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Frank Deford
October 03, 1966
The man that Cleveland Coach Early Wynn is eying whimsically is Clif Keane, an irreverent humorist, a Boston sportswriter who gets his best stories from the athletes he needles the most
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October 03, 1966

Lots Of Fun With A Poison Pen

The man that Cleveland Coach Early Wynn is eying whimsically is Clif Keane, an irreverent humorist, a Boston sportswriter who gets his best stories from the athletes he needles the most

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"I'm only the coach, you're the expert," Wynn replies. Around Keane his antagonists seem to play the roles he assigns them.

"You're just an unpleasant man," Keane says. "No wonder we stole Manhattan from you guys."

Wynn remains in the impassively stoic character that Keane has set for him. "I got by Williams," he grumps, "and I got by Greenberg. I can get by you, Keane." Poison Pen roars, and the laugh lines bloom.

"A lot of people, when they first meet me, think I'm as juicy as last week's grapefruit," Keane says. "The first time I met Johnny Temple, I walked up to him and, with this very straight face, I said, 'John, you've just come over from the National League and you've seen a few games here now. Tell me, John, who would you take: Warren Spahn or Pete Burnside?' Temple just stared at me, numb. Then he turned and walked away, shaking his head. Every time he would come to town after that, he would always ask: 'Where is that who-would-you-take guy?'"

Clif has been a needler ever since grade school in the Dorchester section of Boston, according to Herb Ralby, another Globe reporter. The neighborhood that little Clifton Joseph Keane grew up in was almost entirely Jewish, so Keane was known throughout Dorchester as "The Harp"—or, in the flat Boston dialect, "The Hop." It was, however, a profitable distinction, for Clif was able to finance himself on the dimes he picked up turning electric lights on and off for Orthodox Jews who were forbidden to make such mechanical adjustments on their Sabbath.

At age 8 or so he started playing golf over at Franklin Park. During his youth, Boston weather permitting, Keane played golf four or five times a week. However, as soon as his first child was born he swore off the game and did not pick up a club again until all three of his children were in their teens. Then he went back to the course, this time with his wife Bernice in tow. He taught her well. Today Bernice Keane is the perennial champion of the Meadow Brook Country Club. Clif's children have prospered, too. Dennis, 27, went to Harvard and Harvard Business School; Jacqueline, 23, graduated from Wheaton; and Ronald, 21, is now a senior at the University of Massachusetts.

Keane never went to college, nor did he ever write a newspaper story until he had been with the Globe for 13 years as a copy boy and real-estate space salesman. But since he began a quarter of a century ago he has covered virtually every sport, including a memorable dog show. A famous dog died, but Keane, unaware of the dog's esteem in the canine world, did not mention the fact until near the end of his story. The managing editor called him in to find out why. "A dog died," Keane replied. "I buried it."

Keane is as adept with mimicry as with mockery. Three years ago, when the Celtics had a long wait between planes in Chicago, Keane entertained a crowd that grew to 200 by imitating, one after another, every player there, the coach and the two referees who were present. His better baseball imitations are of Rocky Colavito warming up and Brooks Robinson fielding off balance. He never let up on Harvey Kuenn, a 200-pounder who hits singles. One day he brought Kuenn a bag of pebbles that he scattered in front of the plate—the easier, he explained to Kuenn, to chop cheap hits off. "The only thing you ever scared with your bat were the worms," he told him.

Strangely, Keane's poison pen is seldom used for writing, and many feel he would have had much greater success as a broadcaster. Some Globe staffers think that the paper itself has not given Keane enough free rein for his special talent for invective. "A couple of years ago," Keane says, "they suggested I move over and do a job on politics. You can't help but be funny with Massachusetts politics. You know, maybe that would have been better, but I figured it would be a big switch after so long. It's hard enough breaking in 20, 25 new players around the league each year. It's hard work kidding. It's serious business being funny when you're doing it for a purpose. I get exhausted. I really do. You can't ever lay an egg or you lose them. You've got to keep them interested, keep them coming closer."

So get ready, Detroit, here comes Clif Keane now. "We'll have some fun," Clif says, fooling with his tie. "Watch out, look who's here," Hank Aguirre cries. "Oh, God, I've got to wind my mind," Larry Sherry screams, trying to find a hiding place. Too late.

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