Tom Keyser spent the first 18 years of his life living on top of a grocery store. He’s spent the past 22 working from the 25th floor of a downtown high-rise.
Between the grocery store and the high-rise, Keyser, 70, married his college sweetheart and got divorced. He joined a prominent law firm and lost his license to practice. He accumulated wealth and went bankrupt. He partied with friends and got arrested for possession of cocaine.
The arrest became a pivot point. Instead of sending Keyser to prison, a judge sentenced him to an unusual form of community service. A seventh-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 1967, Keyser was ordered to build a baseball park. He was to turn a swath of wilderness near Camp Bullis into a field of dreams – with his own money.
Keyser started digging. With the help of a few friends, he built a fence and a backstop. He laid down sod and sand. He completed the field in 1986. Thirty-one years later, on June 6, the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court voted to name the field at Camp Bullis Park after the man who built it.
From his law office, Keyser spills a story he almost never lived to tell. His ex-wife was so certain he would die, she bought two black dresses: one for summer, the other for winter. In the 1980s, Keyser drifted through a fog of addiction and depression. He lost his marriage, a Porsche, a condo on the coast, a home in Oak Hills, and most of his money. In the summer of 1990, he picked up a loaded rifle and set it down. He climbed a chair and tied a rope around his neck.
“But I couldn’t take the step,” he said, “and I couldn’t pull the trigger.”
At the time, he did not know he would resume his law career; that he would become president of the San Antonio Bar Association; that he would get sober, make a documentary about his life, and inspire thousands of lawyers across Texas; that he would remarry and vacation with his new wife Constance and ex-wife Harriet and three blended families, visiting Disney World, Lake Tahoe, and most recently, Port Aransas.
“I’m lucky,” he said.
The rise and fall and recovery of Tom Keyser is stitched together like the red seams on a white baseball, which is how the story begins. The son of parents who worked on the railroad, Keyser grew up in a small apartment on the roof of a grocery store in Cumberland, Md. While visiting relatives in Michigan one summer, an uncle introduced him to baseball. Young Tom, about 8 years old, played at a park prophetically named Oriole Field.
Back in Cumberland, he attended parochial school, served his parish as an altar boy, and became a standout catcher at La Salle High School. Later, Keyser enrolled at Frostburg State, 10 miles down the road, flunked out and went to work on the railroad with his father in Green Springs, W.Va.
After six months of slapping creosote onto railroad ties, Keyser enrolled at nearby Allegany College and the Orioles drafted him. His father, a World War II veteran who did not finish high school, persuaded him to continue higher education. On the advice of an Orioles scout, Keyser matriculated to Southern Illinois University, playing on a team that would reach the championship game of the 1968 College World Series.
Keyser did not get to play. During a road trip to Phoenix in November 1967, the coach told him he was academically ineligible. Keyser raised his grades the next season, but a shoulder injury and eroding confidence ended his career.
“I was broken-hearted,” he said.
Harriet Hungerford, his sweetheart from Allegany College, lifted his spirits. They married and Keyser enrolled at St. Mary’s Law School. The couple had two sons, Shane and Mike. After his second year of law school, Keyser underwent surgery on the painful right shoulder that ended his baseball career. He passed the state bar, had a daughter, Erin, and joined a law firm in San Antonio’s Tower Life Building. He also became a third baseman for a softball team comprised of hard-partying lawyers. San Antonio Blue won nine consecutive state championships.
A teetotaling student in college, Keyser began to drink with teammates. Then he tried a line of cocaine. Unbeknownst to Harriet and the parents he led as PTA president at Mount Sacred Heart, Keyser developed an addiction.
Like a scene out of Miami Vice, federal agents swooped in on an unsuspecting friend driving Keyser around in a VW van in 1984. The feds had heard Keyser on a wiretap and surrounded him with squad cars near W.W. White Road, guns drawn. He had gone to collect $1,000 from a law client, but accepted another form of payment instead: roughly seven grams of cocaine. The case was moved from federal court to state court, and Keyser avoided prison.
Incredibly, he kept the arrest from Harriet, the kids, and the public for months.
“My dad hid his drug use extremely well,” said Shane Keyser, Tom’s oldest son.
Before he went to trial, Tom told Harriett. The story hit the newspaper. His addiction accelerated, his marriage crumbled. Keyser moved into a townhouse and filed for bankruptcy. The electricity and water in his townhome were cut off. He showered with a neighbor’s garden hose.
On Mother’s Day weekend in 1990, police arrested Tom for writing hot checks, handcuffs clicking in the presence of his 15-year-old son, Mike. Out came the rifle and the rope.
A friend invited Keyser to Club 12. Inside, he found warm conversation and ripples of laughter. He blended in comfortably at his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Keyser picked up his first desire chip, a token of sobriety, at the next meeting. Sixty days after that, he took two drags of a joint and drank a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer, which contained a small amount of alcohol. His sobriety blown, Keyser picked up a second desire chip on Nov. 11, 1990.
A life turned. Keyser got his law license back a few months into a one-year suspension after a judge probated the final eight months. He joined a new law firm in a high-rise and resumed practicing family and criminal law. He repaired broken relationships and repaid a $100,000 debt to the IRS. He also repaid several debts to family members and friends that approached $100,000. He returned to his first love.
In 1994, while driving past a field in Olmos Park, Keyser beheld an odd sight: grown men in caps and long pants playing hardball. Next thing you know, Keyser is squatting behind home plate, throwing out runners for the Bandits in the San Antonio Men’s Senior Baseball League. Today, he plays for the Monarchs, a 65-and-older team that features a 76-year-old outfielder who voted to name a field after him: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
From his 25th floor law office, Keyser speaks humbly and thoughtfully, like a man who’s been broken and put back together. He has risen from addiction to sobriety and the American dream. At 21, he lost a chance to catch in the College World Series. At 54, he won a Men’s Senior Baseball League World Series in Phoenix, the same city where he learned of his academic ineligibility in 1968. Since 2001, he’s played for three Senior League world champions. The best part: Keyser still carries a “dry” chip.
“Through God’s grace and the fellowship of AA,” he said, “I have not had to change sobriety dates since Nov. 11, 1990.”
Who loses his marriage, money, sobriety, and childhood dream – only to get it all back and inspire others? Who loses a license to practice law – only to become president of the San Antonio Bar Association in 2014? Who gets arrested for possession of cocaine – only to build a ballpark that gets named after him?
“I’m really proud of my dad,” Shane Keyser said.
After Shane passed the state bar in 2004, a lawyer he had admired for many years swore him into the legal profession. Two years ago, the same man, an attorney with a bit of a back story, welcomed him as a new partner in a downtown high-rise – Thomas G. Keyser.