Today in baseball history: Johnny Keane’s firing ends years of Yankees chaos

Getty Images

People of a certain age will remember the heights — depths? — of the George Steinbrenner era. That time when the New York Yankees owner went though managers like they were Kleenex.

Actually, it was worse than that. People tend not to reuse Kleenex after they throw them away. Steinbrenner crumpled up and tossed aside managers, reached into the trash and used ’em again. Sometimes five times. And when some of them weren’t managing, they were being shuffled up and down the organizational chart, spending time as the team’s GM, as a coach, or as an assistant before finding themselves back as skipper again. It was wild.

But the Steinbrenner Era wasn’t the first time there was managerial drama in the Bronx. In the early-to-mid-60s there was a good deal of it. And it all ended, at least until Steinbrenner came along, on May 7, 1966. That’s when Johnny Keane was fired.

We’ll get to Keane in a minute. First, let’s lay the groundwork.

Casey Stengel was hired to manage the Yankees before the 1949 season. While he’s now considered the benchmark of Hall of Fame managers, his hiring was controversial at the time. Stengel was known for being a colorful figure — some called him a clown — and for lackluster managerial stints with the Dodgers and the Braves. He quickly silenced his critics, of course, by winning the 1949 World Series. And the 1950, 1951, 1952, and 1953 World Series as well. Casey was gonna be around for a while.

But he was still fired sooner than many expected. After leading the Yankees to their 10th American league pennant in 12 years — and after winning the World Series seven times — the Yankees lost the seventh game of the 1960 World Series on Bill Mazeroski’s famous walkoff homer. The next day they fired Stengel.

The stated reason: Yankees brass thought he had mismanaged the pitching rotation against the Pirates. That may have been a part of it, but also at play was the fact that (a) Stengel was 70 and the team wanted new blood; and (b) they had that new blood in the form of former Yankees backup catcher Ralph Houk, who the club had been grooming as a manager-in-waiting for some time. It was kind of like a proto-Joe Torre/Joe Girardi situation.

Whether or not Stengel deserved to be fired, Houk was a fine choice to take over. He led the Yankees to 109 wins and a World Series title in 1961 and repeated in 1962. Following a third straight pennant in 1963 Houk moved upstairs to become the Yankees’ general manager. They hired Yogi Berra, who was still playing in 1963, to take over as manager for 1964.

The Yankees offered Berra a two-year contract but he insisted on a one-year deal because he wasn’t not sure he could manage. He’d regret that. Sure, later, Berra won a pennant managing the Mets — and would come back for a brief stint as Yankees manager during the crazy Steinbrenner years in the mid-80s — but in 1964 he as overmatched in the job.

On the field things were generally fine. They took a step back and were in a dogfight all season long, but they won 99 games and just barely beat out the 98-win White Sox for another AL pennant. Off the field things were rough, though, as Berra had a terrible time reining in a clubhouse full of some hard-drinking, hard-partying veterans like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford (who was also, hilariously, supposed to be the Yankees’ pitching coach too), and some brash younger players like Jim Bouton and Joe Pepitone who didn’t necessarily respect authority figures. The clubhouse was out of control. The Yankees took the St. Louis Cardinals to seventh game in that year’s World Series, but ultimately lost. Berra — who thought his pennant had earned him a contract extension — was fired.

This is where Johnny Keane comes in.

Keane was a Cardinals farmhand in the 1930s who began managing in their vast minor league system in 1938. After 20 years of working his way up the ladder, he was named the Cardinals third base coach in 1959. In the middle of the 1961 season the Cards’ manager, Solly Hemus — who was actually a player manager through the 1959 season — was fired due to the Cardinals’ poor start (Hemus would later join Stengel on the New York Mets’ coaching staff). Keane took over. The Cards were eight games under .500 when he got the job but he finished 47-33 the rest of the way.

Keane would help build a budding Cardinals dynasty over the next three seasons, overseeing the winding down of Stan Musial’s career and overseeing the development of young stars like Bob Gibson, Ray Sadecki, Curt Flood, Bill White, Tim McCarver, and Julian Javier. Meanwhile, he showed a sure hand at mixing in veteran acquisitions like Curt Simmons, Dick Groat, Roger Craig, and, in 1964, Lou Brock. But though 1964 ended with the Cardinals hoisting the World Series trophy, it was a bumpy ride getting there.

