BSMW Retro – Clif Keane, The Original “Poison Pen”

Something I stumbled across while doing a little research for an upcoming post/poll for the site was this 1966 Sports Illustrated article by Frank Deford entitled Lots Of Fun With A Poison Pen.

Deford follows and writes about legendary Boston Globe sports columnist Clif Keane in this feature, focusing on Keane as “an irreverent humorist, a Boston sportswriter who gets his best stories from the athletes he needles the most.”

Here are a few snippets from the piece:

At 54, Keane believes that he is mellowing, but few people he writes about would agree, even after they get the hatchet out of their backs. As a reporter, Keane remains a model of brutal objectivity-or objective brutality. When President Eisenhower visited Newport to play golf, the Globe dispatched Keane, a golf nut himself, to cover the action. Keane wired back a story that began by reporting that the President cheated on the fairways and in the rough. That was the last President the Globe has let Keane cover.

Then a little later on is an example of Keane’s needling:

But, uh-oh, here comes Clif Keane now, into the Cleveland clubhouse. “We’ll have some fun,” he says, rubbing his hands together and peering over his bifocals for new targets. There are a lot of lines around Keane’s eyes, but they are not like the crow’s-feet on most people’s, for they only appear when he laughs-or in the mere anticipation of hanging it on someone. This is what happens now, as soon as Clif sees Early Wynn, the pitching coach.

“Hey, you big dumb Indian,” Keane calls warmly, “when’re you going back to the reservation? You’re so fat you couldn’t get in the teepee anyway.”

“You talk,” Wynn says, thumbing at the game ball.

“When’ll McDowell be really ready?”

“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.

Light-hearted as that exchange was, you’d never be able to get away with that in today’s world.

I thought this bit was interesting:

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.”

What? A newspaper writer who didn’t go to college? Worked his way all the way from the bottom to become one of the top sports columnists in Boston? Not bad.

If you haven’t already, please cast your vote in the Who is the Best Sports Columnist? poll.

  • Angry Old Bastard

    is it possible to call somebody a big dumb Indian, “warmly”?

  • Steve

    I think Clif Keane was the writer who told Jim Rice, “I can make you or I can break you.” No wonder why Jim Ed didn’t care for the press.

  • Tony

    I remember the old “Cliff and Claf” show on the Red Sox flagship station in the late-70s. Try to envision two guys playing Dana Carvey’s old “Grumpy Old Man” character from SNL, and then multiply the grumpiness by a factor of 10. That will give you an idea of what that show was like.

  • Lance

    The fact Keane is considered a legend by many in Boston is why Boston has a poor press reputation around the country. He was a douche in any age.

  • just_doodling_and_thinking

    After reading the snippets of Clif’s “conversation” with Early Wynn, doesn’t it seem that Wynn was close to attacking Clif? They barely seemed to be civil. Apparently, Wynn had reason not to be civil.

  • Steve

    Boston has a poor press reputation because the players resent writers for being part of the celebrity culture. The fans are partially responsible for making the writers “celebrities” because of the obsession the general public in Boston has with the media.

  • T-man

    I also remember, as a teenager listening to the Cliff and Claff radio show. Keane’s ongoing rants against George Scott, including mocking his eating chicken in the locker room, seemed pretty racist. It made me wonder what he said when not on the airwaves.

  • tom green

    Keane had his moments but was only a shadow of the REAL poison pen. The Colonel Dave Egan who wrote for the Record – American back in the 40s. Oh how Ted Williams hated that man!

  • ObjectiveBruce

    I was never a Clif Keane fan and found far too many of his references, on the radio at least, to be obnoxiously unfunny — T-Man hit the nail on the head with respect to his attacks on George Scott. He really wasn’t a columnist, but took the daily notes portion of his stories beyond the standard we then associated with a game story.

    However, he lead the paper on October 2, 1967 with a lede that still dances in my head (I’m reciting from memory here):
    “It started off to be a rebuilding year but grew faster than a castle in the sky. The Red Sox, with all their youth, are in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.”

  • Sluggo

    Famous Clif and Claf story reported by Jack Craig years ago. Larry Claflin of the Herald-American was a veteran Sox beat reporter. He constantly had to shout over Clif because Keane was hard of hearing, and pig-headed to boot. An elderly woman calls into the show:

    CALLER: “I was reading the sports page to my husband this morning, and –”
    CLIF (Interrupting): “Why wasn’t he reading it himself? Is your husband a dummy or something?”
    (slight pause)
    CALLER (calm voice): “No, Clif. I read the sports page to my husband because he’s blind.”
    CLIF: “He’s what?”
    CLAFLIN: “Her husband is blind, Clif.”
    CLIF (starting to yell): “HE’S WHAT???”
    CLAFLIN (screaming): “HE’S BLIND!! HE’S BLIND!!!!!!”

  • Dave from Natick

    I remember one day, and i think it was during the 1978 season, the Clif and Claf show was on and the radio “cough switch” failed. For those who don’t know, a cough switch was a device used when the announcer need to clear his throat. He would push the cough switch, which literally killed the audio for a second or two while he coughed. This day, a caller was giving Clif a particularly hard time about George Scott. A very agitated Clif screamed a vulgar response to the caller, but he hit the cough switch thinking his tirade would not be broadcast. Alas, as Claflin retold the story, the cough switch failed and everyone heard Clif say, “F— you buddy, that’s F-U-blank-blank!” True story.

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