Jim Keenan typifies the experience of the earliest professional baseball player. He played for five teams in three professional leagues for 11 seasons over a span of 17 years. Oh, and he played at seven different positions during that time, too. Major League Baseball is professional, regimented, orderly and specialized now, but that hides its chaotic past. Keenan, one of the best defensive catchers of the 19th Century, played for the New Haven Elm Citys of the National Association (1875), Buffalo Bisons of the National League (1880), Pittsburgh Allegheneys (1882), Indianapolis Hoosiers (1884) and Cincinnati Red Stockings (1885-1889) of the American Association and the Cincinnati Reds (1890-91) of the National League.
James W. Keenan was born on February 10, 1856 in New Haven, Conn., but he lived most of his life in Cincinnati. His parents, Nicholas and Margret, had both come from Ireland and had settled in Ohio by at least 1860. By 1870, Nicholas Keenan was supporting his family by keeping a saloon in Cincinnati. James was one of five children, though Nicholas died in 1862 at a year old, and John died in 1876 at the age of 7. The fate of Keenan’s older brother Richard and younger sister Mary aren’t known, but they at least survived to adulthood.
Keenan’s early history is a mystery, but he did grow up in one of the more baseball-crazy cities outside of the East Coast. Even though the Cincinnati Red Stockings of the undefeated 1869 season didn’t last long, they were a sensation and probably encouraged hundreds of young men and boys into playing ball themselves. Keenan would have been a very impressionable 13 years of age when the Red Stockings went on their undefeated cross-country tour. Did the Red Stockings inspire him, or was he already interested in baseball?
Keenan probably got his start playing ball in Ohio, but his professional debut came in 1875 in his birth state of Connecticut, with the New Haven Elm Citys of the National Association. They were pretty horrific, winning 2 of their first 23 games before parting ways with manager Charlie Gould. His replacements, Jumbo Latham and Charlie Pabor, fared little better, as the Elm Citys finished with a 7-40 record. It was their only season as a major-league team, and they barely got through it. There were a number of teams in the NA that season that gave up the ghost and folded mid-season. New Haven, with 47 games, played about 20 fewer than the stalwart teams of the league, but at least they fared better than the Keokuk Westerns, who lost 12 of 13 games and disappeared.
As bad as the Elm Citys were, they managed to beat the Harvard baseball team by a score of 9-2 on May 14, 1875. Studs Bancker, who was the team’s regular catcher at the time, was absent, so Gould brought in Keenan, an amateur, to fill in. He must have done well, because Keenan was added to the team’s official roster days later. Bancker had to leave a league game against Washington on May 17 because of sore hands (this is before the advent of catcher’s equipment), so Keenan took his place behind the plate and “played very well afterward behind the bat,” noted the Hartford Courant. Gould used two amateurs in that game. Besides Keenan, an outfielder known to history only as Sullivan made one of two career appearances, filling in for Henry Luff.
Keenan played in 5 games for New Haven and had 1 hit in 13 at-bats, with a run scored. He played 3 games as a catcher and had an .800 fielding average – a little under league average. He was also tried out at third base and had 11 chances in 2 games – and made 9 errors. Yes, that’s a .182 fielding percentage. He also spent an inning in left field, and the ball mercifully didn’t find him.
Margret Keenan died on October 13, 1875, at the age of 45, and Nicholas followed her on September 17, 1877, at the age of 47. That left Jim Keenan on his own at the age of 21. He reappeared in 1877, playing for a club in Auburn, N.Y., which was part of the League Alliance. He stayed in New York, playing in Hornellsville in 1878 and Albany in 1879 and 1880. Judging by the game recaps and partial statistics, he was a fair hitter at best – he hit .237 for Albany in ’79 and .206 in 1880. He was a better-than-average catcher, though he did suffer the typical abuse of catchers from that era. “Keenan’s hands were in bad condition, but although he suffered much he continued in his position and rendered some very effective service,” reported the Buffalo Morning Express in August 1878.
The Albany Express was much more effusive in its praise of Keenan, predicting that a woodcut of his likeness would soon be displayed in the New York Clipper newspaper. “In that picture must be magnificence of form, concinaity (sp. — concinnity) of features and perfection of style. The being who creates the ideality of Mr. Keenan must ‘snatch a grace beyond the rules of art’ if he would give a fair idea of the radiant beauty and unblemished loveliness of the original. Mr. Keenan’s physical merits are too many to be given only ordinary concern.”
Jim Keenan was a handsome man, indeed. Too handsome for his image to be captured by any ordinary artist, if you believe the Express. Later in his career, when he would catch Tony Mullane, they were considered the handsomest battery in the game.
