Friday, September 3, 2010

Minor League Season Ends.....As My Friend Jack McKeon and I Look On

We drew over 8,000 last night for the final minor league game of the season. That draw was on a school night and with the team, The Greensboro Grasshoppers, having no chance at the playoffs. That number pushed our attendance to over 2.5 million in six seasons at NewBridge Park, making Greensboro one of the top minor league cities in the history of baseball.

My friend Jack McKeon is a regular fan. He has managed 5 different major league teams, and most recently he managed the 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins. A New Jersey native, Jack started his career in the minor leagues after leaving Elon College.

Most memorable for me, Jack managed the Wilson Tobs of the Carolina League when I was young, 1960-63. He had great teams there. He had many players of color which was unusual and progressive for the times. He tells the story of managing in the Cotton State League (east Texas, La. and Miss.) in the late 50s. One night the league officials ran all of the African American players out of the league. Jack left the league as a result and took all of the black players with him to Wilson. He had great and talented teams there.

Jack and his teams were always great to watch. You could always count on excitement when his teams came to town. One Sunday afternoon Jack got into a fight with the opposing manager before the game even started. They were at home plate exchanging line-up cards and going over the ground rules with the umpires when it started. It had to do with "bad blood" from the night before.

Another great memory is Jack and Carolina League Umpire Tom Simon constantly arguing with each other. After a night game once, Jack ran Simon completely out of the umpire's dressing room. Jack laughs as he recalls the story and other tiffs with Umpire Simon and his sidekick Umpire Shives. Jack smiles as he says General Managers would often ask him "to stir things up" when he came to town to help bring out the fans.

In October 1961, Jack and his great black catcher Chuck Witherspoone, were batterymates for a home run derby at Greensboro War Memorial Stadium. Participating in the HR contest were Roger Maris, Harmen Killebrew, and Jim Gentile. I worked as a vendor in the stands due to high tickets prices. I was age 13. What a great night at the ballpark.

At the last game, Jack recalled the names of players he has managed who are in Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. They include Harmen Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Tony Gwynn. Jack is considered as one of the old-school, good guys in baseball. He was the third oldest manager, at age 73, to manage in a World Series (behind Casey Stengel and Connie Mack). At age 80, Jack is as feisty, exciting, and interesting as ever to be around. Jack and I wish a great off-season to everyone. See you in the Spring!

UPDATE: June 21, 2011: Jack has once again been called into service as Manager of the Florida Marlins. At age 80, he becomes the oldest manager in the history of baseball, except for Connie Mack, who owned the team. No member of the Marlins roster was born when Jack managed his first big league game in 1973. Jack broke into professional baseball as a minor league catcher in 1949......62 years ago. This call of Jack by the Marlins is unprecedented in sports and an amazing human interest story. Very best wishes and Godspeed, Jack. See you at The Grandstand when you're done.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive