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A former baseball standout at West Morgan High, Calhoun and Alabama in the 1970s, Larry Keenum coached the Athens State softball team during 1990-2004.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
A former baseball standout at West Morgan High, Calhoun and Alabama in the 1970s, Larry Keenum coached the Athens State softball team during 1990-2004.

Love of the Game
Ex-baseball standout, softball coach Keenum never lost his passion to play

By Mark Edwards
medwards@decaturdaily.com 340-2461

Larry Keenum grew up in Trinity, with his family living in one of four houses on the side of the road.

The Keenums lived in the second house and had a big backyard — big enough that Larry and his friends called it a baseball field.

As children, they played often on that makeshift field.

The way Keenum remembers it, his father, Arthur "Mojo" Keenum, came home from work at Decatur Iron and Steel one day, saw the children playing baseball, and commented to Larry's mother, Alyine, "Them boys are wearing out the yard."

"My mother answered back, 'The grass will come back,' " said Keenum, 52, who now lives in Athens.

Keenum added that his mother would rather have her son and his friends close by, "wearing out the yard," than going off some place where she couldn't keep an eye on them.

To her, backyard baseball was a good thing for her son and his friends.

To Larry Keenum, baseball was a good thing — and still is. He loved it as a child, loved it as a high school and college student and loves it as a middle-aged adult. He played through the low-level minor leagues, and eventually became an accomplished coach of fast-pitch softball, which has rules much similar to baseball.

His accomplishments have landed him in this year's class for the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame.

He began playing when he was 6. Trinity didn't have a youth league for children that young, but Decatur did, and his parents allowed him to play there.

Among his first coaches were his father and Scott McClanahan, whose son, Mark, eventually played at Auburn and helped the Tigers to the College World Series. He also was coached through the years by Allan McCollum, George Knop, Arnold Russell and Bernard Thomas.

Keenum played shortstop and pitcher, because that's usually where the better athletes with strong arms landed.

"When I was young, I didn't know anybody who didn't play baseball," Keenum said. "That was part of growing up."

When he was 10, he was old enough to join the Trinity leagues, and his teams played all over the county.

"We would play in West Morgan, Flint, Danville, Slipup — every Saturday, we went to a different venue to play," he said.

By the time, he reached ninth grade and could play at West Morgan High, he was an accomplished player. Just within the county, Keenum found plenty of competition to face on the baseball field.

"It seemed like everybody had a pitcher or two and some hitters," Keenum said.

"We played teams like Decatur and Austin, and we would win our share. Back then, it seemed like everybody in the county and the city (of Decatur) were about equal."

During the summer after the high school season ended, baseball didn't slow down for Keenum and his friends. Instead of playing in his backyard, they graduated to Johnson Field in Flint.

"We would drag the field, rake it, take care of it," Keenum said, "and we would stay all day and play. That's just what you did back then."

By the time Keenum reached his senior year at West Morgan in 1972, he was the team's top hitter.

Old roundups in The Decatur Daily from that spring always featured Keenum prominently. On April 11, he ripped three singles in an 8-4 win over Falkville. In case you gather from that game that he didn't hit for power, just check three days later when West Morgan beat Danville 11-0. He slammed two home runs in that game.

Later in the month, he pitched and lost to Lawrence County 5-1, but still managed a pair of singles. He struck out eight batters, too.

Even though he hit well at West Morgan, he didn't gain attention from college programs until he played in the Lions' Club East-West Game after his senior season. A few days later, Fred Frickie, then Calhoun's coach, approached Keenum and offered him an academic scholarship to the school.

The valedictorian at West Morgan, Keenum didn't think twice about accepting.

"It my mind, I always figured I'd keep playing baseball," he said.

Keenum said Frickie told him that he liked his poise. Keenum was pitching in the game and hit a batter on the arm. The batter went to first base, took his lead and was rubbing his arm. Keenum picked him off.

It was at Calhoun where Keenum experienced his first real setback in the sport. After tearing apart pitching in backyard games, youth leagues and high school baseball, he struggled to hit.

Keenum said he remembers hitting something close to .055 his freshman season at Calhoun, where he played second and third base.

"It may have been .100," he said with a laugh. "I think I had batted 50 times and got about five hits, which would be .100."

Keenum credited Frickie with not giving up on him.

"Instead of getting down on me, he approached me like, 'Let's help you get better,' " Keenum said.

Keenum said that Frickie's lessons about discipline at the plate sank in after that horrid freshman season.

"What I didn't know is that in high school, pitchers don't throw you a lot of strikes," he said. "So I was undisciplined at the plate. In junior college, they could throw strikes. Also, they could throw their off-speed pitches for strikes, too.

"I was lunging at the ball, but I was taught not to do that. I wanted to pull everything, but I was taught to hit to the opposite field."

Keenum also came upon this bit of understanding — he wasn't better than most every other player like he had been in the past.

The new, improved Keenum didn't have to wait until the next season to prove his worth again. He got a chance that summer with a Babe Ruth League team in Hartselle.

He was still 18, which was the top age limit. He played on a team coached by Ruben Sims and included future Alabama football defensive back Les Fowler. Keenum helped the squad finish second in the state.

He returned to Calhoun ready to perform better for the Warhawks, and he did — he set a school record by hitting .463.

He played so well that he caught the attention of Southeastern Conference programs, including Alabama, which was coached by Hayden Riley. Frickie had played at Alabama and was an All-American, and Keenum said that he figured Frickie had plenty to do with the Crimson Tide offering him a scholarship.

"Alabama needed what I had, apparently, and I was more than willing to go," he said.

He played shortstop as a junior in 1975, and quickly established himself as one of the team's top hitters. As Alabama posted a 34-32 record, Keenum led the team in batting average (.310), hits (66), runs (39) and RBIs (40).

As for his abilities in the field, well, he has a joke about his wild throws.

"Coach Riley used to tell people to sit in the first-base stands, and I'd give them a free ball," Keenum said. "I could hit, but I was an average fielder."

He also found that at Alabama, he was judged on his production. For him, that was good.

"It didn't matter where you were from," he said. "Instead, it was about what you did on the field. We had three guys that year from junior college who started, and to the rest of the guys, it didn't matter that we just got there.

"For the first time, my production was what I was known for."

As a senior in 1976, he got hurt and was limited to designated hitter, but he hit even better. His .392 batting average was Alabama's highest since 1963, and nobody hit that high again until 1982. He led the team in runs (30) and home runs (seven).

Back then, legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant led the Alabama football team, and even Keenum and his baseball teammates felt his influence.

"The SEC all-sports trophy was a big thing," Keenum said. "The whole athletic department was like one big team, and if the spring sports didn't win, we wouldn't win the all-sports trophy.

"Coach Riley would tell us, 'Coach Bryant expects us all to do well.' "

Keenum said Bryant would sit in the stands for one or two games a year.

"People wouldn't leave him alone," he said. "But his office faced the baseball field, so he could watch us from up there."

After Alabama, he played two seasons of professional baseball. He spent one year with the Baton Rouge Cougars, a Class A team. His second year was with the Alabama Barons.

"That was the first time that I started thinking that baseball was going to end pretty soon," he said. "With most minor league teams, it's 21 guys playing catch with one prospect."

He continued in sports, however, as a coach and junior high science teacher at Falkville during 1978-80. He then spent 1980-81 as a graduate assistant coach for Alabama's baseball team, while earning his masters degree.

He spent two more years at Alabama working in the alumni relations office before heading to Athens State as director of alumni affairs.

In 1990, the school began a fast-pitch softball program, and Keenum was named the coach. For a field, the team used an old baseball field just north of campus.

By 1994, his team finished second in the NAIA softball championships — a considerable accomplishment because at the time, almost no high schools or junior colleges in Alabama sponsored fast-pitch softball.

However, Athens State was able to recruit nationally. Also, it helped that most schools in the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 hadn't started softball yet. That widened the talent pool for NAIA schools like Athens State.

"By accomplishing what we did quickly, we were able to get better players," Keenum said. "When a player would ask what we had done, we had something to show her."

Keenum said that it helped that Athens residents took to the team.

"We garnered community support quickly," he said. "People liked the program. The team became part of the community real quick."

Athens State kept winning, too. After finishing second in NAIA in 1994, Athens State did it again in 1997. The team was fourth in 1996 and 2000.

But it didn't last.

In 2004, the school dropped the program. Even so, Keenum said he's proud of what his teams accomplished, especially the graduation rate.

"We never had a player who finished her career with us who didn't graduate," he said.

These days, Keenum still works at Athens State.

He works as director of career services. He also teaches a couple of education classes at ASU.

"I help kids find jobs," he said.

He has remained in touch with athletics. He serves as an assistant coach for Calhoun's softball team, which is coached by his sister, Nancy Keenum.

Larry and his wife, Jeanne, a fifth-grade teacher, have two daughters — Laura Leigh, a senior-to-be at Athens State, and Lacey, junior-to-be at ASU. Both daughters played softball at Calhoun.

Morgan Co. Sports Hall of Fame

Larry Keenum will enter the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Decatur Holiday Inn. A reception will be at 6 p.m. The Hall of Fame also will induct Alfred and Donald Poole, Rick Stukes, Roger Ferrell and Preston and Johnny Newman. Stories on them have appeared this week in The Decatur Daily.

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