Jack McKeon always has been ahead of his time.
How much so? Let’s say about 55 years.
It was the Cheatin’ Astros who brought all that negative attention with their electronic sign-stealing, trash-can banging wicked ways in 2017 as they won a most tainted World Series title.
It was Trader Jack who was far ahead of the Astros electronic curve, way back in 1962.
Wait until you hear the details on this electronic engineering from the man himself. McKeon will turn 90 in nine weeks and remains as sharp as the first time he managed a professional team in 1955 at the age of 24, the Fayetteville Highlanders in the Carolina League.
The former catcher, manager and GM is a senior advisor to GM Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals. He now has that 2019 World Series ring to go along with 2003 Marlins World Championship ring, won at the age of 72 when he managed that team to its second and last championship, beating the Yankees in six games with his aggressive use of young pitcher Josh Beckett.
Trader Jack, who also managed in Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Cincinnati, has spent a lifetime looking for an edge on the diamond. That brings us back to his amazing story from 1962 when he managed the Vancouver Mounties, the Minnesota Twins AAA team in the Pacific Coast League.
Like all of McKeon’s classics, there is humor, a little bit of acting and a lot of doing things his way come hell or high water, mixed in with hard lessons learned in the game.
This is part Bull Durham, part James Bond and all Trader Jack.
Jack McKeon, now special advisor to the Washington Nationals has always done things his way. Photo: Associated Press
It begins with a manager’s orders being ignored as McKeon revealed the details to BallNine of his Great Electronic Caper.
McKeon’s Mounties were taking on Preston Gomez’ Spokane club, AAA affiliate of the Dodgers at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“We got to the ninth inning,’’ McKeon told BallNine. “He had second and third, one out, and I knew Gomez was going to squeeze.
“I got the catcher Ron Henry’s attention to call for a pitch out. Well, he didn’t pitch out. The guy bunts, safe, squeeze. Tie game. So now I bring in a new pitcher, Bruce Swango, he used to be a bonus pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, one of the first bonus pitchers.’’
As you can tell, McKeon is his own play by play man. He remembers details through a lifetime of baseball games. All that’s missing is what used to be ubiquitous, Trader Jack’s cigar, but he gave those up a while back.
Back to the story.
“We get beat 5-4 so after the game I’m pissed off.”
McKeon has a meeting on the mound and tells his catcher, ‘Okay, he’s going to squeeze again. I want four straight pitchouts.’’
Four straight pitchouts. McKeon was not going to take any chances. McKeon wants it done his way and is not afraid to do things differently. It was like that when he beat the Yankees in 2003 and in the earlier series against the Cubs, coming back via Bartman.
Got that kid? Four straight pitchouts.
“I go back to the dugout, first pitch, strike one,’’ McKeon told me. “Next pitch he bunts. Successful squeeze. We get beat 5-4 so after the game I’m pissed off.’’
A pissed off McKeon is an entertaining McKeon. I remember one time in San Diego when I covered him as both GM and manager of the Padres. McKeon was upset about injuries and the way a Jack Clark back injury was reported by one writer, so much so he placed a rubber spine on his desk in the manager’s office the next day to try to make his point.
Back to the story.
McKeon shows off his transmitter while managing the Vancouver Mounties in 1962.
After the game in Vancouver, McKeon in his conversation with the two writers who cover the team asks: “Any of you guys know where I can get somebody to wire this guy?’’
Meaning his pitchers. Only he said it more colorful than that.
Turns out, Jack Lee, one of the writers, knew a guy.
McKeon remembered Lee telling him, “My neighbor works at Marconi Electronics and I will talk to him about it.’’
It was on. The wheels were turning and McKeon wanted to solve a communications problem the modern way. Instead of stealing signs, like the Astros, this was about giving signs and giving instructions to his pitchers and helping them with their pickoff moves.
In 1962 we were only seven years from landing a man on the moon. Technology was growing. Trader Jack wanted to wire his pitchers. This was life in the early 60s. I remember those days. I was nine years old. Anything was possible and that’s the way it was in baseball and the world.
“Jack Lee had the guy come down the next day and we talked about how we wanted to go about it,’’ McKeon said.
The Mounties had a 10-day road trip and by the time they came back to British Columbia, McKeon had his mechanism just about set.
