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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #56 Clete Boyer

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Boyer was overshadowed by both Brooks Robinson and his brother Ken at third base, but make no mistake--he could play.

WikiCommons - Baseball Digest, July 1962

Name: Cletis Boyer
Position: Third base
Born: February 9, 1937 (Cossville, MO)
Died: June 4, 2007 (Lawrenceville, GA)
Yankee Years: 1959-66
Primary number: 6
Yankee statistics: 1,068 G, .241/.298/.371, 140 2B, 25 3B, 95 HR, 85 wRC+, 19.6 rWAR, 20.1 fWAR

Biography

I met Clete Boyer once.

In his later years, Boyer spent summers in Cooperstown, and my family went to see the Hall of Fame once almost every summer in the mid-2000s. We had a running joke about Boyer because every time we went, there was a sign in the downtown that said "Clete Boyer: SIGNING TODAY!" as if it was an unusual event. In 2006, we decided to actually go see him once and ask him to sign a baseball. I was going through a weird faze where I was wearing a different team's hat every other day, even though I was a Yankees fan. So for whatever reason, I had an Astros cap on when I met Boyer. He tilted his head and said "You're wearing the wrong hat."

I didn't know what to say. And that's the story of how I basically blew my only opportunity to meet Clete Boyer, probably the best defensive third baseman in Yankees history. So it goes. Like Tom Tresh, the previous man on this countdown, Boyer was a two-time World Series champion and a valued member of those early '60s Yankees teams. It's been quite awhile since they played, but that doesn't mean memories of them should fade.

A baseball family

Vern and Mabel Boyer did not have any kind of connection to sports. They made their family in a very area of rural Missouri, down in the southwest corner in Alba. It was very similar to Mickey Mantle's boyhood home of Commerce, Oklahoma in that most work was found in the hazardous lead and zinc mines (there were even underground tunnels from Alba to Commerce, which wasn't terribly far away). Vern Boyer thankfully did not have to deal with the mines much, but he rarely found much work in his trade as a carpenter. So he often had to settle for cutting marble in a local quarry and somehow turn that into enough wages for 14 children, who spanned 25 years in age.

Incredibly, all seven of Boyer's boys turned into professional baseball players:

  • Cloyd Boyer was the eldest child, the first to crack the majors, and spent five years with the Cardinals and A's
  • Wayne Boyer pitched three years in the Cardinals organization
  • Ken Boyer was the greatest, the 1964 NL MVP third baseman who later had his number 14 retired by the Cardinals
  • Lynn Boyer played first base for two years in the Cardinals organization
  • Ron Boyer was the only one aside from Clete to play with the Yankees, though the third baseman never got out of the minors in eight years with the club in the '60s
  • Len Boyer was the youngest, playing third for six years in the Cardinals' system

Cletis Leroy Boyer was the fifth boy, born during the Great Depression in February of 1937. The Boyers had no electricity or plumbing, and to keep warm in the winter, they had to heat bricks in the stove at night. All but one of Mabel Boyer's children were delivered at home. As David Halberstam later wrote in October 1964, "the Boyers played hard, worked hard, and accepted life as full of hardship and disappointment."

To their credit, the Boyers did everything they could to give a better lives to their kids, and it paid off as Clete's older brothers began to be noticed by major-league teams for their achievements on the field at Alba High School. All four of Clete's older brothers were signed by the Cardinals (Cloyd had opened the door for his family with a good tryout with St. Louis in 1945), so scouts knew to keep their eyes on Clete as he excelled both at shortstop and at point guard for the Alba basketball team.

Boyer 1957 Topps 1957 Topps

It strangely wasn't the Cardinals who ended up signing Clete. It was the Kansas City Athletics, who also employed Cloyd Boyer at the time. The A's inked him to a $35,000 deal on May 30, 1955, and because of his value and due to the "bonus baby" rules at the time, they had to keep the 18-year-old on their big-league roster for two years. Even on a lousy team like the A's, Boyer wasn't going to see much time, and he was simply going to struggle against MLB pitching. He hit a dismal .226/.278/.269 with a 47 OPS+ in 114 games during his teenage years bouncing around the infield in K.C.

