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The Cardinals went 80–74 during the 1961 season and finished fifth in the National League. It was the last season before the NL went to a 162-game schedule in 1962 to adjust for the new ten-team league.
The Cardinals’ players just did not like Solly Hemus. Players knew he was not using his best lineup simply because he was not utilizing players like Curt Flood, Bill White, and Bob Gibson – all African American players – the way he should have. In 1960, he pushed All-Star and Gold Glove winning first baseman White out in the outfield, flipping him back and forth between leftfield, centerfield, and first base. Hemus also pushed Stan Musial around the diamond, never leaving him in one place for any length of time and seeing him find time in left, right, and first. Musial had his second “down” year in a row in 1960, hitting .275/.354/.486 and seeing the fewest number of at-bats in the season (378) than any other in his twenty-two year career.
With the club sinking in the standings in mid-1961 and fans booing Solly Hemus every time he stuck his face out of the dugout, Bing Devine knew he had to make a change, and by the time he went to Gussie Busch and requested that the change be made Gussie was irritated by the Cardinals’ then 33-41 record. He told Bing that whatever he wanted to do was fine, so Bing made the switch, firing Hemus and bringing in coach Johnny Keane.“I liked Solly,” Devine said. “The only thing was that Solly was his own worst enemy.”
Devine got the manager he had wanted ever since he was forced to fire Fred Hutchinson and hire Solly Hemus prior to the 1959 season. Keane knew what it would take to turn around several of the players on the team. He went to Stan Musial and told him that he was still a valued and productive member of the team. The 40-year-old Musial stepped it up and had something of a return to form. Keane went to Curt Flood and installed him as the permanent centerfielder, went to Bill White and made him the full-time first baseman, and went to Bob Gibson, told him he was in the starting rotation and changed his career. Immediately Johnny Keane, and the Cardinals took off.
Up until 1961 Bob Gibson had been on the outside looking in on the Cardinals’ pitching staff. He pitched, sure, but not particularly well, and was largely unknown by most. He had been bounced in and out of the rotation, bullpen and minor leagues. He was 2-6 on the season before Johnny Keane came in. The new manager was swift in righting Gibson’s career, handing him the ball for the first game in his control and informing the big pitcher that he trusted him to take care of business. That night Gibson threw a complete game and won 9-1 on the road against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The rest of the way he went 11-6 under Keane and finished with a respectable 13-12 record and 3.24 ERA.
Bob Gibson attended Creighton University on a basketball scholarship and started on the varsity team his final three years. After his senior season Gibson stood as the school’s all-time leading scorer, but he attracted very little attention at the professional level from the NBA. In the end he was able to parlay a great performance at a college All-Star game into a deal with the Harlem Globetrotters. He considered baseball his second sport.
While in college Gibson still played in the outfield and as a utility infielder primarily but he did possess a 95-mile-an–hour fastball as a pitcher. Again, he received little interest from professional teams, but he was good enough to sign with the Cardinals for a $1,000 bonus and was instructed to report to the Omaha Cardinals. Even though Gibson was born and raised in Omaha, he had never seen the Omaha Cardinals play and knew nothing of their manager Johnny Keane. On the morning Gibson reported Keane asked him to warm up and throw some pitches to a few of the Omaha players. Due mainly to fear and his 95-mile an hour fastball, none of them were able to get a ball out of the batting cage. Johnny Keane just chuckled and told Gibson he would be a pitcher. He never saw him play any other position. Bob Gibson would remark "Johnny Keane was a patient man and the closest thing to a saint that ever came across in baseball."
The Cardinals all dusted themselves off after a rough first half and went 47-33 with their new skipper. They wound up 80-74, good enough for only fifth place in the National League.
Although he was only 38, Hemus never managed in the majors again.
The team had been in turmoil for the most part since day one of Hemus time as Cardinal manager however it's fair to note, injuries to two key players contributed to the slow start in 1961. Pitching staff ace, Larry Jackson missed the first four weeks of the season after having his jaw broken in a late spring training game by a flying piece of Duke Snider's broken bat. Then in June catcher Hal Smith was having persistent chest paints and was diagnosed with a heart valve condition. Doctors recommended that he stop playing which he did.