“The guy brought a little cutout of wood, about the size of a pack of Camels,’’ McKeon recalled. “He said I can make a receiver about this size.’’
McKeon green lighted the deal.
“He made the receiver and I had the transmitter and so what we did then was sew pockets on the inside of the pitchers’ shirts,’’ McKeon said. “For a right-handed pitcher you sewed it on the left side. For a left-handed pitcher you sewed it on the right side. I could take the radio and put it in the next pitcher’s shirt. We get it made and we say, we’re going to try it out.’’
Here’s where it gets a little like Bull Durham.
The plan is in place but not yet instituted. McKeon wants to test the system with George Bamberger, his veteran pitcher and future Mets manager. That season Bamberger, 38, was 12-12 with a 3.16 ERA, 13 complete games and 228 innings pitched. This was long before Nerds, as you can tell.
“We’re playing Tacoma,’’ McKeon said. “After the game we’re going over to Bambi’s house, have a sandwich and a beer and then we are going to come back to the ballpark when it is dark and everybody is gone and let Bambi go out onto the mound and we’ll see if it works.’’
Good plan. Poor execution.
“We get back to the ballpark, open it up and I forgot that we had these two attack dogs to protect the park,’’ McKeon said. “Here come these attack dogs after us, so shit – we got to lock up. Right outside the park is a small mountain. I said okay Bambi you take this flashlight and walk up towards that mountain and I’ll talk to you, if you hear me flash the light.’’
Remember, Bamberger only had a receiver in his pocket, he could not talk back to McKeon. The mountain test worked to perfection.
Bamberger is pitching the second game of a doubleheader the next day. McKeon is going to have a meeting with his team to explain the new device in between games. He wanted to keep it on the down low.
Except a scout came in to meet with McKeon and there was no team meeting. The electronic wizardry is only known to Bamberger and McKeon.
McKeon tells his pitcher when someone gets on first. “Don’t even look over there I will tell you when to throw over.
“Ray Looney, who ended up being an FBI agent and lives in Ft. Myers, I just talked to him the other day, he’s playing first,’’ McKeon said. “The runner takes a big lead off first, I say to Bambi ‘Throw’ and he hits Looney right in the chest.’’
Good news was the transmitter worked but the bugs had to be worked out of the bugs.
August 8, 1962: Mounties pitcher George Bamberger awaits his instructions via his electronic receiver placed inside a sewn-in pocket on the inside of his jersey. Photo: Van Porter - The Salt Lake Tribune
“Half my team didn’t know that we were using this thing until the story broke the next day in the afternoon, that we were using this thing.’’
Good scoop by Jack Lee and not poor Ray Looney, who eventually found a better calling in the FBI. From that point on things went smoothly.
“The purpose was,’’ McKeon said, “as an instructional tool. When I had a young pitcher out there with Bambi beside me, we could develop that kid, what to think about, get his thought process together. It worked good. Had more fun with it. We had great (press) coverage off CBS, the Canadian Broadcast System, and matter of fact, I was going through my stuff the other day and I still have the license. I had to send to Ottawa to get my transmitter approved. I filed the proper paperwork to make it legal. I just talked into the transmitter. It became great public relation for the league.’’
The league ran with it. Minor league baseball at its finest.
So much so the GM at Spokane called McKeon to help him out with a promotion. Give McKeon an inch and he will take a mile. He gladly helped the Spokane GM, telling him, “You own a radio station, get your equipment out to the field and they had guys with earphones, tables set up, these small dishes, trying to intercept my transmission. They could have picked me up if they had the right crystals.’’
McKeon had fun with his pitchers too.
“I’d say to Gerry Arrigo ‘hey how about a Little rock & roll while you are warming up and I’d turn on the Red Robin’s Rock & Roll Show in Spokane. The next inning I’d say: ‘TF 35 go to the Ridpath Hotel.’’
Yes, there was a Ridpath Hotel in Spokane. McKeon had his fun.
In a trip to Hawaii to play the AAA Islanders, McKeon took the small receiver and stuck it in Bamberger’s pocket as he went over to talk to a former teammate at the batting cage, a player who was now playing for Hawaii. McKeon then transmitted to the receiver calling the unsuspecting player “a big fat goat.’’
The player had no clue who was calling him a goat. Later McKeon’s transmitter interfered with the PA system, causing a bit of an uproar.
