This article was written by Marty Payne
Keen first came to the attention of the baseball world as a senior and star pitcher of the Snow Hill High School team of the Worcester County league in Maryland. It was reported in the Salisbury Advertiser on May 25, 1918, that he had signed a contract with Hagerstown of the Blue Ridge league of Western Maryland and would report on May 30, 1918. The Blue Ridge League was an independent professional circuit at that juncture, which had arisen from the towns of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland to fill the void left by the Tri State League. Keen led the league in appearances and games started with four before the league folded due to the onset of World War I. He then appeared in five games for Petersburg of the Virginia League.
Connie Mack, always alert to the talent on the peninsula south of Philadelphia on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, (Home Run Baker and Jimmie Foxx) gave the young hurler his first taste of the major leagues that year. Mack didn’t go easy on the teenage star. On August 13, 1918 Keen made his debut starting against Walter Johnson and the Washington club. Vic made a respectable showing while going eight innings, giving up nine hits and three runs in an eventual 5-3 loss.
The minister’s son continued to make a name for himself over the next three years as a pitcher for the University of Maryland. Keen paced the college nine with twelve victories as a freshman in 1919, leading his team to what was billed as the “southern championship.” He beat the great Penn State team, and a club considered one of the best the Naval Academy ever put on the field. His only nemesis as a college pitcher was Georgetown University. Keen’s career mark against this foe was three wins and three losses. He would later recall that he always seemed to beat them on their home field, but lost whenever they played at the University of Maryland.
At five feet and nine inches tall and weighing one hundred and sixty-five pounds, the young twirler was not an imposing figure, even by the physical standards of the day. Vic was enough of an athlete to try out for and make the University of Maryland track team, but when his baseball coaches caught wind of this endeavor they quickly put and end to his track career. They wanted to make certain that their star pitcher was kept out of harm’s way. He rewarded them with a fourteen more wins during the 1920 season.
It was Keen’s performance in his junior year of pre-med studies at the university that major league scouts again took notice. After losing his first two spring outings in 1921, he reeled off sixteen consecutive victories. When the season ended, he eschewed organized baseball for a time, opting for the independence of the semi-pro circuits. Pitching for J.J. Dodson Carpet Manufacturing Company, the Penn Railroad, and the Bridesburg Athletic Club, Keen chalked up another eighteen straight wins for a total of thirty-four. The highly regarded Hilldale Negro Club, a team he had beaten twice the previous year working in the semi-pro ranks, finally halted the streak. Keen then went out and won six more games in a row for a total of forty wins out of forty-one games. These numbers don’t include an undetermined number of appearances he made for the semi-pro club from his old hometown of Snow Hill, Maryland. It was a time when relief pitching was rare, and probably more so at the college and semi-pro level. A conservative estimate would be that Keen had already logged more than 300 innings by the middle of August.
By this time fifteen of the sixteen major league clubs had offered Keen a contract. Only Pittsburgh failed to tender an offer. With such interest, why did Keen choose the mediocre Cubs? Perhaps his answer provides some insight into the young pitcher’s personality, “I wanted to get with a bunch that was congenial,” he explained, “and I thought everything of Manager Killefer.” Keen appeared in five games for the Cubs for the balance of the season, including a twelve-inning effort against Cincinnati, but he failed to notch a win. He would later point out that he thought his arm was a little tired by the time he had reached Chicago. It was said at the time that Keen hailed from Bridesburg, Pennsylvania, the latest stop in the Reverend Keen’s travels, and that during the off-season that he would return to the University of Maryland to pursue his medical degree.
Keen appeared in one game for Toronto of the International League during the 1922 season, but was with the big club early in the year. He pitched in only a handful of games before being farmed out to Wichita Falls of the Texas League where he appeared in twenty-four games. Vic would return to the Cubs full time for the 1923 season. With Grover Cleveland Alexander anchoring a young and promising pitching staff, the youthful Cubs were often referred to as “Killefer’s Kids.” Keen was used in relief and as a spot starter while posting a credible record. He notched twelve wins in thirty-five games as he posted an even 3.00 ERA. It was near the end of the season that the Chicago Tribune beat writer, Irving Vaughn, first referred to the minister’s son by his new nickname of “Parson.” The season over, on November 7, 1923, Vic married Pauline Lewis of Washington, D.C., who would be his wife for over fifty years.
The Cubs posted their best record during Keen’s stay in Chicago in 1924 as the team posted an 81-72 record under Killefer. Keen contributed to their success seeing the most action and putting up his best numbers of his career. Again working as both reliever and starter, Keen finished the season with fifteen wins. The Parson started 28 of the 40 games he appeared in, and logged 234.2 innings.
The 1925 season saw Keen’s effectiveness and appearances dwindle, as his ERA swelled to over six runs a game in. The Cubs were in their slide into last place, and the “congenial bunch” began to break up. Killefer was fired as manager during the season and replaced by shortstop Rabbit Maranville. He would later be replaced as well. The bright spot in the dismal season was when his wife, Pauline, who had returned home to her parents Gomer and Ida Lewis in Washington, D.C., gave birth to Howard Victor Keen Jr. on May 11.