Hal Smith became the starting catcher for the Cardinals in his rookie season, 1956, and held that position until his heart valve condition caused his retirement. Playing in 570 games, Smith had a major league batting average of .258 and hit twenty-three home runs. Smith was a standout catcher for the Cardinals during his six years with them. He was the club's regular receiver from 1956 until his forced retirement and was selected a National League All-Star in 1957 and 1959. Smith led NL catchers in throwing out would-be base-stealers in both 1959 and 1960, and in caught stealing percentage in 1960.Known for his rifle-shot throwing arm, Smith listed superstars Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente—Baseball Hall of Fame members and the best base runners of the era—among his “thrown out trying to steal second” victims.
With Smith out the catching chores were shared by Carl Sawatski and Jim Schaffer with Gene Oliver and Tim McCraver providing backup.
Maintaining a quiet, patient demeanor, punctuated with occasional well-timed outbursts of Irish temper, Johnny Keane drew on his 17-year minor league managerial experience to guide the Cardinals to their 47-33 record under his leadership in the second half of 1961. The mold was being shaped for successful '63 and '64 seasons culminating in a 1964 NL pennant and World Series cahmpionship.
Johnny Keane had a long career as a minor-league infielder but never played in the major leagues. As a teenager, he played shortstop for a team in the St. Louis Muny League. He also enrolled in the St. Louis Preparatory Seminary to begin study for the Catholic priesthood. For a brief time, he tried to pursue both baseball and the priesthood but quickly chose baseball.
In 1930 he signed a minor-league contract offered to him by the Cardinals. After a rookie season (and .304 batting average) with Waynesboro (PA) in the Class D Blue Ridge League, he moved up in 1931 to Springfield (MO) in the Class C Western League, playing 126 games and hitting .285. He batted .312 in 1932 and .324 in 1933 as the Western League moved up to Class A. In 1934 the Cardinals sent him to Houston in the Double-A Texas League, where he came down with malaria after a few games. Upon recovery he was sent to Elmira (NY) in the Class A New York-Pennsylvania League, where he again hit .300 and earned a late-season promotion back to Houston. Keane seemed to be establishing himself as a definite major-league prospect.
In 1935, after a three game stay with Rochester of the International League, the Cardinals again placed Johnny at Houston, where he was the club’s scrappy starting shortstop by midseason. Then, in a game against Galveston on July 22, tragedy almost struck. Galveston pitcher Sigmund “Jack” Jakucki was on the mound. In the bottom of the fourth inning Jakucki’s first pitch hit Keane on the head, knocking him unconscious. His teammates carried him off the field.
At the hospital the attending physician told the Houston Post that Keane “was very fortunate that the blow caused a long fracture (seven inches) and if there had been a depression, an operation would have been essential.” Keane was unconscious for six days and in the hospital for six weeks.
During spring training the following season, Keane later recalled, Houston tested him to see if the beaning made him gun-shy, making him bat against the wildest pitcher in camp. Keane passed the test and played the full 1936 season with Houston, hitting .272 in 534 at-bats.
In 1937 Johnny met and married his wife, Lela Reed and played the entire season with Houston, hitting .267 in 595 at-bats. At the end of the season, Houston sent Keane back to Springfield and The Sporting News reported a rumor that he would become player-manager there.
Instead of Springfield, the Cardinals offered to make Keane the player-manager of their Albany, Georgia, team in the Class D Georgia-Florida League. A disappointed Keane reportedly balked at the move and the Cardinals abruptly released him. Then cooler heads prevailed and Johnny accepted the Albany post.
Keane was an immediate success as a manager. In 1938 and 1939 he led Albany to first-place finishes. Describing his 1938 season, The Sporting News wrote, “The fighting Irishman from Texas led an inspired band of players to a walk-away in the Georgia-Florida League.” In 1940 the Cardinals moved Keane up to Mobile in the Class B Southeastern League, where his team finished in third place and lost in the first round of the league playoffs. In 1941 he moved back to Class D, to New Iberia in the Evangeline League, again leading his team to first place.
At the beginning of World War II, Johnny volunteered for military service. His 1935 skull fracture prohibited him from serving in the armed forces, so he joined the Brown Shipbuilding Company in Houston, supervising 50 employees in its procurement operations, and managing the company’s semipro baseball team. It was an important business-related experience for Keane, giving him an appreciation for both the operations and needs of large organizations.
