“A Gilded Youth”

10 Jul

Byron D. J. McKeown was born to wealth in 1872 or ’73 (census records say he was born in july of 1872, his death records list his birth year as 1873).  His father, John, immigrated to Western Pennsylvania from Ireland and struck it rich in the oil business.  By the time he died in 1891 he owned oil wells throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and more than 40,000 acres of land in Mississippi; depending on the source he was worth from $2-$10 million.

Byron, one of five brothers, inherited a large portion of his father’s fortune, although there was a legal battle over the estate for more than 20 years—John’s Irish relatives said they were his proper heirs because they claimed John and his wife were never married.

In 1896, the wealthy 23-year-old, who had been playing amateur baseball and formerly played at Washington and Jefferson College, decided to become a professional baseball player and bought his own team.  The Warren (PA) Evening Democrat said:

“There are but few men of wealth among baseballists, and in all the world there is but one millionaire player.”

McKeown organized a team in the Interstate League in his hometown called the Washington (PA) Little Senators (Some sources incorrectly place the team in Washington D.C.).  His college teammate, David Curran, was the team captain.

The Sporting Life called McKeown “A gilded youth who follows the game for pastime.”  McKeown said:

“I am just playing for the sport of it; I have nothing else to do.  I have a leaning towards baseball and thought I would cultivate it”

There are no statistics for McKeown, but the few surviving assessments of his ability as a player are positive.  Toledo Mud Hens manager Frank Torreyson said:

“McKeown can hit the ball…sometimes he is liable to drive it out of sight.”

The Washington (PA) Observer said:

“McKeown is making quite a record as a first baseman.”

While he appears to have played well, things didn’t go smoothly for McKeown’s team.

While Washington, Pennsylvania, with a population of just more than 7000 was, by far, the smallest town in the Interstate League, initially, there was excitement for the club.  The Observer said that the Western Pennsylvania Agricultural Association was providing a home field for the team at the Washington County Fairgrounds.

The Sporting Life said McKeown was “Sure to receive strong financial support from Washington enthusiasts.”

He didn’t.

Professional baseball was not a hit in the small Pennsylvania town.  By the end of July The Sporting Life said the team had lost more than $4000 dollars and had recently played a home game that had only brought in $3.50 in total receipts.

By September McKeown had lost more than $8000 and decided to disband the team before the end of the season. The Observer said that at one August game there was not a single paid attendee.

Over the next several months, McKeown attempted to buy another Interstate league franchise, the Saginaw Lumbermen.  He told a reporter from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had “every one of last season’s players reserved,” and would “put a strong team on the field.”

The bid to buy the Lumbermen fell through and after a brief stint as first baseman for an Elks Club team, McKeown seems to have lost interest in playing professionally or owning a team.

Two years later McKeown joined the 10th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, “The Fighting 10th” and served in the Spanish-American War.  The Pittsburgh Daily Post said:

“Western Pennsylvania is sending one of her millionaires  to the front to fight for Cuban Independence…Mr. McKeown has been in sympathy with Cuba in their fight against their mother country.”

Curran, his college and minor league teammate, joined him.

McKeown also fought in the Philippine Insurrection and played first base with his regiment’s baseball team in Manila (Curran played second).

He returned to his business interests in Pennsylvania, and after his 25-year-old wife Nellie died of peritonitis in March of 1902, he began to drink heavily, and his death on November 24,  1904, was attributed to alcoholism.(Several Pennsylvania newspapers said he died on November 23; his death certificate says November 24).

The man responsible for Washington, Pennsylvania’s only professional baseball team, was buried in the Washington Cemetery.

This is an update of a post that originally appeared on December 26, 2012.

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