James S. Keelty Jr., who built Baltimore County's Rodgers Forge and headed the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s, died yesterday of congestive heart failure at his home in Mays Chapel, one of the many neighborhoods he helped create. He was 91.
The president of the Orioles from 1955 to 1959, he was the former chairman and president of a homebuilding firm founded by his father in 1904. Keelty-built residences fill large sections of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Poplar Grove Street, he attended St. Cecilia School in Walbrook and was a 1929 graduate of Calvert Hall College High School. He earned a law degree from Catholic University of America in Washington in 1934. He tried but failed to make his prep school and college baseball teams.
He joined the business founded by his Irish-born father, James Keelty, who had trained as a stonemason. His father was one of the city's best-known rowhouse builders, and constructed large sections of West Baltimore, including Edmondson Village.
In 1924, the elder Keelty bought 86 acres of a Baltimore County dairy farm -- the basis of today's Rodgers Forge. In a 1986 Evening Sun interview, James Keelty recalled working for his father in the summer of 1933, between his junior and senior years of college, with the construction crew of the first section of Rodgers Forge rowhouses that went on sale in 1934.
"Everyone in the building business thought my father was crazy," he said of the venture that eventually comprised thousands of homes and an adjacent apartment complex.
Because of his father's age and health, it fell to Mr. Keelty and his brother, Joseph S. Keelty, who survives him, to construct Rodgers Forge, which stretches from York Road to Bellona Avenue and took more than nearly 20 years to complete.
Mr. Keelty went on to build Seminary Ridge and Longford North, both in Lutherville, Village Green in Riderwood, Doncaster Village in Carney and Crestwood in Anne Arundel County, among other ventures. Before his retirement in 1968, he purchased sections of the land for what became Mays Chapel, the Baltimore County community where he lived.
"He introduced the rowhouse to Baltimore County in a suburbanized form," said John McGrain, the Baltimore County historian who worked for Mr. Keelty in 1955 as a waterproofer for the last section of homes built in Rodgers Forge. "His neighborhoods have well-established trees, and the houses were quite nice, with vestiges of Georgian Revival architecture."
He was part of the group of investors who purchased the St. Louis Browns American League baseball franchise at the end of the 1953 season and moved it to Baltimore as the Orioles.
In 1954, as the Orioles vice president and its second-largest stockholder, he sat in Memorial Stadium as then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon threw out the first pitch at the home opener and saw his team defeat the Chicago White Sox.
"I want to see the club run on a businesslike basis," he said in a 1954 Sun interview. "As a Baltimorean, I want to see baseball succeed and prosper here."
He was elected the club's president in 1955 and stayed on until 1959.
"You would never know he was the club's president," said Joe Hamper, the baseball club's vice president of finance for 37 years. "He never took anything out of the club. He never drew a salary. He always paid his own way into the ballpark. He always bought his own tickets."
Sports reporters noted that the club did not have a winning record during his tenure, but they credited him with laying the groundwork for a successful farm system that developed young players. Mr. Keelty stepped down as the club president in 1959, and the 1960 Orioles finished in second place behind the New York Yankees.
Mr. Keelty rarely missed a game during that time and often traveled with the team. Family members said he continued to listen to radio broadcasts of Oriole games until several weeks ago, when his health worsened.
Active in Roman Catholic educational philanthropic circles, he headed the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal for three years in the 1950s. He was honored as a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII in 1958. In 1965, he was elevated to the rank of commander in the order by Pope Paul VI.
In 1985, he was honored by Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, where one of its residence halls was named in his honor. Sites at Calvert Hall and Catholic University also bear his name.
He was a life member of the Annapolis Yacht Club, Gibson Island Club and Green Spring Valley Hunt Club.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 100 Church Lane, Cockeysville, where he was a member.
Survivors include his five sons, James Keelty III, Brian M. Keelty and Michael J. Keelty, all of Baltimore, Kevin C. Keelty of Washington and Patrick J. Keelty of Snowmass, Colo.; three daughters, Louise T. Keelty, Bernardine K. Wyatt and Maureen K. Suelau, all of Baltimore; his brother and a sister, Lucette K. Costa, both of Baltimore; 19 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
His wife of 59 years, the former Louise T. Hayes, died in 1996.