“We go to San Diego,’’ McKeon recalled of another road trip, “and the headlines would read: ‘Wireless Mounties Come to Town.’ ‘Space Kids come to Town.’’
Remember what I said about McKeon running with an idea. Well, you have no idea.
August 3, 1962: McKeon and Bamberger test out their radio setups before a game with the Honolulu Islanders. Photo: Y. Ishii - The Honolulu Advertiser
He took a batting helmet and brought a car antenna and screwed the antenna into the helmet. Go wireless or go home.
Then there was the game in San Diego when Bamberger got knocked out in about the fourth inning, McKeon said, and the fans let him have it, yelling, “Hey Bamberger, you’re tuned into the wrong station.’’’
Again, this is 55 years before the Astros did their thing. When he heard about the Astros cheating what did McKeon think?
“I was way ahead of the game,’’ McKeon said with a laugh. “I did this in 1962. I would have done it earlier, but I managed in all those little towns, I was just lucky that Marconi was a big electronic company in Vancouver.’’
McKeon repeated that he wasn’t stealing information from the opponent like the Cheatin’ Astros did, he was simply giving information to his pitchers, trying to get them to improve in their minor league quest. Gerry Arrigo improved and went on to pitch 10 years in the majors.
“Listen, I used it as an instructional tool and later on I used it in the American Association when I managed,’’ he said. “Once I got suspended for three days for getting tobacco juice on an umpire’s shirt, so I just sat in the stands with my transmitter and told Bambi whatever I needed to tell him.’’
In the International League, McKeon finally ran into transmission trouble.
“George Sisler is the president of the league and he bans it, saying another manager griped, saying it wasn’t fair that I could talk to my pitcher without being charged a visit to the mound. So they made me stop,’’ McKeon said.
Now that you truly understand Jack McKeon’s boldness, you just knew this wasn’t the end of transmitter time.
Banned in the minors, not in the majors.
“When I managed in Kansas City, I wired Steve Boros when he was the third base coach,’’ McKeon told BallNine, revealing a baseball secret from 1975. “Instead of giving him signs I just talked to him. Not many people knew I did that. Like put the bunt on. I would still give him actual signs that were fake.’’
Even the Cheatin’ Astros could not have stolen those verbal signs.
By the way, McKeon, remember – he was a catcher – stole signs the old-fashioned way.
“You’d steal them but you wouldn’t steal them that way,’’ he said of the Astros using a centerfield camera to steal signs. “You stole them because the catcher was careless where he would leave his legs wide enough open that the third base coach could see that. It wasn’t cheating, it was taking advantage of someone’s carelessness.
“In those days most of the hitters didn’t want to know the other team’s signs even if you had their signs, they were afraid the pitcher would throw at them or that the sign would be misinterpreted,’’ McKeon said.
Back then issues were taken care of on the field. McKeon was player/manager in Missoula, Montana in 1958, his third year in the Pioneer League managing the Timberjacks, a Washington affiliate.
It was a 17-man roster, a manager had to be creative with his players and the use of them. McKeon would catch a young pitcher who went on to have a pretty good major league career. The two hit it off as McKeon helped mold the left-hander, bringing him out early for defensive work nearly every day. The kid was Jim Kaat, who went on to pitch 25 years in the major leagues and should be in the Hall of Fame. Kaat won 16 Gold Gloves and finished with 283 victories and a 3.45 ERA.
If the opposing team was stealing signs McKeon would take care of it on the field.
“I used to do that with Kaat,’’ McKeon explained. “If the opposing team had a guy on second base tipping them off, I’d walk out onto the mound and say, ‘Look Jimmy, first pitch. I put down fastball, throw a curve. If I put down curveball, you throw a fastball.’ It took about two pitches and you took care of that.’’
Jim Kaat was 19. McKeon made a bet with those in charge, saying that Kaat would make it to the majors before their top pitching prospect in the organization. Kaat finished 16-9 with 223 innings and a 2.99 ERA. Lessons were learned. He made it to Washington the next season.
Jack McKeon did it his way, always, remember as GM of the Padres he stole Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn in the third round of the 1981 draft. As a 27-year-old player-manager in Missoula – his fourth year as a skipper – he would still have another 13 years in the minors before he got his first shot in the majors with the Royals.
And here we are now in crazy 2020, and all that time, Trader Jack rarely got his signals crossed.