Catching up with Jack McKeon
74 years after beginning his career in Baseball, Jack is still going strong at age 92
There are few names that can pop up on my caller ID that bring a bigger smile to my face than Jack McKeon. So I was delighted to get a call from Jack to catch up last week.
The most universally beloved person to ever wear a Marlins uniform, Jack is 92 and still going strong in year 6 as a senior advisor to Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.
74 years after breaking into pro baseball in 1949, Jack will spend the summer traveling across the country to scout Nats minor leaguers.
Let me repeat something in case it slipped past you: The man has been in baseball since 1949.
That’s the year before Vin Scully called his first Brooklyn Dodgers game and 2 years after Jackie Robinson broke Baseball’s color barrier. 1949 was the year Joe DiMaggio became the sport’s first $100,000-a-year player and the year the Yankees dedicated a center field monument to Babe Ruth, who had recently passed away.
And in 1949, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed catcher Jack McKeon for $450 and assigned him to Greenville, AL of the Class D Alabama State League, where he played for $215 a month.
While he never reached the major leagues as a player, he’d find his home in the dugout, ultimately becoming the only manager in Baseball history to surpass 1,000 wins in both the majors and the minors.
And his most memorable season came in Miami in 2003.
It was 20 years ago this month that owner Jeffrey Loria—on the recommendation of traveling secretary and trusted advisor Bill Beck—tapped McKeon, at the time a peach-fuzzed youngster of 72, to take over a struggling Marlins club that had started 16-22 under Jeff Torborg. Under Jack’s fiery leadership, the Marlins went 75-49 the rest of the way and vanquished the Giants and Cubs in the Playoffs before toppling the Yankees for the franchise’s 2nd World Series championship.
The oldest manager to win a World Series until 73-year-old Dusty Baker won with the Astros last season, Jack was voted the NL Manager of the Year in ‘03, then guided the Marlins to 2 more winning seasons in 2004 and 2005 before stepping aside.
Prior to Jack leading the Marlins to 3 consecutive winning seasons, they had had one better-than-.500 finish in their history, in 1997. Since Jack stepped away there’ve been only 2 other full seasons completed with a winning record, both under Fredi Gonzalez in 2008 and 2009.
Despite handing over the managerial reins, Jack remained a valued member of the Marlins family through 2017, advising the owner and scouting the minor leagues for Larry Beinfest and Michael Hill. He memorably returned to the dugout to finish the 2011 season as the Marlins’ manager after Edwin Rodriguez resigned mid-season. At age 80, Jack became the 2nd-oldest manager in ML history behind only Connie Mack.
The current Marlins ownership set the tone for what has been a rough first 6 years, inspiring a public backlash after forcing then club president David Samson to fire not just Jack but also Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tony Perez and the beloved Mr. Marlin Jeff Conine in September of 2017, approximately 2 weeks before even taking over the club.
While the move saved Bruce Sherman some money, a driving force behind too many of the decisions that have set the club back and angered fans on his watch, it deprived the organization of the kind of experience and wisdom money can’t buy at a time when both of those important traits are in increasingly short supply across the industry. Jack had been a valuable resource to many in the organization, while having 2 Hall of Fame sounding boards in the clubhouse daily benefitted many Marlins players over the years.
The Marlins were a better organization when Jack McKeon was a part of it. And this ownership callously casting aside a beloved and respected franchise icon remains a black eye.
The organization can bring back whatever 2003 Marlins they want as part of their 20th anniversary celebration this season, but the fact they sent Jack packing and he won’t be a part of any recognition is a terrible stain on Sherman and his leadership team.
Jack won more than 1,000 games as a big league skipper with the Royals, Athletics, Padres, Reds and Marlins. He also spent a decade as the Padres’ general manager, drafting Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and building the 1984 NL championship club through a series of shrewd trades.
McKeon is a member of the Padres Hall of Fame, and, as I’ve said in the past, would be a worthy recipient of the Hall of Fame’s Buck O’Neil Award, presented by the Hall's Board of Directors not more than once every 3 years “to honor an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball's positive impact on society, broadened the game's appeal, and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O'Neil.”
“Character,” “integrity” and “dignity” are 3 great words to connect to Jack McKeon.
“Marlin for life” are 3 other words that should have been connected to Jack.