Regal hurler Tim Keefe was a New York matinee idol in the 19th century

Helmar Polar Night #28 featuring Tim Keefe.

How long ago did Tim Keefe throw the horsehide from a pitching rubber? Well, consider this: two of his uncle’s died in the Civil War. That’s the American Civil War, the one that finished up 155 years ago.

Keefe is a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. The right-hander was credited with 342 victories, a sum exceeded by only nine pitchers. When he tossed his final pitch in 1893, “Smiling Tim” ranked second all-time in victories behind James “Pud” Galvin.

Born in Massachusetts in 1857, Keefe grew up in the shadows of Harvard University, but collegiate pursuits were not in his plans. But before we get to Keefe’s feats in the game they called “base ball,” it’s necessary to return to the topic of the Civil War.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Keefe’s father Patrick was in the south working as a laborer. Being a northerner and finding himself in enemy territory, the elder Keefe was urged to fight for the Confederates. But Patrick Keefe refused to pick up a rifle and fight his own brothers. As a result of his principled stand, Mr. Keefe was sent to prison in South Carolina, where he spent three years making bullets for the southern Army. When he returned to Massachusetts, he found son Tim was nine years old and a baseball player.

How many ballplayers never had a chance to march toward the big leagues because their fathers blocked their path? It was a common story for youngsters in the 19th century, and Mr. Keefe wished that Tim would learn science and mathematics and get a good education. But we all know what happened: little Tim Keefe preferred to wear spikes and trhe heavy wools of a baseball uniform, disappointing his father. Ultimately he would be vindicated.

Keefe was originally an infielder, but in 1879, when the Utica team was traveling through Cambridge, they found themselves short a pitcher for an exhibition game. A local told the manager about Keefe’s strong right arm, and the youngster was enlisted to pitch the contest. Wouldn’t you know it? Keefe’s audition came agai9nst the Harvard varsity team. In a complete game effort, Keefe stymied the Harvard lineup and notched the win. That evening he was offered a contract to play in the East Coast League. He was on his way.

After only one season as a “busher” in the minor leagues, Keefe was signed by the Troy Trojans of the National League in 1880. In those days teams used a one-man pitching staff for the most part, so Keefe was used to spell the ace, Mickey Welch. In his first major league start, Keefe got the victory. He started 12 games in a half season, all of them complete games, and allowed only 10 runs in 105 innings. His record in his first big league season was 6-6.

Keefe had an above average fastball, which he threw from three different arm positions: overhand, three-quarter, and sidearm. He also used an off-speed pitch, which he called a “change of pace.” The change would be his most devastating weapon in a 14-year career as one of the National League’s finest moundsmen.

For much of Keefe’s career he spent time in a rotation with Welch, who also won 300 games and ended up with a plaque in Cooperstown. Welch was a harder thrower, using a more simple approach on the mound: throwing the ball past the batter. Keefe, as noted by the Troy newspapers, was “very deceptive, hard to hit, and full of curves.” In 1883, Keefe won 41 games for the New York Metropolitans during a brief foray into the American Association, which at that time was a major league. A few seasons later Keefe’s career (and life) were changed when he was acquired by the Giants.

The New York Giants were still an infant franchise when Keefe joined them for the 1885 season. It was only the third year the team was playing in the National League, but they were already gaining traction. Welch was on the roster, which was shaped by Jim Mutrie, the grizzled manager. Mutrie spared no time or expense in finding the best ballplayers on the east coast. The Giants accumulated some of the game’s brightest superstars, including first baseman Roger Connor, infielders Danny Richardson, Jack Glasscock, and Buck Ewing, as well as outfielders Mike Tiernan, and later Jesse “Crab” Burkett.

Mutrie’s Giants won the league title in 1888 and 1889, which resulted in their star players becoming the toast of New York City. In both seasons, the Giants triumphed in a post-season exhibition series against the champion of the American Association, in what was a precursor to the modern World Series. Keefe went 63-25 in those two seasons (including a record 19 wins in a row) and added a 4-1 record in five starts in the World Series.

Off the field, Keefe was a gentleman, a serious fella who liked to travel and read. He was so regal on the field that fans in New York dubbed him “Sir Timothy,” and he became an idol in the late 19th century, one of the most famous athletes in the country. He won at least 28 games in seven consecutive seasons, and twice he paced the NL in strikeouts and earned run average.

While Keefe was a matinee idol in The Big Apple, he captured himself a star of his own. The handsome ballplayer married actress Clara Gibson from Cincinnati, a noted stage beauty in the Queen City. His teammate and best friend John Ward married Clara’s sister.

Keefe pitched his final game in 1893 at the age of 36 for the Phillies. That season the National League moved the mound to its present distance of 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. The switch hampered Sir Timothy’s ability to get batters out and he retired. He came back into the league as an umpire a few years later, attempted a career as a college coach, and finally left the game to focus on real estate in Massachusetts.

Keefe died at the age of 76 on April 23, 1933, in Cambridge and is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery.

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