How old is Jack McKeon? Let’s look

Florida had an interesting managerial switch Sunday. First, manager Edwin Rodriguez resigned. Yeah, that’ll happen when your team drops 17 out 18 games (the worst stretch by any major league team since the 2005 Royals).

Much more surprising was Florida’s apparent choice for a new manager. Baseball writer Buster Olney tweeted that the Marlins would name veteran Jack McKeon as their interim manager.

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McKeon: To be the oldest manager in over 60 years.

On the one hand this makes sense. After all, last time the Marlins tabbed McKeon as their new manger in the middle of a season the team won the World Series. And, as I mentioned in my award-winning book Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, 1876-2008, McKeon has generally done a very good job turning teams around when asked to take over in the middle of a season.

But this is different. He’s 80 years old. Now, not all 80-year-olds are created equal, but in major league history only one man has managed at that age: Connie Mack, and he was a manager in name only, letting his coaches take care of things.

Not only would Jack McKeon be the oldest non-Mack manager in history, but that was almost the case even before now. When McKeon last ran the Marlins in 2005, he was a few months shy of his 75th birthday. Aside from Connie Mack, only one person ever managed a team at that age: Casey Stengel, who ran the Mets until a week or so before his 75th birthday.

So McKeon is by far the oldest non-Mack manager.

How old is Jack McKeon? Remember Lou Piniella—the guy who retired last year after one of the longest managerial careers in major league history, who before then had played until his mid-40s after a long career as a platoon player? Well, McKeon was the guy who made Piniella a platoon player early in Sweet Lou’s playing career.

Over at Baseball Think Factory, baseball author Mark Armour pointed out that McKeon once managed Jim Kaat. In the minor leagues. Over a half-century ago.

McKeon was Rickey Henderson’s first manager. Henderson, you might recall, is a member of the 3,000 hit club who played in four decades – and left MLB eight years ago.

McKeon was George Brett’s first manager. Brett retired 18 years ago after a 21-year career. Bill James once criticized McKeon for not giving a Brett a chance earlier than he did to play in the majors. Somehow McKeon has managed more games since Brett’s retirement than during his career.

McKeon managed Harmon Killebrew, who died earlier this year. McKeon managed Lindy McDaniel and Vada Pinson. McKeon was the last manager Orlando Cepeda ever had.

It’s been 38 years since McKeon first managed a major league game. Once he fills out his first lineup card of 2011, McKeon will have managed under eight presidential administrations. You want a complete list of others who still worked as a manager 38 years after their debut? OK, here it is: Connie Mack.

Not an incredibly lengthy list, is it? (And even in that rookie year, McKeon was only the fifth youngest of the 12 AL skippers. Plus a few more were born just a handful of months before him).

Thirty-eight years—that’s like Sparky Anderson lasting until 2008. Mike Scioscia would have to last until 2038. Anyone want to take odds on that happening?

McKeon managed against Paul Richards, who taught Hal Newhouser how to pitch effectively for the Detroit Tigers… before World War II. McKeon’s managerial career overlaps with Leo Durocher’s. Durocher began managing in the Great Depression.

Remember Sparky Anderson? He died last year of old age. That wasn’t too surprising: he always looked old. He looked old when he retired in 1995. He looked old when he won his last pennant in 1984. He even looked old when he began managing the Reds in 1970. As old as he looked and as old as he was, he was still four years younger than Jack McKeon.

Speaking of the 1970s Reds: Anderson led them to the World Series, where they lost to the Baltimore Orioles managed by Earl Weaver. Weaver hasn’t managed in 25 years—and McKeon is only three months younger than Weaver.

Aside from McKeon, the oldest current major league manager is Tony LaRussa. Well, LaRussa was still a major league player when McKeon managed his first game. Barely: The last game of LaRussa’a playing career was Opening Day 1973, when McKeon began his managing career.

