McKeon aiming to be MLB's oldest skipper
Now 84, former Marlins manager isn't showing signs of slowing down
Jack McKeon's father said, "I'll make a deal with you. You promise to get a college education and I'll let you sign to play pro ball."
"Trader Jack" took the offer, and he's been wheeling and dealing ever since.
"I'd trade my wife if I thought it meant we could win a few games," McKeon said, smiling.
At 84, McKeon spends two hours per day working out to stay in shape for a deal that could further seal his place in baseball's history books. In 2003, at 72, he became the oldest manager to win a World Series, when the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees in six games.
McKeon also takes pride in being the winning manager of the last World Series game played at old Yankee Stadium, even though as a South Amboy, N.J., native, his boyhood dream was to play for the Bronx Bombers.
"The first game I went to with my Aunt Kitty, I caught a ball from Phil Rizzuto," he said. "I couldn't have been more than 10 years old. I was a catcher, so Bill Dickey was one of my favorite players, plus Joe DiMaggio."
McKeon is the only manager to win 1,000 games in both the Minors and Majors.
"When people ask me about it, I tell them, 'That's nothing. It just means I've been around a long time,'" he said.
True to form, echoing the title of his book, "I'm Just Getting Started," this legendary baseball octogenarian has another big goal in mind -- to eclipse Connie Mack as the oldest big league skipper.
"Well, why not?" McKeon said. "I mean, I've got this far. If the good Lord lets me stay on top of the ground, I'll be all right. I'm second now. I passed Casey Stengel. I'm the oldest one ever to win a World Series. So I might as well be the oldest in the history of the game."
Mack, whose birthday is Dec. 22, retired at 87 right after the 1950 campaign, his latest season with the Philadelphia Athletics. McKeon, born Nov. 23, 1930, won't turn 87 until 2017.
So while most people are anticipating this month's start to Spring Training, McKeon's sights are set on 2018, when he could surpass Mack.
Before rushing forward, however, McKeon took time out this week to look back on his 65-plus years in baseball while hitting the winter banquet circuit in Amsterdam, N.Y., near Gloversville, where he spent the 1950 campaign as a catcher for the Pirates' Class C team, the Gloversville-Johnstown Glovers, in the old Can-Am League.
"I've been back here for four or five years now," McKeon said. "I got put in the Fulton County Hall of Fame one year. Then I came back to speak another year. I went to where the old ballpark used to be and stepped on home plate. It's a Walmart now. The park is gone. I remember the diner that we used to all hang out at."
McKeon didn't sign right out of high school. He followed his father's wishes and went to Holy Cross on a scholarship. At Christmas break, when scouts showed up again at the family home, McKeon's father relented, with the condition that his son eventually complete his college education.
"I got $450 to sign and I made $215 a month," McKeon said. "I started out in Greenville, Ala., in 1949. It's a 4 1/2-month season. That's not too much money, but I came home with $600. Of course, you could stay with a family for $5 a week, and it might cost you $1.50 to eat, all day."
The next year, 1950, McKeon started out with the Class B York (Pa.) White Roses, but he asked for a demotion to Class C Gloversville.
"I was sitting on the bench, so I told the manager, 'Hey, send me down.' I wanted to go down and play," McKeon said. "I didn't want to sit the bench. I didn't think the status of being in Class B was important. I wasn't going to improve, so I said, 'Get me a job playing somewhere.' That's how I got sent to Gloversville.' "
Before the move, however, McKeon recalls playing against future Hall of Famer Willie Mays, who was at Class B Trenton that year. McKeon said he also crossed Minor League paths with Mickey Mantle when Mantle was with the Class C Joplin (Mo.) Miners.
After a year in the service, McKeon returned to the Minors in 1952. The next year, a Spring Training conversation with Danny Murtaugh turned out to be a pivotal moment in McKeon's career. Murtaugh was then managing the Pirates' Double-A New Orleans Pelicans, and he would go on to guide Pittsburgh to World Series championships in 1960 and '71.
"We were talking and he mentioned to me, 'Did you ever think about becoming a manager?'" McKeon said. "I guess he thought I had some things going for me. When I got my first big league job, I kind of leaned on Danny for advice. He was good about it."
McKeon began learning the trade as a 24-year-old player-manager at Fayetteville, N.C., in 1955 -- 60 years ago this season.
McKeon later fulfilled his father's wish of getting a college education at Elon University in North Carolina, where he now lives. He has been inducted to the Sports Hall of Fame in North Carolina and New Jersey, proudly wearing rings from both.
McKeon is a special adviser to the Marlins. Next month, as always, he'll don a uniform at the team's complex in Jupiter, Fla., where he enjoys mingling with fans, telling stories and signing autographs. It sounds like something any 84-year-old might like in the warm spring sunshine.
But McKeon isn't ready to retire.
As a manager, one of his greatest assets has been relating to players, as a rookie skipper with veteran Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew at Kansas City in 1973, or with young Marlins superstar Giancarlo Stanton, whom McKeon had at Florida during his latest stint with the Marlins in 2011.
That's why McKeon says he'll never feel out of place in a Major League dugout, no matter how old he is.
"Heck, I could go back today and be just as sharp as I was then," he said.