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A history of Royals managers: Jack McKeon

Trader Jack got his start in KC

Oakland, CA May 20, 1973 - Jack McKeon during his first year as manager of the Kansas City Royals at the Oakland Coliseum. (Prentice Brooks / Oakland Tribune) Photo by MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images

The favorite son of South Amboy, New Jersey, Jack McKeon has one of the more colorful and impressive resumes in baseball history. It didn’t start that way. After high school, McKeon attended Holy Cross University. For a small school, Holy Cross has produced some impressive alumni, such as Bob Cousy, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Fauci, and Tommy Heinsohn.

McKeon left Holy Cross after one semester and signed a contract with the Pirates organization. From there he embarked on a magical tour of the minor leagues that included stops in Greenville (AL), York (PA), Fayetteville (NC), Missoula (MT), and even in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 1953, future Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh asked McKeon If he had ever considered being a manager. The writing was on the wall. McKeon had a good glove as a catcher, but he couldn’t hit. As McKeon says, “I was the only player who could hit three ways: left, right and seldom”.

By 1960, he dropped the pretense of ever becoming a major league player and became a full-time manager. This decision led to another tour of those great American minor league cities and towns – Appleton, Wilson, Vancouver, Dallas and Atlanta.

McKeon’s life took a fortuitous turn in 1968 when he joined the expansion Kansas City Royals. His first assignment was managing their winter instructional league. Next came the manager job at their High Point-Thomasville affiliate. He moved to AAA Omaha for the 1969 season and over the next four summers compiled a record of 298-259 and was chosen the American Association manager of the year twice.

During this stint, McKeon had made up his mind that if he wasn’t a major league manager by the age of 44, that he’d take a coaching job. Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was impressed by the hard-charging McKeon. After the young Royals finished the 1972 season with a 76-78 record, Kauffman, afraid of losing McKeon to another team, hastily fired the popular Bob Lemon and gave the job to the brash 42-year old McKeon. Lemon naturally filed an age discrimination lawsuit after Kauffman made the mistake of telling the press that he “wanted a younger man on the job”. Lemon was only 51 at the time of his dismissal. Kauffman got off cheap, only having to pay Lemon an additional year of salary to get out from under the lawsuit.

McKeon led the rising Royals to an 88-74 record in 1973, finishing second in the American League West behind the eventual World Series champion Oakland A’s. They slumped to a 77-85 mark in 1974 as some of their young stars, particularly Steve Busby, began to chafe under McKeon’s managerial style. The Royals started the 1975 season at 50-46, but a near player revolt led to McKeon’s dismissal on June 23. The party line from the Royals brass was “there was really no rapport between the team and Jack”.

Much of this stemmed from what was called “The New York Incident” in which Steve Busby had threatened to leave the team due to differences with McKeon. Busby, who had won 22 games in 1974 and threw no-hitters in his first two seasons, had a meeting with McKeon and General Manager Joe Burke to address grievances. Rather than alienate his players, Burke decided it was best to part ways with McKeon.

This tension had been building for some time. During the final weeks of the 1974 season, McKeon asked owner Ewing Kauffman to fire popular hitting coach, Charlie Lau. Lau was reassigned to the Royals minor league system as a coach at the Royals Single-A team in Waterloo, Iowa. McKeon’s final numbers as Royals manager were a respectable 215-205.

The Royals replaced McKeon with easy going Whitey Herzog. Herzog had once played for the Kansas City Athletics and still lived in Independence.

Upon his hiring, Herzog retained all of McKeon’s coaches and immediately recalled Lau back to the big-league club. Herzog became the fifth manager in the seven-year history o fthe club. His hiring lit a fire under the Royals and they finished the 1975 season on a 41-25 tear.

McKeon hooked on with the Atlanta Braves and managed their AAA Richmond affiliate for the 1976 season. McKeon returned to the big leagues in 1977 when Charlie O. Finley hired him to guide the A’s. McKeon lasted 53 games before being canned by the mercurial Finley for Bobby Winkles. Winkles quickly grew tired of Finley’s meddling, and abruptly quit the job midway through the 1978 season. Finley convinced McKeon to return as manager for the remainder of the season, his last in Oakland.

“You couldn’t win no matter what (with Finley)” said McKeon. Believe me Jack, Kansas City fans know what you mean.

Denver Post Archives Denver Post via Getty Images

McKeon managed the Expos AAA team in Denver for the 1979 season before joining the San Diego Padres organization as an assistant to their General Manager Bob Fontaine. It was in San Diego that the legend of “Trader Jack” took hold. By the middle of the 1980 season, Padres owner Ray Kroc had fired Fontaine and promoted McKeon to the GM position. He remained in the general manager seat through the 1988 season, during which he executed a series of trades that led to the Padres ultimately winning the 1984 National League pennant.

San Diego Padres v New York Mets

He returned to the dugout as the Padres manager in 1988 and led the team to a 193-164 mark over three seasons. The Padres fired him after the 1990 season. McKeon took a couple of years off and enjoyed a quasi-retirement at his North Carolina home before being lured back to the game by the Cincinnati Reds as a scout and senior advisor. It wasn’t long before McKeon found himself back in the managers seat, taking the Reds job during the 1997 season and holding it through the 2000 season. He compiled a 291-259 mark in Cincy. In 1999, McKeon was named National League Manager of the year.

After being fired by the Reds, McKeon returned to North Carolina. His second stab at retirement wouldn’t last long either. In May of 2003, Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria fired manager Jeff Torborg and made the call to McKeon. Trader Jack, bored with gardening and puttering around the house, jumped at the chance. McKeon’s old school leadership changed the culture in South Florida and the team responded by going 75-49 down the stretch. They knocked off the Giants and the Cubs to make the World Series, where they shocked the heavily favored New York Yankees in six games. At the age of 72, Jack McKeon had become the oldest manager to win a World Series. Along with the World Series title, McKeon also won his second Manager of the Year award.

When he took the Florida job, McKeon had been in baseball for more than 40 years and was not interested in “relating” to the players. “Someone’s got to come in and show them some discipline,” he said. “These guys are rushed to the big leagues. They’re been babied all their lives. They don’t know how to play the game, because of their inexperience. It’s just like having kids or grandkids. There’s a certain amount of discipline that’s necessary.”

McKeon retired for good after the 2011 season, at the age of 80. He’s the only manager in history to win more than 1,000 games at the major and minor league level. Love him or hate him, you have to give the man his due. His record as a major league manager was 1,051 wins against 990 losses. He led teams from five organizations to ten winning seasons in his 16 years as a manager. The guy was a winner and knew how to get his teams to perform.

McKeon, a devout Roman Catholic faith typically attends Mass each day, even during his playing and managing years. He credited his success to his faith in many ways. When he was fired by the Reds in 1999, he prayed to St. Therese of Lisieux. “She’s the prodigy of miracles, and I needed a miracle,” McKeon said. “I don’t know God’s plan, but I didn’t think my career has been fulfilled. And then came the Marlins.”