Knute Rockne was Notre Dame’s football coach when McKeon was born. Josef Stalin was still just consolidating power in the USSR. Speaking of totalitarian dictators, John McGraw was still managing the Giants. Al Capone was evading taxes in Chicago. Thomas Edison still ran his lab.

McKeon is older than James Dean or Elizabeth Taylor. He’s older than Mikhail Gorbachev or Ted Kenned. He’s older than Sam Cooke. He’s older than Chuck Noll or Bill Walsh. He’s older than Bud Selig and only 20 weeks younger than George Steinbrenner.

He’s older than the President of the United States. He is older than the father of the President of the United States.

Maybe the Marlins should call Whitey Herzog. He might listen—and he’s younger than McKeon.

Babe Ruth had 565 home runs, and Lou Gehrig had played only 887 games in a row when McKeon was born. Charles Comiskey still owned the White Sox. There was no Baseball Hall of Fame. Or All-Star Game. Roger Connor, the 19th century home run king, was still alive when McKeon was born. The Tigers had never won a World Series title. The Cubs have won four pennants in McKeon’s lifetime.

McKeon is older than legalized gambling in Nevada. “The Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t the official national anthem when McKeon was born. The Empire State Building was still under construction.

Do you know who Walter Brennan was? He was an old Hollywood actor who played lovable old coots for decades, mostly famously opposite John Wayne. He was eternally elderly. But he died five months before reaching the age Jack McKeon is now.

This would be like LaRussa managing in 2024. Or Stalin Castro in 2070. Or Tom Kelly coming out of retirement to mange in 2031.

Look, in recent times managers on the whole are older than ever. Aside from the trio of LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Bobby Cox, there’s Piniella, Jim Leyland, and even Felipe Alou—not to mention McKeon himself. People live longer nowadays and overall health is better.

That said, unless McKeon is intended only as a short-term stopgap manager, the Marlins are reaching a bit beyond what is feasible by bringing in McKeon. Even though managers are older now, he’s still several years older than any manager in memory, and that’s a cause for concern.

Though there’s no obvious physical labor involved in managing, there is a lot of pressure and the grind of the season can take its toll. The level of focus and mental engagement can be wearying, and that’s why people in their 80s—or even 70s for that matter—aren’t usually called on to manage.

Quick example: Here’s what happened to Bobby Cox on Aug. 6, 2010. He woke up bright and early to talk at a panel discussion at the SABR national convention that morning. He went immediately from there to a luncheon for Tom Glavine, whose number was going to be retired that night. From the luncheon to the park.

He prepped for the game, endured a lengthy rain delay, saw Glavine get his number retired—and could finally manage the game, which went into extra innings. By the time it finished, only one game on the West Coast was still going on. Then he had to wash up, do the post-game interviews, wind down and go home. He probably didn’t get home until two o’clock in the morning—a 14-16 hour day. And all this came right after a night game on Aug. 5. And a few days later he had to fly to Texas. There’s no rest for the weary, which is tough for a 69-year-old like Cox, which is why he retired.

Sure McKeon could stand it just a half-dozen years ago, but there’s a bigger difference between ages 74 and 80 than there is between ages 34 and 40.

(Note: aside from the factoid picked up from Mark Armour, a few other nuggets came from Baseball Think Factory—namely that he was the first manager for George Brett and Rickey Henderson. There might be one or two others I picked up there but I’m pretty sure that’s it. I knew about the Lou Piniella connection already, for instance).

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Comments

  1. Richard Barbieri said...

    Dammit, Jaffe, I was going to do this column this week. You’re killing me!

    I guess I’ll do a straight McKeon bio instead. But at the end of the year, remember this when I’ve passed you on the column list.

  2. Chris J. said...

    That Richard Barbieri person might catch me this year – especially seeing as how Independence Day lands on a Monday this year. 

    But I might end the year #2 in THT Live posts – with a number of Live posts that are essentially columns in and of themselves, like this one.

    One thing I forgot to put in here: this will be McKeon’s 5th decade of managing.  The only others to do that: Mack, McGraw, Durocher, Torre, Cox, LaRussa.

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