Grave Story: Jim Keesey (1902-1951)

Here lies Jim Keesey, who had a couple of cups of coffee in the major leagues in the 1920s. However, he was a true baseball lifer, working in the minor leagues as a player, manager and scout, right up until the day he died. Keesey played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1925 and 1930.

James Ward Keesey was born on October 27, 1902, in Perryville, Md. He grew up playing baseball there in grammar school and the local sandlots. Baseball was just a pastime to him until Al Williams, his high school coach, moved him from shortstop to first base. He did so well at the position that Williams told him that he should look into baseball as a career.

When Keesey was 16 years old, his father, a conductor on the Pennsylvania train line, died, and he went to work to support his mother and four siblings. He began working for the railroad himself, with baseball fading to a hobby status. He played on a Perryville ballclub in 1921 as a second baseman. The team won 20 out of 34 games and won the county championship, as well as the inter-league championship by defeating Aberdeen of the Susquehanna League. There were reports that he had signed with Rochester after that championship, but it never happened – possibly because his responsibilities at home were too much.

Jim Keesey’s crypt at Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland, Ore.

Around that time, a friend of Keesey’s wrote him a letter, stating that he heard the young ballplayer was looking to play pro ball and had several offers. He wanted to see if Keesey would play for a team in Frederick, Md. Keesey didn’t actually have any other offers, but he wrote back and asked for $150 a month anyway and got it. He joined the Frederick Hustlers of the Blue Ridge League, and he destroyed pitching there. He finished second in the league in hitting (.365), hits (125), home runs (20), total bases (210) and slugging percentage (.614). He was put at first base, and he remained there for the rest of his career. Literally – there is no record that he played so much as an inning in any other position.

Keesey moved to the Portsmouth Truckers in 1924 and 1925, and he continued to swing one of the hottest bats on the East Coast. He hit .326 with 17 homers in 1925 and raised his average to .341 in 1925, with 16 long balls. He homered three times on July 16, 1925, along with a single and double against Richmond. The 15 total bases stood as a league record until the day it folded.

Source: Oakland Tribune, July 30, 1931.

Connie Mack and Philadelphia Athletics had seen good success with signing former Blue Ridge League players – Lefty Grove and Jimmy Dykes were former Blue Ridge Leaguers – and signed Keesey in early September. The A’s were battling the Washington Senators for first place, and Keesey didn’t have much to do besides pinch-hit. The A’s had Jim Poole and Red Holt as first basemen, and both men had fine seasons. Keesey appeared in a total of 5 games and managed 2 hits and an RBI in 5 at-bats, while striking out twice. His first MLB hit came on September 9, 1925, against Washington, and he was right in the middle of a rally that gave Philadelphia the lead. With the A’s trailing 6-3, Keesey pinch-hit for pitcher Stan Baumgartner with two runners on. He drilled a single to right off Tom Zachary to score Mickey Cochrane, and he scored a few batters later on an Al Simmons triple. The A’s ended up winning 9-7 to knock a game off Washington’s first-place lead, but the Senators went on to win the pennant.

Mack released Keesey back to the minors at the end of the season. Mack was in need of a first baseman, as Poole didn’t rate too highly in baseball circles. Nevertheless, the A’s opted to make do with a series of fill-ins for several seasons, including Dykes and Joe Hauser, before a kid named Jimmie Foxx took over the position in 1929. Keesey, in 1926, moved to the Reading Keystones of the International League and was under constant scouting by Philadelphia scouts. Reading, though, was a poor team, and Keesey failed to hit over .300 for the first time in his pro career. He rebounded with a great season for Hartford in 1927, as he hit .343 with 16 triples and 15 home runs, establishing a new league record. One of those homers was reported to be the longest ever hit at Hartford’s Clarkin Field, clearing a barrier in left-center field to give Hartford a 3-2 win.

At the end of the season, Mack cleaned house of his existing first basemen. He banished Poole to the Atlanta Crackers and sent Keesey out west to the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. Beavers owner Tom “Tink” Turner was a long-time associate of Mack. The move ended up being a great one for Keesey, as he flourished in the PCL. In two seasons there – 1928 and ’29 – Keesey hit .343 and .336, respectively, and had more than 50 doubles and 200 hits each year. He had 246 hits in 1929 to finish in the PCL top 10. Given the excellent weather, Portland played in excess of 185 games each season, and Keesey hardly ever took a day off. In doing so, he made a reputation as the best first baseman on the West Coast.

By the end of the 1929 season, Portland sold the first baseman back to Philadelphia for cash and a player to be named later, so Turner’s investment in Keesey paid off. He even predicted that Keesey would force Philadelphia to move Foxx to third base.

Keesey ended up becoming the first significant injury of the 1930 training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. Playing first base, he hustled into foul territory to catch a Bing Miller pop fly. The ball landed in his bare hand, and somehow split his hand open, from between the second and third fingers of his right hand down into the flesh of his palm. Keesey came away from the play gushing blood and in obvious pain. The trainer who dressed the wound blamed the chilly March weather for stiffening up Keesey’s fingers, so they didn’t give when the ball hit them.