In late 1945, as the minor leagues prepared to resume their operations, the Houston club hired Keane as its manager. In 1946 he suffered the first losing season of his career, as Houston went 64-89 and finished sixth. He rebounded sharply in 1947; Houston finished in first place, won the league playoffs and the Dixie Series (over Mobile, his old Southern Association club), and smashed all Houston attendance records. He achieved this despite having to use a patched-up lineup most of the season. Keane later recalled the year as his top thrill as a minor-league manager. In 1948 Houston finished third with an 82-71 record and lost in the first round of the playoffs. After the season Keane was named manager at Triple-A Rochester.
The Red Wings finished second in 1949, first in 1950 (they lost to Baltimore in the playoff finals) and second in 1951. In 1950 the team set an attendance record. Keane’s consistent minor-league success caught the eye of Cardinals owner Fred Saigh, who was looking for a new manager. Saigh interviewed Keane, but the job went to former St. Louis shortstop Marty Marion.
After his Rochester team won the league championship in 1950, Keane underwent his first grisly experience as a managerial bridesmaid. Fred Saigh, then owner of the Cardinals, wired Keane to fly to St. Louis under an assumed name and check into the Chase Hotel, where a room would be reserved for him under the same name. Saigh let it be known that Eddie Dyer was going to be replaced and the job would be filled by Marty Marion, Mel Ott, or Keane. Feeling like a philandering husband, Keane signed the Chase's register with the false name and gave his bags to a bellboy, who promptly said, "I hope you get the job, Johnny." For three days Keane sat by a silent phone, taking all his meals in the room. Then he went to the Cardinal office, where the rumor was rampant that he was in. "But something happened between 11 and noon," Keane says. "Later Mr. Saigh took me to lunch and told me he was giving the job to Marion. People told me later it was because I hadn't spoken up. But I didn't think it was my place to go up there and lobby for the job. That didn't seem to be the way to do it."
At Rochester, Keane worked for general manager Bing Devine. They meshed immediately, forming a highly successful career-long friendship. Reminiscing years later, Devine wrote that he was most impressed by Keane’s friendly demeanor and his intense work ethic.
In 1952 the Cardinals reassigned Keane to their other Triple-A team, the Columbus Red Birds. The franchise had finished last and reportedly lost an estimated $151,000 in 1951. Armed with young prospects, Keane needed to quickly turn the team around and at least break even. He accepted the challenge, noting, “It’s my job to develop players but it’s also my job to win pennants and to lure fans through the gates.” But Keane experienced the three worst seasons (1952-54) in his minor-league career, posting a three-year record of 209-251 and finishing seventh, seventh, and fourth.
Keane was bypassed again in 1952 when Marion was fired and Eddie Stanky named manager. Three years later Keane was leading his Omaha team to a second-place finish when Stanky was kicked out and Harry Walker named in his place. All during these years Keane was laboring under the misapprehension that good, honest toil in the Cardinal vineyards would be rewarded. Others were equally naive about Keane's chances. Once when the job fell open, the Houston Press quoted an unnamed Cardinal player as saying, "There will be a near rebellion of the players if Keane doesn't get it." Charles Johnson wrote in the Minneapolis Star in 1955: "Each time there is a vacancy at the main offices in St. Louis, Keane is passed by. What a sad commentary on the operations of major league baseball clubs."
In 1954, after two dismal years, Keane rallied Columbus to a fourth-place finish, qualifying for the American Association playoffs for the first time. The Sporting News took note of his ability to develop low-cost talent into skilled, marketable players, showing a number of examples where he had taken castoffs from other organizations and enhanced either their trade or playing value to the parent club. One of the examples cited was Barney Schultz, who became a hero with the 1964 World Series winners.
While Keane was managing at Columbus, major changes were taking place in the Cardinals front office. In 1953 Fred Saigh sold the franchise to August A. Busch, Jr. In 1955 the Columbus team was moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and manager Keane moved with it. In 1956 general manager Frank Lane interviewed Keane for a Cardinals coaching position and was shocked when Keane asked to stay at Omaha. From 1955 through 1958, the Omaha Cardinals finished second, third, fifth, and fifth and reached the league playoffs twice.
