Joe Keough, RIP: A Royal hit

2019-09-16 JoeKeough
Joe Keough near the Royals dugout: “Those were some of the best times of my life.” (Kansas City Royals photo.)

Unless you’ve been a Royals fan since the day they were born, you wouldn’t recognise Joe Keough immediately. If you’re my age, you remember (maybe) that he was the kid brother (by twelve years) of longtime major league utility man Marty Keough. Or, that his nephew is ill-fated former Athletics pitcher Matt Keough.

But if you are a Royals fan since the day they were born, Joe Keough—who died at 73 on 9 September in Miami—is a name you should and probably do know. The Royals began life winning their first two regular season games, ever—both on walk-off hits. Keough nailed the first one . . . as a pinch hitter.

He became an Original Royal in the first place because the A’s made him available for the American League’s second expansion draft after 1968. He’d gotten a second-half call-up to the A’s and debuted in Yankee Stadium 7 August, in a game featuring one Hall of Famer approaching the end (Mickey Mantle) and another Hall of Famer (Reggie Jackson) who’d only just begun to wreak havoc.

Keough was sent up to pinch hit for A’s reliever Jack Aker against the Yankees’ respected veteran reliever Lindy McDaniel to lead off the top of the eighth. There are worse times to take your first trip to the plate in a major league game, but Keough made the most of it and headlines for it. He yanked one into the right field seats to tie the game at three. Sweetening it was the game going to extras and Jackson’s RBI single in the top of the twelfth holding up for a 4-3 A’s win.

A kid with a .590 OPS wasn’t exactly what the A’s seemed to have in mind, alas, so they exposed Keough to the expansion draft and he became a Royal. He made the Opening Day roster as the Royals began in Municipal Stadium, the former playpen of the A’s before their move to Oakland.

The Royals faced the Twins to begin their new life. Keough spent most of the game watching on the bench, until a three-all tie went to the bottom of the twelfth.”I came out of spring training wanting to start very badly,” he told an interviewer in 2011. “Our manager that year . . . decided not to start me and I was a little upset about that.”

On the mound for the Twins was Joe Grzenda, in relief of former longtime Dodgers relief bellwether Ron Perranoski, after former World Series hero Moe Drabowsky (he of the eleven strikeouts in relief in Game One, ’66 Series) retired the Twins in order in the top.

Former Angel Ed Kirkpatrick led off with a line out to Twins center field fixture Ted Uhlaender but former Red Sox Joe Foy singled and took second on a passed ball while Grzenda worked to Chuck Harrison. The Twins then elected to put Harrison aboard to set up a double play prospect with Bob Oliver, a rookie power hitter, coming up to the plate.

But Grzenda wild pitched Foy and Harrison to third and second, then the Twins elected to re-establish the double play possibility and put Oliver aboard with Royals catcher Ellie Rodriguez, generally a defense-first player with little power at the plate, due to hit next.

Enter Royals manager Joe Gordon—you guessed it. The same Joe Gordon who once shone at second base for the Yankees. The same Joe Gordon whom, managing the Indians in 1960, would be swapped, essentially, for Tigers manager Jimmy Dykes. The same season during which the Indians began life without slugging right fielder Rocky Colavito, whom their capricious general manager Frank Lane dealt to the Tigers for aging outfielder Harvey Kuenn before the season.

Gordon now decided he had a better shot if he inserted Keough, whose rookie 1968 produced a .590 OPS, to pinch hit for Rodriguez, whose cup of coffee with the 1968 Yankees delivered an OPS .085 points lower. And Gordon was right. Keough pulled a line single to right to send Foy home and win it, 4-3. “It was a very cold, cold day,” Keough told Fox4KC last year. “I got a good pitch to hit and I hit it.”

Maybe Keough put a little mojo into the Royals. Because they won the second game of their existence the next day in extra innings, too. This time, it took seventeen innings. And this time, the game-winning RBI single came through the courtesy of future Yankee fixture, World Series-winning Reds manager, and record 116 game-winning Mariners manager Lou Piniella.

The bad news is that’s about as far as the embryonic Royals’ mojo went, even if Piniella became American League’s Rookie of the Year. They finished 28 games out of first in the newly established American League West. The only reason it wasn’t bad enough for a cellar finish is because the White Sox (29 games out) and the Royals’ fellow expansion team, the Ball Four Seattle Pilots (33 out), happened to be much worse.

An outfielder whose habits included climbing the steep Municipal Stadium steps every day with a few teammates during homestands to help stay in shape (“It was a great workout for us”), Keough managed to keep his mojo working long enough to make the Royals’ everyday lineup in 1970 as their leadoff hitter.

He owned a .398 on-base percentage by late June. Then came the second game of a doubleheader against the Angels at home. The good news: the Royals turned a close enough game into a 13-1 blowout. The bad news: Keough’s mojo broke along with his leg three innings earlier.

Somehow a mini-legend has arisen over the decades since that Keough was injured trying to score a run the Royals didn’t really need by the time he scored it. Legends may be stubborn but those pesky facts are more so. Keough was on second in the bottom of the fifth, with the Royals having just taken a 2-1 lead, when their center field star Amos Otis rippled a single to right.

Keough gunned it home and collided with Angels catcher Tom Egan on the play, scoring the third Royals run but fracturing his leg and dislocating his ankle in the collision. The run put the Royals up by two; they’d score six in the eighth to finish what became the blowout. But Keough’s scoring injury killed his season and, for all intent and purpose, his career, just when it began solidifying.

He winced when reminded of the play during that Fox4KC interview. “Those are things you don’t want to remember,” he began, allowing himself a chuckle of regret, “but yes I do remember breaking my leg. It was a lot of pain. It changed my life, but it changed in a lot of different ways that’s good.”

Keough would play three more none-too-impressive major league seasons before calling it a career before the 1974 season. A northern California native, he raised four children and made a post baseball life out of Texas in marketing and real estate development for such companies as Fotomat, 7-Eleven, Burger King, PayLess Shoe Source, and EyeMasters, while enjoying golfing and cooking and his five grandchildren.

Fan friendly and rarely missing from events involving the ’69 Royals for decades to follow, Keough aged gracefully in retirement, looking more like a slim, composed, kindly small town storekeeper than a former ballplayer who ran the steepest stadium stairs to stay in game shape and never forgot his years on the Royals’ earliest teams.

“Those were some of the best times of my life,” he said with a smile.

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