This annotated week in baseball history: June 19-25, 2011

On June 20, 2011, Jack McKeon managed his first game as the 80-year-old manager of the Florida Marlins. Richard looks at how he arrived at this point.

With Jack McKeon’s hire as interim manager of the Florida Marlins this past weekend—at age 80, McKeon is the oldest man ever hired to run a major league team, topping his own record—there were a number of articles on the theme of just how old McKeon is.

Some of these were less serious: “How old is Jack McKeon?” “His birth certificate is in Roman numerals.” “He adopted his first pet from Noah’s Ark.” And so on. Others, like this one by our own Chris Jaffe, did an excellent job giving perspective to an 80-year old man managing a team at baseball’s highest level.

(The one thing none of the columns I’ve read about McKeon’s age mentions is that McKeon is actually older—not much, but still—than Don Zimmer, who seemed to be the previous benchmark for baseball ancientness. Older than Don Zimmer!)

But what many of these articles overlooked (largely by design, to be fair) was McKeon’s history. So this week’s column will look back on McKeon’s life and career, with more an eye on the man himself than how long he’s been in baseball.

McKeon was born in New Jersey in 1930, and made his debut in pro baseball as a catcher for the Greenville Pirates of the Alabama State League in 1949. He hit a respectable .251 but suffered from a lack of power, even by catcher standards, collecting just 14 extra-base hits in 116 games. Unfortunately for McKeon—and even worse for his chances at being a major league player—the .251 represented his high-water mark for average for many years.

McKeon bounced around in “B” and “C” level minor league baseball for most of the ’50s, plying his trade in places like Hutchinson, Kansas (home of the Elks) and the Burlington-Graham Pirates, who represented the neighboring towns which made up its name.

Within a few years of his career’s beginning, McKeon evidently realized that his future in the game might depend more on his mind than his body, as by 1956 he had shifted to a full-time player/manager role for the Missoula Timberjacks. He managed the squad through 1958, culminating in a 70-59 record that year. Perhaps coincidentally, that was probably McKeon’s finest year as a player; he hit .263 and slugged eight home runs, a career high.

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Back at the office: Jack McKeon (Icon/SMI)

The next year, McKeon the manager moved up to the Class B Fox Cities Foxes—no points for naming originality there—of the Indiana-Illinois-Iowa League. McKeon the player was largely left behind, however, as he played in just 11 games in his final season.

McKeon continued managing in the minors until finally earning his “call-up” in 1973. Taking over a Kansas City Royals team that was just four years removed from expansion—and playing its first season in Kaufmann Stadium—McKeon led them to 88 wins.

He would never quite match that success again but remained the Royals’ manager through the mid-point of the 1975 season, when he was replaced by Whitey Herzog. It would, of course, be Herzog who got to manage the Royals through their late-’70s heyday.

McKeon started the 1977 season managing the A’s in Oakland, but was removed after fewer than 60 games by Charlie Finley despite being just a game under .500, and was replaced by Bobby Winkles.

Supposedly, Stanley Burrell—known to the world as MC Hammer—had a hand in McKeon’s firing. First hired by Charlie Finely as the A’s “Vice-President,” despite being just 12-years old, the future “Can’t Touch This” singer served as Finley’s inside man in the clubhouse.

According to at least one version of the story, Hammer criticized a pitching change of McKeon’s, and after the move did not work out, it was “Hammer Time” for McKeon, as he was replaced.

Under Winkles, the A’s promptly fell apart, going 37-71. Despite rebounding to a 24-16 start in ‘78, Finley replaced Winkles with McKeon, who managed the rest of the season before being replaced for the 1979 campaign by Jim Marshall, who went 54-108 .

In 1980, McKeon took on a role as head of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres. To that point, the Padres were a desperately bad franchise, having posted just one winning season. In fact, they were practically the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the era. Having entered the league in 1969, the Padres had lost 90 or more games an astonishing nine times and 100 or more four times.

Under McKeon, the team’s fortunes changed dramatically. Most notably, it was under “Trader Jack” that the Padres drafted Tony Gwynn, their iconic player. Others drafted during McKeon’s tenure include Joey Cora, Kevin McReynolds, Andy Benes and Mitch Williams.

By 1984, McKeon had assembled a team good enough to win the National League pennant, adding pieces like Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage to the team’s core. Unfortunately for McKeon and the Friars, they ran into the dominant 1984 Tigers—winners of 104 games, including 35 of their first 40—and won only one games in the World Series.

The Padres declined late in McKeon’s tenure—though they still posted six seasons of .500 or better, and their 92 wins in ’84 remains the club’s second-most ever—and he took over managing in 1989. After a relatively successful year, when the team finished second by just three games, McKeon was fired and replaced by Greg Riddoch after starting the 1990 season 37-43.

McKeon would not manage again until 1997, when he took over the Cincinnati Reds. After two years of mixed success, he had maybe his finest year in 1999.

Leading the Reds to a 96-win season, McKeon expertly used a two-headed closer of Danny Graves and Scott Williamson (who combined for 46 saves) with Scott Sullivan to help guide the Reds to a one-game playoff for the NL wild card. Despite pushing all the buttons on his machine—including using start Denny Neagle in relief and bringing in “closer” Graves in the sixth inning—the Reds fell to Al Leiter and the Mets.

McKeon was fired after winning 85 games in 2000 (evidently a bad move, as the Reds needed nine seasons and six managers to better that figure) and seemed to be at the end of his career until he was hired by the Marlins midway through the 2003 season.

Of course, it was in Florida that McKeon found his greatest success—including a hard-earned World Series title—and it is in Florida where he hopes to find more glory at his advanced age. So, yes, Jack McKeon is old, but he has an impressive resumé behind him. The Marlins may not make a run like in ’03, but I would not bet against a McKeon-driven improvement.

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Comments

  1. Greg Simons said...

    I was at that ‘99 one-game playoff where Leiter dominated.  Being neither a Reds nor a Mets fan, I was just excited to witness a Game 163.

    My memory said Leiter gave up a hit in the first and one in the eighth, but Retrosheet says it was the second and ninth.  I was happy to be close to correct.

  2. Chris J. said...

    Nice job, That Richard Barbieri Person.

    Between managing stints in Oakland, McKeon worked as a front office adviser in Oakland, so Finley kept him around.  Also, MC Hammer was 15 when McKeon first lost his dugout job in Oakland.

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