Keane contented himself with a few mild off-the-record remarks to the effect that he had always felt managers could prove themselves in the minors and thus win jobs in the majors, an attitude that showed he might have known his catechism but he did not know his history, at least his St. Louis Cardinal history. In those years the Cards' front office was following the ancient precept that managers are gate attractions in themselves and therefore should be former stars from the majors. So Marion was followed by Stanky, and Stanky by Harry Walker, and Walker by Fred Hutchinson, and Hutch by Stan Hack, and Hack by Solly Hemus, while Keane slowly was forced to the realization that his record as a successful Triple-A manager was good only for free admission to Busch Stadium. He fell to ruminating over a conversation he had had several years earlier with Frank Lane, who, as general manager of the Cardinals, had wanted Keane to come up to the parent club as a coach.
"I don't want to come up as coach," Keane had told the voluble Lane. "I want to come up as manager."
"What?" Lane had said. "Why, you're just as crazy as anybody I've ever met. The thing for you to do is come up here and let the major league people at least know who you are. Nobody knows who you are!"
Frank Lane was fired in 1957 and was succeeded by Keane’s friend Bing Devine. Eventually the GM persuaded Keane to join new manager Solly Hemus’ coaching staff for 1959. Under Hemus the Cardinals were 71-83 in 1959 and 86-68 in 1960. In the first half of 1961, when the team started slowly (33-41) Busch replaced Hemus with Keane, who finished the second half with a 47-33 record.
When an employee hangs around an organization for 15 or 20 years and then gets promoted to a big job, it usually is because he has been hanging around for 15 or 20 years and the boss is so embarrassed at having passed over him so often that he simply cannot bring himself to pass over the poor boob again. But the man with longevity in his favor often has little else to offer, and Johnny Keane quickly set out to prove that he was the exception. He looked over his raw material—the Cardinal roster—and his eyes became fixed, as anybody's would, on the name of Stan Musial. "Stan was on the bench," Keane says, "and as far as the Cardinals' organization was concerned, he was through as a player. He'd had it. I went over to him, and I said, 'Stan, I want you to play. What are you resting for? You haven't got far to go. Let's run the string out, but let's run it out on the ball field.' Stan Musial is the greatest guy in the world, and he reacted right away. He said, 'That's just exactly what I want to do, Johnny.' He played out a good season, and in 1962 he almost won the batting championship."
If you ask Stan Musial how he was able to squeeze those final three years out of his aging frame, Musial will answer unhesitatingly: "Johnny Keane." At a dinner in St. Louis in 1962, Musial said: "From the day he took over the Cardinals, Johnny Keane let me know that I was not only wanted but needed. He instilled enthusiasm and inspiration in me and helped me find myself again."
For his own part, Keane yields to no man, woman or child in his wide-eyed awe of The Man. "One of the biggest honors and privileges of my life," Keane has said, "has been to put on a Cardinal uniform the same as Stan's, dress in the same clubhouse as Stan and be on the same field and club as Stan. Think of all the good words in the English language, and they all fit Stan." If it were up to Keane, Musial would still be playing for the Cardinals. Once a reporter asked Keane how long Musial would be able to hit major league pitching, and Keane answered: "Till he's 65."
With the left-field problem solved, Keane turned his attention to center, where a brooding Curt Flood was in and out of the lineup and unable to untrack his vast natural talents. Keane had managed Flood in the minors, and the day Keane took over the Cardinals he told his protege: "You're my center fielder." That solved the center-field problem.
Now Keane examined the pitching roster. Two of the best pitchers in the league, Ernie Broglio and Larry Jackson, were in the bullpen, their arms and their spirits corroding, when Keane arbitrarily returned them to starting roles. "It was no great stroke of genius," Keane says. "Maybe they should have been in the bullpen. But the fact was that we couldn't win without them. I had to make them starters."Continued on Season Recap 2
Broglio, with no special help from Keane, found himself quickly, but the rugged Jackson was another matter. He had been plagued by an inability to finish games, and the problem had become more mental than physical. Keane went to him, and I told him he was going to start and he was going to finish. If he got in trouble out there, that was too bad; he was going to finish the game anyway. “Well, we go out to San Francisco and I start him for the first time. He's getting bombed. His timing was off, and pretty soon they've got five runs off him, all earned.” I said, "He's staying in. We've got to get him over this hump.' He allowed two more runs, and at the end of the eighth inning he was walking to the dugout with Carl Sawatski, our catcher, and I overheard Jackson say, 'Now in the ninth, Carl, I want to stay with my fast ball. It's my best pitch today.' Here he's allowed seven runs and he's figuring on finishing the ball game! We scored two runs to go ahead 9-7, and Jackson went out there in the ninth and he breezed. That was the day Larry Jackson came back. Who did it? Larry Jackson did it." In his first dozen starts after Keane took over, Jackson finished eight games and won eight.
