St. Louis Cardinals: Manager ‘saint’ unleashed Gibson’s greatness

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 11: St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock and Hall of Famer Bob Gibson look on prior to the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on April 11, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 11: St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock and Hall of Famer Bob Gibson look on prior to the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium on April 11, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images) /

Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals took off after Johnny Keane replaced Solly Hemus in 1961.

The late Bob Gibson once called former St. Louis Cardinals manager Johnny Keane, a man who spent six years of his youth studying for the priesthood, “the closest thing to a saint that I ever came across in baseball.”

When remembering Gibson, who died on Oct. 2, we should spare a moment to honor the skipper who unlocked the pitcher’s potential and helped turn the Cardinals, located in a former slaveholding state, into a team that became, as Curt Flood said, “as close to being free of racist poison as a diverse group of twentieth-century Americans could possibly be.”

Gibson was an unpolished 25-year-old when Keane replaced Solly Hemus as Cardinals manager in July of 1961. The hard-throwing right-hander was 6-5 with a 3.15 ERA but would lead the league in walks after going 6-11 with a 4.55 ERA his first two seasons.

Gibson and Flood, best friends and road roommates, had resented Hemus, who told both players they “would never make it in the majors.” John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro of The Undefeated wrote that “the bigoted Hemus freely hurled racial epithets” at the Cardinals’ Black players and “demeaned Gibson’s intellect by telling his pitcher not to bother attending pregame strategy meetings.”

Johnny Keane couldn’t have been more different. Flood called the former seminary student “a man of great sensibility, with a great sense of leadership … The most important thing, however, was this: Keane didn’t give a damn about color. He said ‘You’re my best nine men.’ What a powerful, supportive feeling that was!” Gibson wrote, “It was a whole new world for the black players.”

The Redbirds, eight games below .500 when Keane took over, went 47-33 the rest of ’61. After a so-so 1962 season (84-78, fifth out of 10 NL teams), the Cardinals won 93 games in ’63 and finished six games back of the pennant-winning Dodgers. One year later they won the World Series, beating the Yankees in seven games.

The ’64 Cardinals were led by NL MVP Ken Boyer (6.1 WAR) and four standout Black players: Gibson (6.0 WAR), Lou Brock (5.7 WAR), Bill White (5.4 WAR) and Flood (4.7 WAR).

In 1964 Jack Olsen of Sports Illustrated called Keane, a 52-year-old who’d spent 17 years managing in the minor leagues, “a new kind of manager.” “You used to be able to treat a player like dirt, and I guess it worked because that’s the way we expected to be handled, but that’s not the way they expect to be handled now,” Keane explained, quoted by Olsen. He also said, “My theory is to harness the man’s own intelligence and keep him feeling like a human being, someone who is wanted, someone who is part of the team.”

While Keane had a temper, he always kept it clean. Olsen told of Keane, as a minor-league manager, raging at an umpire named “Frenchy” Arceneaux who had thrown him out of a game. “You know what you are, Arceneaux?” Keane hollered from the dugout. “You’re just a mean man is what you are!”

For Keane, the 1964 World Series was both a professional peak and his St. Louis swan song. His last and most memorable managerial decision as a Redbird skipper was sticking with Gibson after the pitcher had surrendered two ninth-inning Game 7 home runs, closing the Cardinals lead to 7-5.

Remaining in the game, Gibson got Bobby Richardson to pop out to end the Series. Afterward, Keane said of Gibson, “I made a commitment to his heart.” Gibson, quoted in Peter Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns, responded: “It is probably the nicest thing that can be said about an athlete, and I will always remember it.”

I waited 35 years for this,” Keane said after the Series. “That’s a long time but it was worth it. I never dreamed a human being could be this happy.”

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Keane would have remained with the Cardinals past 1964 had it not been for owner Gussie Busch pushing out general manager Bing Devine, a close friend of Keane’s, on Aug. 17 when the Redbirds were trailing the first-place Phillies by nine games. According to Leo Durocher, Busch had a handshake deal to make Leo the Lip the Redbirds manager in 1965. The owner decided he wanted Keane back after St. Louis rallied from 6.5 games back with 12 to play, but Keane wanted out and signed on to become the Yankees’ new manager.

Keane picked a bad time to join the New York ballclub, which was old and fading. The ‘65 Yankees finished 77-85, the club’s worst record in 40 years. He was fired after New York went 4-16 to start the ’66 season. Yankees’ Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, in his book Whitey and Mickey, wrote, “I liked Johnny Keane. He was a great man, a decent man, and I pitched a lot for Keane. He just got there at the wrong time.”

Many commented on Keane’s kindness and humanity. Stan Musial in 1962 said, “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.” Devine said, “I have never known a finer man.” Jack Olsen of SI quoted an unidentified “old friend from Keane’s minor-league days” as saying, “He’s one sweet little human being in a day when there aren’t many like him.”

Keane was just 55 when he suffered a fatal heart attack on Jan. 6, 1967. Nine months later, Gibson and the Cardinals won their second World Series of the 1960s, beating the Red Sox in seven games.

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In his 1968 memoir From Ghetto to Glory, Gibson recalled Keane as “one of the nicest people I ever met in my life.” He said Keane’s passing “probably affected me as much as anybody’s I’ve ever known.”