When I learned on Thursday that John Keenan had passed away, Uncle John to me – though we were actually first cousins – there were many thoughts that came to mind. Foremost was the trip in August, 1971 I took with John, Ersa, and their son Mike to the American Legion National baseball championship playoffs in Billings, Montana. I was 12. John was a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and if there was young talent playing somewhere, someplace, John was usually in the stands, stop watch, pencil and program in hand.
In the early 70s, Larry and Mona were always looking to off-load their kids. They had a lot of mouths to feed, kids to dress, drag to church, chase from the Dominican Convent and, if the occasion demanded it, spank. They found many summer camps – church camp, scout camp, baseball camp, “I want my kid to be a priest” camp. My memory is that John and Ersa probably said something like, “We might have room for Matt,” and seconds later mom disappeared and reappeared with my bag packed and me in tow.
This trip was more than baseball. The plans included Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and things kids read about in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Think Wonder Years meets National Lampoon Vacation.
You know kids who love American history and would relish the chance to visit some of the country’s iconic landmarks? That wasn’t me or Mike. We had one goal – see a bear at Yellowstone. Which we did at the end of very long line of cars with passengers tossing Twinkies out the window. Larry and Mona barely knew I was gone. When I returned I did the, “Hey I’m back,” and they barely looked from their scotch and water. More likely dad barked out, “Go mow some yards. You need the money.” And I probably did.
John and Ersa were very kind and tolerated a lot of smart aleck one-liners tossed from the back seat. But a couple memories stick with me. We were at a restaurant in the Black Hills and John walked in and an employee was standing, back to us. There was long hair flowing off the back. John said, “Ma’am should we seat ourselves?” The employee turned around and was very much a man.
And he was, well, rhymes with missed.
Mike and I giggled, and continued to laugh the rest of the trip. Dropping quips like, “Hey, Uncle John you think she is a he?” when we passed by strangers along the way. Ersa tells me the story was repeated many times for many years.
When Kansas played in the baseball tournament, they lost and I remember John told us – “See if you can get on the bus and get some autographs.” He gave me a pen and a program. Mike and I – without any permission or direction – walked on the bus and declared, “Hey we are from Kansas too! Can we get some autographs?” A few players offered but the mood wasn’t very upbeat, after all they just lost and were looking at a long bus ride home. That’s when I added this information that got their attention quickly: “His dad is the scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers!” We were attacked.
Forty years later when our family moved from our last home, Lori found something at the bottom of a plastic tub, studied it, held is up and asked me in an inquisitive way – “Baseball in Billings, Montana?” I smiled and replied, “Let me tell you about it.”
That was my own coming of age story of sorts, and with out of focus photos of Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore, and other park monuments still in our basement. The memory box included a postcard sent to Larry and Mona with descriptions of a bear sighting that a Walt Disney screenwriter couldn’t replicate. Wind howled, sun baked, and we had a blast.
So when I heard John passed, I called dad for more context. “Give me your best story about John.” Between dad’s drive from the VFW to North Main, the memories flowed. “Let’s see. There was the 1965 World Series against the Twins, the 1959 World Series against the White Sox. We were there in Minneapolis and Chicago for the road games. We got our tickets before the game in Tom Lasorda’s hotel room, and they were laid out on his bed.” I remembered that the 1965 World Series was noteworthy as Sandy Koufax, the best player in baseball, refused to pitch Game One because it fell on Yom Kippur. I found the program from that World Series in our basement and it included autographs of some of the player’s wives.
Dad continued: “But none compares to my memory of a game we didn’t even attend. It was a playoff game when the Dodgers came back to win. We were in Kansas City because the Royals were in the playoffs. We had been to the Royals game but John stayed in the hotel to watch the Dodgers game. “When we walked in John was delirious. He kept saying ‘It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle.’ He kept repeating it all night long. Especially when we got to the bar.”
“What year was that?”
“I don’t remember. Late 70s.
I did some searching and found the game. Today that game is known throughout all of Pennsylvania as Black Friday – game three of the Dodgers vs. Phillies, 1977. The Phillies had a 5-3 lead with two outs, top of the ninth, 63,000 fans are going completely insane. The Dodgers were down to their last out.
Lasorda put in a pinch hitter – a player known as Vic Davalillo – a 40-year-old vagabond who the Dodgers picked up just two months earlier, and a guy who played for three years in the Mexican League between major league stints. He laid a drag bunt and got to first. Manny Mota then hit a fly ball to left, Greg Luzinski misplayed it, and then made a bad throw, and Davalillo scored. Davey Lopes – who John signed from Washburn – then reached on a close throw to first, a bad pickoff followed and allowed Lopes to reach second and then Bill Russell – who John also signed – singled in Lopes. The Dodgers went from down two with two outs to up one and won.
John was right, it was a miracle. For the Dodger fans at least. The Phillies had a different take: a nightmare of biblical dimensions.
The chain of events lead to a book “The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team's Collapse Sank a City's Spirit.” One website described it this way: “Game Three will forever be known as Black Friday, a day when the Phils lost a game, and a series, in less than 10 minutes of action. Four hitters changed the course of events and haunt Phil's fans even to this day.”
The Dodgers went to the World Series that year, and ran head-long into Reggie Jackson and the Yankees. On October 18, Jackson hit three home runs in one game in Yankee Stadium. Yes, Yankee Stadium included some residents from Great Bend, including dad, the late Pat Keenan and Bud Degner, courtesy of John and the Dodgers. “Our seats were directly behind home plate.”
“John brought so many great times to us. He was a connection to a glamorous game, a glorious time and he shared it with everyone. But more than anything he was just a great guy, great husband and father,” dad told me.
Godspeed, John Keenan.