November 3 – Happy Birthday Johnny Keane
I was a sophomore in high school when I realized that David Halberstam was a brilliant historian. I had just finished his epic book, The Best and the Brightest about how the US got entangled in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until about two decades later that I realized Halberstam knew his baseball too. His book, October 1964, is a detailed and entertaining dissection of that season’s World Series between the Cardinals and the Yankees. In it, Halberstam describes how on the plane ride home from the seventh game of the Series, losing manager, Yogi Berra asked his all star second baseman, Bobby Richardson if he should be bold enough to ask the Yankees for a two-year contract. That’s how certain Berra was that he was going too be re-hired. But when he walked out of Yankee GM Ralph Houk’s office just a few days later, he was the stunned ex-manager of the only team he had ever worked for.
Houk had made the decision to fire Berra much earlier during the 1964 regular season, when certain Yankee players had approached him to complain that Yogi had lost control of the team. A few weeks later, he found out that Gussie Busch intended to fire Johnny Keane. Houk felt the Yankees needed a disciplinarian to replace the easy-going Berra and in his mind, Keane fit that description perfectly. So just minutes before Busch began a post Series press conference to announce he had decided to rehire his team’s skipper, Keane handed the Cardinal owner his resignation letter. He had accepted Houk’s offer to replace Berra as manager of the Yankees. Even though I was just ten years old at the time, I distinctly remember feeling sorry for Berra and angry with Houk for what I felt was a low class double-cross of a Yankee legend.
Keane proved to be a horrible fit with the Yankees from the start. His brand of discipline was geared toward young players and the veteran-filled Yankee roster had few of those. Players like Mantle, Maris, Clete Boyer, Joe Pepitone and Whitey Ford basically ignored the new rules introduced by their new field boss and that disrespect quickly permeated through to just about the entire team. When the Yankees reached the 1965 All Star break with a 41-46 record, Yankee fans like me were in shock. It was beyond the realm of possibility that our favorite team was not going to compete for the AL Pennant and we fully expected a turnaround in the second half.
The team did better, going 46-39 in the second half, but that was only good enough for an unforgivable fifth place finish. Keane should have been fired at the end of that ’65 regular season and probably would have been if the team hadn’t been owned by CBS at the time. The gigantic entertainment network paid little attention to the Yankees day-to-day operations, enabling Houk to delay the inevitable and let Keane stay on to open the 1966 season. Houk was hoping that Keane had just needed time to get the Yankee roster to buy into his management style. But when the Yankees opened the 1966 season by losing 16 of their first 20 games, Houk knew Keane was in over his head and mercifully fired his beleaguered skipper. In less than a year, the dismissed manager was dead, a victim of a heart attack at the age of 55.
A native of St. Louis, Keane had spent fifteen years playing in the Cardinal farm system as a a middle infielder, without ever appearing in a big league game. He then spent another 13 years coaching and managing in the St. Louis farm system. The Cardinals made him their big league skipper in July of 1961, when he replaced the fired Solly Hemus. His three-and-a-half season managerial record with the Cards was a very respectable 317-249. He should have never left St Louis.