Tim Keefe: A Biography of the Hall of Fame Pitcher and Player-Rights Advocate by Charlie Bevis
Despite winning 342 major-league games and serving as a driving force behind both the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, baseball's first labor union, and its offshoot, the Players' League (PL), Hall of Fame pitcher Tim "Sir Timothy" Keefe is virtually unknown to the average fan and often overlooked by even knowledgeable baseball writers. That he played in the nineteenth century, left behind little written evidence of his life outside the ballpark, and was a "virtual recluse" (236) during the final three decades of his life is part of the explanation. But he also has been overshadowed by John Montgomery Ward, his New York Giants teammate, fellow labor leader, and, for a time, brother-in-law. Unlike Keefe, Ward, a Columbia-trained lawyer, wrote prolifically about player rights and continued to represent them in the courtroom long after his own playing days were over. Consequently, when the leadership of the Brotherhood and PL is discussed, the focus is almost always on Ward, seldom on Keefe, though both were intimately involved in their creation and operation until they collapsed in late 1890. Not surprisingly, Ward is the subject of two full-length biographies, Keefe none.
Charlie Bevis seeks to address this oversight in his new book on Keefe, the first-ever biography of the man who holds the record for most consecutive seasons of 30 or more pitching wins (6) and remains tied with Rube Marquard for the record for most consecutive victories in a season (19). As with his other baseball work, most notably his book on Sunday baseball, Tim Keefe is extensively researched, with frequent reliance on primary sources, and well written. Bevis is to be commended not just for achieving a fully realized portrait of the modest and privacy-seeking Keefe, but also providing the reader useful information about the potato famine and resulting Irish emigration; amateur, [End Page 190] semi-pro, and college baseball in the 19th century; the struggle between players and owners which led first to the Brotherhood in 1885 and then to the Players' League in 1889–90; and, most important, the artisan tradition in which Keefe was raised (his father was a skilled carpenter and house builder) and which he sought to apply to his career as a ballplayer. Bevis writes that "Keefe considered himself to be an artisan of the baseball profession" (9), and he continually stresses the significance of the apprentice-journeyman-master system for Keefe.
Bevis tells Keefe's story in a linear fashion, beginning with the emigration of his father from Ireland to the United States in 1847, moving quickly through his childhood (in part because there is little information about it), covering his growth as a ballplayer playing with amateur and semipro teams and in the minor leagues, and his ascension to the major leagues with Troy of the National League in 1880 at the age of 23. Bevis is able to describe Keefe's greatest successes as a pitcher, with the New York Metropolitans of the American Association (1883–84) and New York Giants of the National League (1885–89), in much detail because of the extensive coverage newspapers of the day gave to the national pastime. He focuses on Keefe's abilities as a master of "strategic" or "clever pitching" (103), noting the many types of pitches he threw, all with varying speeds, arm motions (sidearm to overhand), and positions in the pitcher's box, as well as his decidedly modern approach of studying the strengths and weaknesses of each batter. Separate chapters are devoted to his 42-victory season in 1886, his 19 consecutive wins in 1888, and his ability to adapt to the numerous pitching rule changes that occurred during his career (a complete list is provided in an appendix). Bevis also records Keefe's offseason work as a college pitching coach, land owner, and sporting goods proprietor, as well as his contributions about pitching to two book-length baseball training manuals, excerpts of which are provided as appendices.
A good portion of the book is devoted to Keefe's belief in and work for player rights. In particular, Keefe joined with Ward and other Giant players (including Buck Ewing, Roger Connor, and Mickey Welch) as a founding member of the Brotherhood in October 1885. He was elected secretary, at least in part because of his self-education in shorthand. Bevis clearly explains the motivations of both Keefe and Ward in establishing the Brotherhood, and, four years later, the Players' League as a challenge to the existing organizational structure of major league baseball. Ward was the public voice and is given much of the credit for the PL's initial success, but Bevis is convincing in his assertion that "Keefe no doubt had a much larger role [than Ward] in maintaining the solidarity [of the players]" (184). Ultimately, the league's financial backers succumbed to National League pressure, leading to its demise after [End Page 191] one season and, unfortunately, to the bankruptcy of Keefe's sporting goods venture (it had exclusive rights to provide the PL with balls).
This was the start of a downward cycle for Keefe, which included three soso years as a pitcher before his retirement in 1893 (at which time he was the career leader in strikeouts and second only to Pud Galvin in pitching wins), a largely unsuccessful stint as a National League umpire, and the dissolution of his marriage. Having "severed his relationship with baseball" in 1897 after umpiring his last game, Keefe lived a "quiet life" in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over the next three decades, primarily relying on income from several real estate properties he purchased during his playing career (235). He died in 1933 at the age of 76. Elected along with Ward to the Hall of Fame in 1964, his plaque honors his prowess as a strategic pitcher ("One of the first pitchers to use a change of pace delivery."), but Bevis surmises that Keefe "would have wanted his legacy to be his role in the Brotherhood" (251). With the publication of Tim Keefe, Charlie Bevis just may help achieve that goal.