-State League as its first baseman and manager. When he was released in July 1888 just before the club folded, the Lafayette Journal remarked, “He may be a ball player, but he did not overturn the grand stand here.” By the end of July the entire league collapsed.
The remaining years of McKeon’s life were cloudy and downhill. Each new season until he was in his late 20s he managed to sweet talk himself into a tryout that never worked out. Early in his time in Indianapolis a local paper had described him as a clean-living young man who did not drink. If this was ever true, the Indianapolis team, a notoriously hard-living and riotous bunch, soon proved an unfortunate influence on the impressionable teenager. Late in the 1883 season he had gotten into a drunken fight with a bootblack and was fined by the club management. That August he missed a ball game to go on what the press described as a picnic out of town with a young lady and then the next day failed to show up at the train station when the team left for a road trip. Twenty-four hours later a club director saw him off on another train. According to Sporting Life: “But before he reached the outskirts he jumped off and about the time the directors were felicitating themselves on a happy deliverance he turned up in the Oriental Hotel saloon and continued to have a time with the boys.”
McKeon’s behavior improved after that, and while he was with Cincinnati he appears to have stayed on the straight and narrow. However, his problems became more serious again as his career declined and his life unraveled. In his remaining years McKeon gained attention from the press only for matters that were unsavory or simply sad. In 1888 he was arrested and accused of stealing $40 from a companion with whom he had been painting Indianapolis red, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. Six years later he appeared on the front page of several midwestern newspapers when a drinking cohort of his was the victim of a particularly brutal and gruesome murder in the Brighton Beach, an Indianapolis roadhouse, although McKeon was only involved as a witness. In February 1896, already long forgotten by most of the baseball public, he was discovered according to February 22 issue of The Sporting News tending bar at Andy Wetzel’s saloon on Vine Street in Cincinnati. McKeon was not yet 30 years old. Some 30 months later, in its September 17, 1897 edition, The Sporting News noted that he had been arrested in Indianapolis for robbing a traveling salesman named Loveless and his female companion. Told that the charges would be dropped provided he left town for good, McKeon instead remained in Indianapolis and in 1899, just 15 years after he had been the toast of the Hoosier metropolis, The Sporting News observed in its March 18 edition that he had been sentenced to the local workhouse as a “virtual vagrant” and lamented that his downward spiral had begun when he first hurt his arm first in vigorous spring training gymnastics and calisthenics that manager Gus Schmelz put the Cincinnati club through during spring practice in 1885. The first part of the story was unhappily true, but the rest was not. As we have already noted, McKeon began the 1885 season with Indianapolis of the Western League and his injury was not incurred until the following spring after Opie Caylor had taken over as manager of the Cincinnati club.
McKeon died in Indianapolis on June 18, 1915, at age 49 from tuberculosis and chronic alcoholism.
An earlier form of this biography written by the author with assistance from the late David Ball appeared in Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871-1900, Vol. 1. The sources used in its preparation were Sporting Life (1883-1915), The Sporting News (1886-1915), the Chicago Tribune (1906), the Lafayette Journal (1888) and the Indianapolis Journal (1883-1915). McKeon’s major and minor league statistics came from baseball-reference.com.