When Johnny Keane assumed the reins in the middle of 1961, he was not expected to be a tough disciplinarian. But Keane displayed his toughness very quickly and established his authority.
First he banned poker. "I know it seems like a petty thing," he explained, "but it had gotten out of hand. As a coach, I had seen those games on the plane. There was never any silver on the table—just bills, piles of them. They'd raise on every card. There were a lot of young players in the game, and I knew they couldn't get off that plane after losing $200 and still keep up their morale. There was a lot of bitterness, and I just figured they should be bitter at the other ball clubs, not at each other. I felt like an old mother hen, but I knew what I was doing was right, so I told 'em no more poker. There was a little grumbling, mostly by a few players who were getting rich off the game, but they came around."
Next was the problem of veteran Mickey McDermott. It had often been written that Solly Hemus had gone too far toward being one of the boys. Keane felt he had to be a bit tougher when he stepped in. Most of the players knew they were not about to test Keane even though he was generally known as a docile man. The exception was Mickey McDermott, a veteran southpaw pitcher who had had some success with half a dozen teams in the American League. A garrulous 33-year-old, Mickey was a nightclub crooner in the off-season and one season had hit .301 for the Boston Red Sox. Such credentials enabled him to walk around saying, "I can pitch, hit and sing."
After a few days as manager, Keane called the team together for a team meeting. The players had no idea what was up. What took place was a painful scene that none had anticipated.
Pointing to McDermott, Keans said, "We checked your room four nights in a row after 2 a.m. curfew and you weren't there." They had also checked his room during the day and he wasn't there. No one had any idea where he stayed. To Solly Humus’s credit he had slapped a $500 fine on his wandering pitcher for missing curfew during his final week of managing the team. Keane continued, "We gave you cab fare and we gave you a job. You came to spring training and you were broke. I will not have guys like you tear down the tradition of an organization."
No one said a word. You could hear a pin drop. In a hoarse voice, McDermott finally spoke up. "John if you feel that way, maybe I oughta take my uniform off."
"That's exactly what you'll do. Here's your pink slip," answered Keane, and he pulled the paper out of his pocket. Most players almost to a man are released quietly, normally in the manager's office. But Keane wanted this made public. He was making a statement.
Johnny Keane's decisive action had made an impact on the team. The general reaction was that he'd been fair and just.
Later Keane explained his apparently peremptory action: "I made it plain when I talked to the players in my first clubhouse meeting in Los Angeles that I would enforce the rules, and I used the threat of public disclosure to help discourage any violations. We've got a young team—a bunch of fine, clean-cut kids—and I'll not have them either exposed unfairly to temptation or get the idea early that rules are meant to be flouted. Mickey has had a lot of chances in his career, and the Cardinals gave him one this year. I'm sorry he didn't take it."
Both Devine and Keane set about building a confident, contending team. They continued the development of key young players who would be 1964 stars: Bob Gibson, Ray Sadecki, Curt Flood, Bill White, Tim McCarver, and Julian Javier. Devine signed Curt Simmons as a free agent and later added Dick Groat and Roger Craig via trades. These veterans were essential to the 1964 team.
Perhaps the most important issue facing the organization was how to effectively use future Hall of Famer Stan Musial. Starting in 1961, the Cardinals carefully monitored the 40-year-old Musial’s playing time throughout the notoriously hot, muggy, and draining St. Louis summers, making sure he remained fresh. Musial responded by remaining a positive contributor to the team throughout his final three years (1961-1963) as a player.
The Cardinals were anxious for the 1962 season under Johnny Keane's leadership after two and a half years of mis-management and racial tension.
Stan Musial, Ken Boyer & Bill White were selected to the NL All-Star team.
First baseman Bill White and third baseman Ken Boyer won Gold Gloves this year.