Friday, October 07, 2005

Now Batting ... Babe Ruth

At First, Cliff Keeney Was Steamed When He Heard His Manager Say Take A Seat. Then He Heard ...

Courant Staff Writer

Courtesy of the Hartford Courant

September 28 2005
EAST HARTFORD -- Cliff Keeney peered at the yellowed sports cover of The Courant. In small type in the box score of the second game was this historical line:a - Ruth hit for Keeney in 3rd"Remember that old TV show with Garry Moore, `I've Got A Secret'? Well, I should have been on it because I've got a secret that no one else has," Keeney said.

It is believed that Babe Ruth, pinch hitting for Keeney, took his last swing in a game 60 years ago Friday at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford."The Babe hit for me, how about that, and he never played again," said Keeney, 90, sitting in his home, surrounded by other newspaper articles and photographs of that Sept. 30, 1945, doubleheader.

That afternoon, Ruth had agreed to perform for the Savitt Gems semipro team in an exhibition. The 2,500 fans cheered when Ruth hit six home runs in batting practice. He also signed autographs before the Gems played the New Britain Codys."Now Babe was 50 and he certainly wasn't in playing shape," Keeney said. "So he was given some nice pitches to hit out."Ruth, appearing to weigh in excess of 250 pounds, had to wear a specially-stitched Gems uniform."He obviously was not in baseball shape, but in his day he was a massive, strong man," Keeney said.

"A guy today who reminds me of him is David Ortiz of the Red Sox. Ruth would have loved it because his former teams are playing in a huge series."Keeney is a Yankees fan. His respect for Joe DiMaggio and his connection with Ruth aided his conversion from his early allegiance to the St. Louis Cardinals."Way back I loved the Gas House Gang and Frankie Frisch, who was my idol," Keeney said.

Keeney was a second baseman, too. He played in 1935-50 in various Connecticut leagues, playing for teams that included the Bluefields, British-Americans, Gems and Polish-Americans. His best season was '49 when he batted .409, committed just three errors and was named MVP of the Manchester Twilight League.Keeney gently opened the delicate newspaper clippings with his thick, farmer hands."I milked cows, worked in the fields, did all the chores," he said of growing up at the family's 150-acre farm in Manchester.His powerful hands quickened his bat."If I wasn't working or playing a game, I'd hit stones with a bat," he said. "Just toss one up and hit it. I think that helped my swing and hitting eye."

Keeney played for the Gems in 1944-45."The Gems were the best semipro team in the state, and I loved playing at Bulkeley Stadium," Keeney said. "It had a grandstand and was a real nice park." But after the Hartford Chiefs' 1952 minor league season, the seats and lights of the ballpark were sold to minor league franchises in Albany and Richmond, Va.

The stadium was razed in the early '60s. But 60 years ago on a sunny Sunday, there was a doubleheader at the ballpark in Hartford's South End. Keeney was 2-for-3 in the first game. In Game 2 after making an out in the first inning, Keeney was in the on-deck circle."[Gems manager] Jigger Farrell called me back and said I'm getting pinch hit for," Kenney said. "Ruth was the guy. At first, I was a little mad because I was having a pretty good day, and I was getting hit for early in the game. All I could do was go back to the dugout."

Ruth, a man renowned for some prodigious home runs during his career, grounded out to the pitcher." After the game, he said he thought he should have hit one out," Kenney said. "I knew he wasn't happy because he slammed the bat down on his way back to the dugout, like it was the bat's fault."

Ruth maybe wanted to recapture what he had done 10 years earlier as a member of the Boston Braves, when he hit three homers, including his final one, No. 714, on May 25, 1935, against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The last home run, at the time, was believed to be the longest in the history of Forbes Field. His last major league game was five days later against the Philadelphia Phillies." The fans at Bulkeley Stadium wanted to see him hit one more homer," Keeney said. "It just didn't work out that last time."Ruth's name never appeared in another box score.

In 1946, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in his neck. He underwent surgery, but the cancer couldn't be removed. He died Aug. 16, 1948. "He had gotten so sick and the cancer took him so fast," Keeney said. Keeney is an avid reader of baseball and Ruth history. Two such books were on a coffee table in Keeney's living room. From memory, he recited numerous statistics, dates and facts about Ruth. In Keeney's dining room is a framed team photograph taken before that Gems doubleheader 60 years ago. Keeney is kneeling in the front row. Ruth is standing in the row behind him.

"I didn't realize the magnitude of it all at the time because they were just some exhibitions," Keeney said. "But Ruth's last appearance in a game, he pinch hit for me. That's forever special."

Courtesy of the Hartford Courant
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

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