The Cards were fighting for their lives by August, a full 11 games behind the seemingly destined-to-win-it Phillies. Cards owner Gussie Busch, with an assist from consultant Branch Rickey, decided to thoroughly clean house. Well, almost thoroughly. They basically fired everyone in the front office, but kept Keane and his coaching staff on, likely thinking that they’d save a few bucks by waiting until after the season was over to let them go. The rumor was that Busch wanted to bring in Leo Durocher to manage the Cards in 1965. Busch would deny that, but Durocher said they had a handshake agreement. I tend to believe Durocher.

But then something unexpected happened: the Phillies collapsed, the Cardinals surged and won the 1964 pennant on the final day of the season. They went on, as noted above, to beat Berra’s Yankees in the World Series. Then Keane shocked everyone.

On October 16 — the day after the World Series ended — the Cardinals held a news conference. One of the things that was supposed to happen at that conference was the announcement of Keane’s contract extension, which Busch had offered him due to the huge turnaround in August and September and the World Series win. Live, at the conference, with no warning to anyone, Keane declined the extension and announced his resignation. That same day Berra was fired by the Yankees. Four days later the Yankees hired Keane, the man who had just beat them in the Fall Classic.

It would later come to light that Keane and the Yankees had been in communication with one another since August. Keane was understandably feeling disrespected and knew he was on the hot seat. He also knew that Berra was coming under fire in New York. Indeed, around the time of the Cardinals executives getting fired, Berra was involved in an a well-publicized dustup with his own players on the team bus that started over, of all things, someone playing the harmonica. That’s a whole other story, so go read it when you have time. The upshot, though, is that Keane figured he’d need a new job for 1965, the Yankees figured they’d need a new manager, and they put things in motion to make that happen. That Keane could embarrass Busch at that presser the day after winning the World Series was just icing on the cake.

Unfortunately, the match between Keane and the Yankees was not made in heaven, and Keane would preside over the end of the Yankees Dynasty.

It wasn’t necessarily his fault, of course. By 1965 the Yankees were an aging team and the farm system was pretty bare. Mantle’s knees were a mess, Elston Howard was an old 36, Whitey Ford, also 36, had a lot of miles on the odometer too. The kids coming up behind them either weren’t good enough or weren’t yet ready. Key early season injuries — which Keane often tried to get players to play through, rather than resting them — didn’t help and and the Yankees finished 77-85. That record and their sixth place finish was the worst for the club since 1925.

In his book, Ball Four, Jim Bouton said that after longtime Yankee hands Stengel, Houk, and Berra at the helm, most of the Yankees players considered Keane to be an outsider. They resisted his leadership and openly rejected his motivational efforts. It eventually turned into personal antipathy. “He’d sacrifice a season to win a game,” Bouton said. I tend to think there was no one who could’ve taken that job and fixed what was ailing that Yankees team, but it does seem that it was never really going to work for Keane in New York.

Still, Keane, on a two-year contract, was back with the Bombers in 1966. They began the season 4-16. He was fired on May 7. That October he was hired to be a scout for the California Angels for the 1967 season but he never got the chance to do the job: Keane died of a massive heart attack at his home on January 6. He was only 55 years-old.

When Keane was fired, Ralph Houk would come back down from the GM’s chair and manage the team himself from that day through the end of the 1973 season. The Yankees would not win a pennant during Houk’s second stint as manager, but they did at least have some stability following several years of chaos.

Houk stepped down because George Steinbrenner bought the team. The chaos was about to begin anew.


Also today in baseball history:


1957: Cleveland pitcher Herb Score was hit on the right eye by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald in the first inning. The ball broke Score’s nose and damaged his eye; he’d missed the rest of the season and, really, would never be the same again.

1959: A crowd of 93,103 came to the Los Angeles Coliseum on “Roy Campanella Night” to show their affection for the paralyzed Dodger catcher.

2016: Bartolo Colon, who was 42 years-old at the time, hit a home run off of Padres starter James Shields in San Diego. Colon becomes the oldest player to hit his first major league home run.