Born November 3, 1911 in St. Louis, Johnny Keane accepted his first minor league managerial job just prior to the start of World War I. – No, wait! – It wasn’t really that early. It just seems that way. His 17-year minor league playing career (1930-41, 1946-48) as a pretty good hitting middle infielder, however, quickly revealed an even greater talent for leadership. At age 26, Keane was awarded his first managerial assignment from the parent Cardinals as Manager of the Class D Albany, Georgia Travelers. Johnny promptly rewarded the Rickey organization’s judgment of him by reeling off two consecutive first place league pennant winners in Albany in both 1938 and 1939.
Over the course of his 17 seasons as a manager in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system (1938-41, 1946-58), Keane won 4 league championships and lost 8 other playoff appearances. He had a losing record in only 5 seasons. His winning touch in the minors (1,357 wins, 1,166 losses) finally won him a place on the coaching staff of the Major league Cardinals in 1959, where he remained until he replaced Solly Hemus as manager on July 6, 1961. It is a note of irony that Solly Hemus had first played for Johnny Keane when the latter led the 1947 Houston Buffs to the Texas League title and Dixies Series championship.
In Johnny Keane’s fourth year at the Cardinal helm, he came under fire as the Cardinals seemed to be fading in the stretch of the 1964 National League pennant race. It soon became the worst kept secret in town that the club planned to bury Keane’s St. Louis managerial career at year’s end.
A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.
With some considerable help from Phillies manager Gene Mauch and his misuse of pitchers, the NL’s 1st place Philadelphia club pulled the arguably biggest el foldo job in history over the last two weeks as the Cardinals got hot neough to catch them at the wire for the National League pennant. Now the talk of firing Keane went dark as he then led the club to an exciting seven-game World Series victory in 1964 over the fabled frequent Big Show flying New York Yankees.
Now, before Cardinals owner August Busch could disengage his foot from the brake pedal on a policy reversal and offer Keane a new contract extention with the Cardinals, the New York Yankees and Johnny Keane had a notice of their own, one that called for a quick media conference. The Yankees announced that they were firing Yogi Berra and hiring Johnny Keane as their new manager for 1965.
I suppose Keane found some revenge for the Cardinals’ lack of faith in him through this move, but further validation of his abilities as a mentor would be unavailable in New York. The talent bank at New York was pretty much bankrupt by 1965 as the once great Mickey Mantle played out in emptiness the four bad last seasons of his career. They were the years that never should have been. All Mantle did from 1965 to 1968 was roughly drop his career batting average below .300 lifetime while adding a few meaningless home runs to his already assured Hall of Fame career, but Keane would not be around long enough to see even half of that period of demise.
After leading the Yankees to a 77-85 record and 6th place finish in 1965, Keane and the Yankees got off to a horrendous 4-16 start in 1966, prompting yet another exercise in the Yankees’ quick trigger finger response policy. On May 7, 1966, the Yankess fired Johnny Keane, replacing him with former Yankee manager Ralph Houk.
Johnny Keane’s managerial record had come to an end at sge 54. He went back to his home in Houston and private business, but that didn’t last long. On January 6, 1967, Johnny Keane suddenly passed away from a heart condition at age 55. Whoa again! Less than three years after winning the National League Manager of the Year Award, Johnny Keane was gone.
Johnny Keane was loved by the old time baseball community members in Houston who remembered him as either a fellow player or manager. I use the past tense here because most of those who remember Johnny Keane are also now gone. He was a long-time winner with a quick and fast memory for what appeared to him as acts of short term, underhanded disloyalty.
As a manager, Johnny Keane did the five things that I think any winning manager must do: (1) he was a good judge of talent; (2) he managed his pitchers well; (3) he treated his players with respect; (4) he publicly covered for his players; and (5) he took responsiiblity for the outcome of his own decisions. He apparently did not, however, adjust to the change in cultures he experienced when he moved from the Cardinals to the Yankees. As a disciplinarian, his style worked with Cardinal youngesters and veterans there who knew him well. When he moved to New York, however, the proud Yankees did not like the little man who apparently came there to tell the proud Yankees what to do. The Yankees read his authoritative style as disrepect for their proud heritage and ability. Going from the laid-back style of Yankee legend Yogi Berra to the more militant mode of outsider Keane didn’t help matters either. Besides, many of the Yankees felt that Yogi had gotten a raw deal in the post-1964 World Series firing and weren’t about to be open to taking on the man who had defeated them as the Cardinal mentor. As a result, Johnny Keane either never had or quickly lost control of the Yankees in 1965. There was no way that the situation could hold up for a second full year after the club’s horrible 1966 start.
Johnny Keane’s signature was one of the few autographs I ever collected directly as a kid. It was about 1950 and Keane was actually playing in one of those post-season “All Star Games” that President Allen Russell liked to stage at Buff Stadium. Keane and some of his random teammates were having a beer in the clubhouse at game’s end when they opened the door for us kids to greet the players coming out. All I had was a scoring pencil so I grabed a loose paper cup and tore it open flat for Johhny to sign, which he did. – Wish today I had saved it. I used to think back in 1947 that Johnny Keane was the smartest man in the world and, who knows, maybe he was.
Johnny Keane had an ancient Buffs connection. He played a few games for the 1934 Buffs, then returned for three full seasons as a player from 1935-37, batting .265, .272, and and .267. He even had a few times at bat during his three (1946-48) managerial years with the Buffs. Somewhere along the way, Johnny Keane fell in love with Houston and made it his adopted home town – and I’m glad he did. I just wish he could’ve hung around longer, but it was not to be.