Keenan was living with his brother, sister and sister-in-law back in Cincinnati, at 870 Horn Street, according to the 1880 census. When the baseball season started, he returned to Albany, where he got a chance to play briefly in the National League. Thanks to injuries to the Buffalo Bisons catching corps, manager Sam Crane signed Keenan to be a temporary fill-in for a couple of games. He caught future Hall of Famer Pud Galvin on July 29 and Denny Driscoll on the 30th. He had a hit in 8 at-bats and performed very well behind the plate. He committed 5 passed balls in the two games, but he committed only 1 error for a .947 fielding percentage. He was let go after those two games, as Buffalo’s starting catcher, Jack Rowe, was one of the best in the business when healthy. Keenan returned to Albany, and when that team folded in September, he joined the Fort Edward Stars.
Keenan’s next big-league opportunity came with the Pittsburgh Allegheneys of the American Association in 1882. This time, he stayed with the team for 24 games, playing primarily as a catcher but also playing a few innings in the outfield and shortstop. His fielding was once again above average, but he hit .209, with 6 doubles and his first major-league home run. It came off John Schappert of the St. Louis Brown Stockings.
Keenan was given an indefinite suspension on July 7, 1882 for drunkenness and insubordination. The “drunkenness” part is pretty self-explanatory, as the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette said that a team losing streak left him in a bad mood. The “insubordinate” part came after team manager/President Al Pratt chewed out Keenan, and the young catcher responded by telling him to “seek a place where the thermometer never gets as low as 44 in December, let alone July,” – that means “go to hell” in the flowery language of 19th-Century newspapers. That pretty much ended his playing days in Pittsburgh.
As he was still under suspension and unable to play with any professional team, Keenan joined the amateur Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1883. He had evidently matured enough that he was named the team captain – basically the on-field manager and disciplinarian. That Indianapolis team would join the American Association in 1884, giving Keenan his fourth shot in a “major league” – at the age of 28.
The Indianapolis Hoosiers stayed in the AA for only one season, and with a record of 29-78 it’s not hard to see why. Even if the team wasn’t big-league quality, Keenan sure played like it. He slashed .293/.343/.418 and was worth an estimated 3.1 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference – the best on the team. He also caught, played first base, outfield and shortstop and even pitched 3 innings of 1-run ball in a game. It sounds as if he hadn’t tamed extracurricular activities any. When he settled a bar debt to one E.M. Dasher, it was a significant enough event that the local paper covered it. The team’s ace pitcher, Larry McKeon, paid off a separate bar tab of $58.25, so he and Keenan must have made a hell-raising battery. Keenan, again, was suspended in late September for unspecified reasons. He only missed a few days, and he pleaded for and received his old job back.
The Indianapolis Hoosiers left the AA and joined the Western League in 1885. The team made it to the summer before disbanding entirely. Hoosier ownership had originally planned to sell all 12 of its players to the National League’s Detroit Wolverines for $5,000. The Hoosier brass delivered 10 players to Detroit, with the exception of Keenan and McKeon. Detroit refused to deliver the rest of its payment, which led to a lawsuit between the two teams. Keenan and McKeon, meanwhile, signed with Cincinnati of the American Association on June 23, 1885. The Detroit management filed an injunction to forbid the two for playing for Cincinnati, but it didn’t work. McKeon had one good season before flaming out, but Keenan flourished with his hometown team.
The Red Stockings were a 63-49 team that finished in second place that year, and catching was a weak spot until Keenan came in. The Red Stockings had tried several catchers, with weak-hitting veteran Pop Snyder being the best of the bunch. Keenan, in his 36 games, out-hit and out-fielded them all. He batted .265 and drove in 15 runs, starting a seven-year run with the team.
Keenan appeared in 44 games for Cincinnati in 1886 and hit .270 with 3 home runs. He was the primary catcher for McKeon, while Kid Baldwin handled the rest of the catching duties. When McKeon was released, Keenan was an occasional fill-in. He handled Tony Mullane’s wildness in a 9-4 win over Louisville on August 18, for instance, and he contributed a home run off Guy Hecker. When McKeon out of the picture, Keenan took over as the personal catcher of Elmer Smith (listed as Mike Smith in Baseball Reference) in 1887. He handled the young pitcher’s fastballs without complaint, even though they left him with badly swollen fingers. He hit .253 and, even though he was considered the slowest member of the Red Stockings, stole 7 bases as well.
Keenan apparently got Smith back for those punishing fastballs. Over the winter, a report on Smith in The Cincinnati Enquirer noted that he was spending the offseason “engaged in the pleasant task of caring for a large family of pets, including Jim Keenan’s profane parrot and two canaries.”
Baldwin started to falter in 1888, starting a decade-long tailspin that ended with him dying in a Cincinnati lunatic asylum in 1897. Keenan, though he was 32 years old now, took on the role of the regular catcher for the first time in his professional career. His hitting dropped to .233/.294/.323, but he remained an above-average catcher and first baseman. He was used so much at one point, that doctors advised him to take some time off to rest his injured hands. “A physician has warned him that unless he gives his hands a rest mortification may set in,” reported the Enquirer on July 24, 1888. “Keenan has been doing magnificent work for Cincinnati of late and his services can ill be spared.”