In December Keen was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jimmy Cooney on the same day that Grover Alexander was traded from the Cubs to the Cardinals for Mike Prendergast, Pickles Dillhoefer, and $55,000, in a separate deal. It would be the Parson’s good fortune to follow Alexander.
The Cardinals were a far cry from the meandering, congenial Cubs that Keen had played for. Their hard driving star player, Roger Hornsby, managed them. One of the Parson’s new teammates was Jake Flowers. Flowers was from Cambridge, Maryland, near where Keen had played his high school ball. They had been contemporaries in high school and on the town semi-pro clubs of the area. Where Keen had taken to the congenial Cubs, Flowers had played for Washington College and then signed with Branch Rickey. Fighting through a severe arm injury suffered while playing in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Flowers finally climbed his way through Rickey’s fledgling farm system and made the Cardinals as a utility player. Within eight years of graduating from high school, a minister’s son, and a waterman’s son from the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland would participate in the World Series together.
Hornsby used Keen differently than had the Cubs. The Parson started 21 of the 26 games he appeared in while winning ten. Alexander, who was his teammate throughout his career, again anchored the pitching staff. The difference with this team was that it had an offense, led by Hornsby, Jim Bottomley, and Billy Southworth. The Cardinals took the National League pennant in 1926 and faced off against the New York Yankees in the World Series. Keen’s only appearance was to mop up a scoreless ninth inning in a 10-5 loss in game four of the series. Babe Ruth had already done the damage for New York with his three home runs. Hornsby would go on to lead the Cardinals to win the series in seven games.
Keen’s role on the Cardinals changed the following season. Hornsby now used him exclusively in relief, pitching him in a mere 21 games as St. Louis slipped in the standings. It would prove to be the last year of major league baseball for the Parson, his last appearance coming on September 13, 1927. Keen finished with a career record of 42 wins against 44 losses and an ERA of 4.11 to go along with his World Series appearance. In 1928 Keen played in 34 games and worked over 200 innings for the Cardinal’s top farm club in Rochester of the International League. He then signed on with the independent Baltimore Orioles. Keen made 33 relief appearances for the International League club in 1929. By the age of thirty, it seemed that Keen was out of organized baseball.
Keen did not follow the path of slow decline through the minor leagues that many of his contemporaries chose. While he did graduate from the University of Maryland, it appears that he never pursued his medical degree as postulated in early clippings. In 1930 he was living in Baltimore with his wife Pauline, and their young son, listed as Howard D. Keen. Four years removed from the World Series, Keen was working for the Electric Company as an inspector. But baseball would remain an important part of his life. Keen pitched a no-hitter for Cloverdale Farms against Glen Burnie in the Maryland Semi-pro League in 1934, and would appear in one more game for the Baltimore Orioles that same year.
Keen then moved back to the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he had enjoyed his teenage success and first caught the notice of major league baseball scouts. There he entered the fast growing poultry business that would soon become the staple of the region’s economy. But baseball would call him again. The Eastern Shore League was considered one of the best Class D leagues in organized baseball. Keen signed to manage and play for the Pocomoke Red Sox in 1937, as he pitched 109 innings as well. This was the year that his former Cardinal teammate, Jake Flowers won The Sporting News Manager of the Year Award for his pennant-winning season with the rival Salisbury club. In 1939 he and Flowers switched spots as Keen was hired to manage the Salisbury Senators of Eastern Shore League and Flowers took the same position with Pocomoke.
The parson’s son would remain active in his local and extended communities throughout the years. He was a thirty-year member of the Pocomoke Elks Lodge, as well as the Keen Memorial Methodist Church in Baltimore. He also belonged to the University of Maryland Terrapin Club and the Sigma Phi Kappa fraternity. He was a long time member of the Salisbury Lions Club, and the Chincoteague, Virginia, Kiwanis Club.
Pauline, Keen’s wife of over fifty years, died on March 15, 1975. Sometime after her death he married Thelia Lewis. Thelia is not listed as a sibling of Pauline on any genealogical documents found, but may have been a close relation.
Keen was suffering from a heart condition when he attended the fiftieth anniversary reunion of the Cardinals’ World Series victory in the summer of 1976. He later had heart surgery, and returned to his Pocomoke City home to recuperate, where he suffered a relapse. Keen passed away at the Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, Maryland, on December 9, 1976. His obituary listed his second wife Thelia Lewis, a stepchild, son Howard V. Keen Jr., all of his siblings, three grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. The memorial service was held at the Salisbury, Maryland, Elks Lodge, and he was buried at the First Baptist Cemetery in Pocomoke City, Maryland.
Salisbury Daily Times
Cambridge Daily Banner
Vic Keen’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY.
Ed Washuta’s minor league research