After being fired from his job as Yankees manager in 1966, Johnny Keane was looking forward to rebuilding his career in 1967. The Angels had hired him to be a special assignment scout. Keane hoped that role would position him to become a big-league manager again and provide him the chance to replicate the success he had when he led the 1964 Cardinals to a World Series title.
The spirit was willing, but the body was not.
Fifty years ago, on Jan. 6, 1967, Keane, 55, died of a heart attack at his home in Houston.
Code of honor
Keane, a St. Louis native who studied for the priesthood at St. Louis Prep Seminary, abided by a principled personal code of fair play, dignity and loyalty.
In August 1964, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch violated that code by firing Keane’s friends _ general manager Bing Devine, business manager Art Routzong and player personnel director Eddie Stanky _ and plotting to replace Keane with Leo Durocher. Unwilling to continue working for Busch, Keane resigned following the Cardinals’ World Series triumph over the Yankees. Soon after, Keane became Yankees manager, inheriting a club of aging, injury-prone players.
When the Yankees finished with a 77-85 record in 1965 and followed that by losing 16 of their first 20 games in 1966, Keane took the fall.
Some believed the emotional toll of Keane’s departures from the Cardinals and Yankees within a span of 19 months contributed to his death.
In a less romanticized view, St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg, knowing Keane’s toughness and resiliency, wrote, “There is a tendency among the poets in the press box to suggest (Keane) died of a broken heart. Possibly, but not probably.”
Keane devoted most of his professional career to the Cardinals, working for them in four decades. He joined their farm system as a shortstop in 1930. His development was curtailed in 1935 when he was struck in the head by a pitch from Sig Jakucki and suffered a fractured skull. Three years later, Keane became player-manager for the Cardinals’ farm club in Albany, Ga. He spent 21 seasons as a manager in the St. Louis farm system and had winning records in 17 of those years.
Keane was a candidate to become Cardinals manager in 1951, but the job went to Marty Marion. Twice after that, Keane rejected offers to become a Cardinals coach because, “I wanted to go up as a manager,” he told The Sporting News.
In 1959, Keane, on the advice of Devine, reconsidered his stance and made it to the major leagues for the first time as a coach on the staff of Cardinals manager Solly Hemus. Keane replaced Hemus in July 1961 and led the Cardinals to a 47-33 record. The Cardinals also produced winning records in Keane’s three full seasons as their manager: 84-78 in 1962, 93-69 in 1963 and 93-69 again in 1964.
With players such as Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Tony Kubek sidelined by injuries, the Yankees under Keane went from champions to also-rans. When the Yankees decided Keane no longer should be their manager, they offered to make a deal with him to prevent the move from being announced as a firing. Keane refused to go along with the scheme.
“Yes, that’s what happened,” Keane said to Chuck Fierson of the Oneonta (N.Y.) Star. “The Yanks told me that, if I said I was retiring because of my health, they would give me a job in the front office. But my health is OK and I don’t want a front office job. Besides that, I didn’t like the idea of making up excuses.”
Three months later, in July 1966, the Braves fired manager Bobby Bragan. Keane was their choice to replace him, according to columnist Dick Young in The Sporting News.
Keane, though, didn’t want to step in until the season was completed. “He preferred to start fresh,” Young said. Billy Hitchcock, a Braves coach, was named interim manager. When Hitchcock led the Braves to a 33-18 mark to finish the season, the interim tag was removed from his title and Keane was out of the picture.
By December 1966, Keane, eager to get back into baseball, was grateful to receive the offer to scout for the Angels.
To prepare for his role, Keane bought a new car on Jan. 6, 1967, so that he’d have a reliable vehicle to take him on scouting trips.
After dinner that evening, Keane told his wife he was feeling ill. At 10:30, Keane collapsed and died.
Dr. William Sutton, Keane’s physician, said Keane “had been under treatment for heart trouble and high blood pressure, but had not suffered a previous heart attack,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
Reacting to news of Keane’s death, Ken Boyer, third baseman for the 1964 Cardinals, said Keane was the type of person “you would be proud to have for a brother or father.”
Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford said Keane “was the first person to visit me in the hospital after my operation last season _ and that was after he had been dropped as manager.”
Michael Burke, Yankees president, noted that Keane “won everyone’s respect” and “his own self-respect and quiet sense of personal dignity was never compromised.”
Said Stan Musial, who played his final three seasons for Keane: “Johnny was one of the finest guys in baseball. We was a gentleman and a real credit to the game.”
The funeral for Keane was held in Houston three days after his death. Among the pallbearers were Devine, Routzong and two of Keane’s coaches from his Cardinals staff, Vern Benson and Howie Pollet.
Milton Richman of United Press International wrote that Keane “had more friends than he knew” and that Keane and Devine “were almost like brothers.”
Keane was survived by his wife, daughter and two grandsons.
Three months after the funeral, Young reported that, although Keane had been employed by the Angels for only one month, the club honored him by paying his widow the year’s salary Keane would have received as special assignment scout.