The terrible thing about the injury was that Keesey was living up to expectations, and manager Mack was impressed. “It’s too bad we’ve lost Keesey,” he lamented. “The boy was coming along fine. He really surprised me by the way he improved as a first baseman. He’s a good hitter, he handles himself fine in the field. I intended to keep Keesey this year and I don’t think his injury is going to set him back much.”

The offensive weapons of the San Francisco Seals in 1931 were Henry “Prince” Oana (left) and Jim Keesey (right). Source: San Francisco Examiner, March 11, 1932.

The hand injury healed slower than Mack imagined. Keesey was available for just one pinch-hit at-bat in the month of April and didn’t appear in the field until May 26. Keesey made his one start of the season on May 27 against Boston. He went 1-for-3 at the plate with walk and an RBI double in the 7-5 win. He also made 7 putouts at first base. Still, one good performance wouldn’t dislodge Foxx from first base, and Keesey had 5 more pinch-hit at-bats before he was returned to the minor leagues for good. His last MLB at-bat came on June 25 and was a single off White Sox pitcher Pat Caraway.

In parts of two seasons, Keesey appeared in a total of 16 games, with 18 plate appearances. He had a .294/.333/.353 slash line, with 5 hits in 12 at-bats, including 1 double. He had 2 RBIs and scored twice. He had a .923 fielding percentage at first base, but that is with an extremely small sample size – 1 error in 13 chances over 17 innings in the field.

Keesey was by no means finished. After completing the 1930 season in Jersey City, he returned to the Pacific Coast League, playing most of the next three seasons with the San Francisco Seals and Portland Beavers. Though he’d been away from the PCL for a few seasons, Keesey still feasted on the pitching there. In 1931, he hit .358 with 40 doubles, 10 triples and 10 homers among his 238 hits. He hit a combined .308 for Portland and San Francisco in 1932, while picking up 208 hits in 175 games – his fifth 200-plus hit season in the minors.

As an in-demand hitter, Keesey was bought and traded for several times. He went from Portland to Kansas City to St. Paul (never playing for the team) to Dallas to Williamsport. He finally got some stability when Oklahoma City Indians owner Jack Holland acquired him as part of a buying spree to win the Texas League championship. Keesey held down first base for the team from 1935 through 1938, continuing to hit the ball well – though he was a veteran in his mid-30s playing against much younger competition.

Jim and Glenda Keesey pose with their 5-year-old daughter, Beverly. Source: The Oklahoma News, December 31, 1936.

Keesey was hired as the club’s manager for the 1937 season. At 34 years old, he was one of the club’s oldest players and provided veteran leadership while continuing to hold down first base. He had the mindset of a baseball lifer already. In an article he wrote for The Oklahoma News, he remembered his humble beginnings in the game very well.

“I’ve heard baseball players gripe about being constantly on the move, never enjoying any real home life during the season. But whenever I feel one of those moods coming on I just think back to 1923 when I owned one-third interest in a splintery seat on a wheezing bus, with a class-D ball club, and immediately things take on a rosy hue.”

Oklahoma was a good team already, but the team that Keesey led was great and stayed in first place from wire to wire. Most of the starting lineup, Keesey included, hit close to or over .300, and starting pitcher Harold “Ash” Hillen won 31 games. The Indians lost in the championship series, but Keesey was so beloved that a “Jim Keesey Day” was held in his honor in early September. He was presented with a new car, a watch and even a colonel’s commission, courtesy of the city’s fans.

Given his popularity, it is surprising that Oklahoma City fired Keesey as a manager mid-way through the 1938 season, when the team started to falter. He stayed with the team as a first baseman, which must have been awkward for everyone involved. Despite being 35 years old at the end of the season, he had multiple opportunities as a player/manager and spent time in Portsmouth, Va., back to Oklahoma City and then to Boise for two seasons. He scouted for a bit before returning to play his final games with the Seattle Rainiers in 1944, when he was 41. He retired with a career .317 batting average in the minors over 21 seasons, with 2,758 hits and 133 home runs.

Source: The Odgen Standard Examiner, January 29, 1946.

Keesey’s last managerial job came in 1947, when he led the Des Moines Bruins, a Cubs affiliate, to a 75-52 and second-place finish in the Western League. The Cubs named him as their Pacific Northwest scout for 1948. Working from his home in Portland, he covered Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington for the Cubs. He was let go after a season as Chicago pruned their farm system.

Keesey was ill for the last couple of years of his life with myoloma, a type of cancer. Nevertheless, he was hired as a Cincinnati Reds scout to cover the Northwest. He traveled to Boise, to deliver a player to the Ogden (Utah) Reds when he suffered a heart attack on September 1, 1951. He was hospitalized at St. Alphonsus Hospital in critical condition. His wife and two daughters traveled to Boise to be with him and were at his bedside when he died on September 5. He was just 48 years old.

Pioneer League President Jack Halliwell remembered Keesey fondly, saying, “Jim Keesey made a substantial contribution to the welfare of the Pioneer League and baseball through his handling of young ball players and because of his playing and managing ability.”

Keesey is buried in Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland, Ore.

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