To better prepare for a full load of catching in 1889, Keenan spent the winter taking boxing lessons from Lemuel Montgomery, also known as the St. Joe Kid. He denied rumors he was looking for a second career as a prizefighter. “I only took lessons from the St. Joe Kid because he understands the business of training, and under his mentorship I could take off all surplus flesh without sustaining any injury. I weigh 175 pounds now and am in splendid health,” he reported. He reportedly tipped the scales at well over 200 pounds at one point, so it was a significant change.
The training paid off, as he enjoyed the finest season of his career in ‘89. He slashed .287/.395/.453 and had career milestones in virtually every offensive category – 52 runs scored, 86 hits, 10 doubles, 11 triples, 6 home runs, 60 RBIs – even 18 stolen bases. Though he was frequently named “Old Jim Keenan” in the papers, he was at the peak of his career at the age of 33. Not only was he physically fit, but he also had been sober for three years. “About one more season at the pace he used to set would have laid him on the shelf,” reported the Enquirer.
Keenan’s peak didn’t last long. Cincinnati transferred to the National League and went 77-55. Keenan played in just 54 games, as he was supplanted by 21-year-old catcher Jerry Harrington. When he played, he hit a meager .139, though he still connected for 3 long balls and drove in 19 runs. He returned in 1891 as more of a utility player. Spending time at first and third base in addition to his catching role. He batted .202 with 4 home runs in his final season. The 1891 Reds finished in seventh place with a 56-81 record.
In 11 seasons for three different “major leagues,” Keenan had a slash line of .240/.312/.345, with 451 hits that included 60 doubles, 36 triples and 22 home runs. He drove in 208 runs and scored 254 runs. He also pitched in 4 games and had an 0-1 record and a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings – that’s the lowest ERA of any catcher who also took the mound. Keenan had a lifetime fielding percentage at catcher of .934, considerably higher than the league average of .911. Likewise, his .977 fielding percentage at first base was a little above average. The less said about his fielding in the outfield and infield, the better. Had such accolades existed in the 19th Century, Keenan could have walked away with multiple Gold Glove Awards and at least a couple of All-Star nods. During his career he also umpired a few games, and by accounts was a fair arbiter.
At the tail-end of his career, Keenan opened an emporium (i.e. tavern) on Western Avenue in Cincinnati, right by League Park. It became popular with his teammates and visiting ballplayers, and teammate Bug Holliday gave Keenan a silver bat to hang on display. He also operated a boarding house where visiting teams stayed and became an influential city councilman.
Sadly, Keenan fell off the wagon in a terrible way in 1893 and had to be hauled off to a sanitarium after a violent spree. His wife sued for divorce on the grounds of cruelty, alleging physical abuse. The next year, he assaulted a stranger who questioned his liquor sales at his saloon. He was fined $50 for hitting a complete stranger and $10 for hitting his wife.
Keenan and his wife, Isadore, counter-sued in court, her on the grounds of cruelty and him on the grounds of neglect and “having too much regard for Morgan Murphy, the ballplayer.” The two settled their differences and lived together as husband and wife until her death in 1919.
Keenan stayed involved in baseball as an organizer and manager of amateur games, occasionally involving some of his old teammates or other retired pros. It seems as though he refrained from tapping into his alcohol stock, and his saloon prospered. A group of players, past and present, called themselves “The Beefsteak Club” and stopped by frequently for a dinner of steak, mushrooms and “paraphernalia – liquid and solid,” reported the Enquirer. Members of the Beefsteak Club included Denny Lyons, Jack Boyle, Red Ehret and Red Bittman. Keenan sold the saloon to Jake Stenzel, former Pirates outfielder, in 1899.
Though out of the saloon business, Keenan remained a political powerhouse in the City Council in Cincinnati until about 1912. “He is one of the active members of the board and never overlooks anything wanted by the people who sent him out to be their David,” reported the Enquirer.
After retiring from politics, Keenan lived a pretty quiet life but was still remembered fondly by the older Reds’ fans. He was one of a host of former Reds players who attended a celebration at Redland Field on June 12, 1925 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National League. He reunited and shared memories with his surviving teammates, Long John Reilly and Ollie Beard.
Isadore Keenan died on December 13, 1918, at the age of 61. Jim Keenan died on September 21, 1926, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Cincinnati. According to the hospital, he died from apoplexy (stroke) at 6:30 p.m., about an hour after he was admitted. He was 70 years old. Hundreds of friends and fans paid tribute to him at the Busse-Borgmann mortuary chapel, and he was laid to rest in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. He is buried next to Isadore in an unmarked grave.
Bonus: Jim Keenan relates how some horseplay in a hotel ended up with a flattened hat and shots fired.
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