In the '50s though, the Kansas City A's were a Yankees farm club in all but name. Owner Arnold Johnson was well-connected with the Yankees' ownership group, and he had no qualms about sending his best young players to New York for retreads and cash. There was even a rumor that the Yankees gave Johnson the money to sign Boyer as a future investment since they were over slot in '55. Sure enough, Boyer ended up in pinstripes in 1957.

Life at the hot corner

Technically, Boyer wasn't even allowed to join the Yankees at first. The huge 11-player trade was executed in February of '57, and the league did not permit Boyer to join the Yankees, as it hadn't even been two years since he was signed. Kansas City and New York worked around it by making Boyer a player to be named later (much like Trea Turner a couple years ago). The A's kept him safe by keeping him on the MLB roster and only using him in 10 games, all as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement. He never batted.

Then on June 4th, Boyer was finally sent to the Yankees. Under no obligations to the "bonus baby" rules, they immediately sent him to A-ball in Binghamton, where he was no longer overwhelmed. He played shortstop well and slugged 12 homers in 93 games, earning a promotion to Triple-A Richmond in '58. Boyer kept up the pace with a huge season down there, batting .284/.353/.494 in 132 games with 22 dingers this time.

Again like Tresh though, Boyer faced an obstacle in the big leagues with Tony Kubek at shortstop. The Yankees had him on their Opening Day roster in '59, but it was hard for him to appear in many games. He never got in a rhythm and struggled at bat with a terrible wRC+ of 11 in 47 games. So most of Boyer's '59 campaign was spent back in Richmond, where he focused on honing his craft at third base. His bat wasn't as sharp as it was in '58, but that didn't concern the Yankees.

Buoyed by Boyer's defensive improvements, the Yankees made him their Opening Day third baseman in 1960 and moved incumbent Hector Lopez to the outfield. It was a solid year for a rookie in all but name, considering his unusual big-league path. Boyer hit 14 homers with an 88 wRC+ in 124 games for a terrific Yankees club that won 97 games and the AL pennant.

Boyer also grew to loathe manager Casey Stengel though, who ruthlessly platooned and even pinch-hit for Boyer in what would have been his World Series at-bat... in the second inning. Boyer succinctly summed up his feelings on Stengel: "Everybody hated him. When he came out of his mother, the doctor slapped her." He had an .833 OPS in his first World Series, but Stengel only used him in four games; the Yankees fell in seven.

By '61, Stengel was gone and replaced by Ralph Houk, who was much more of a player's manager. He let his starters play every day, and the infield of Bill Skowron at first, Bobby Richardson at second, Kubek at shortstop, and Boyer at third got into a groove. They became the preeminent defensive infield in the game, and Boyer only got better. His bat slipped to an 81 wRC+, but thanks to defensive metrics, he was almost a four-win player. After the 109-win season, Boyer's glove was on display of Game 1 of the World Series against the Reds, where he stole the show (and some hits):

Clete Boyer defense

Whitey Ford was the World Series MVP and benefactor of Boyer's defense, and he always maintained "no third baseman ever played better than Clete did in the 1961 Series."

Boyer was now a World Series champion, and he sought to add another ring to his hand in '62. He put forth what was likely his best season as a Yankee, batting .272/.331/.413 with 18 homers, a 101 wRC+, and 5.1 fWAR. He was at his defensive peak, as great a third baseman as even longtime coach and former player Frankie Crosetti had seen in 30 years.It wasn't the easiest task hitting in front of pitchers either and finding pitches to hit, but Boyer found a way to get the job done.

1962 was also Boyer's finest World Series. It was another seven-gamer, and this time, he played every game, rewarding Houk's faith with a .318/.333/.500 line and a homer in Game 1:

Clete Boyer homer

With the series on the line in the ninth inning of Game 7 in a 1-0 game and Willie McCovey up with the bases loaded, Boyer later admitted that his knees were shaking at third. Fortunately, McCovey's liner went straight to Richardson's glove at second, and the Yankees were champions again.

The next two seasons saw Boyer go into an offensive malaise despite his defensive expertise. He could only manage a 72 OPS+ and 20 homers in 299 games between '63 and '64. The Yankees returned to the World Series each year to make Boyer a part of five straight AL pennants, but they were swept by the Dodgers in '63 and dispatched in seven by the Cardinals in '64.

Although that year was Boyer's final World Series, it was definitely the most exciting one for the Boyer family. For the first time, Clete and Ken faced off on a big-league field, fresh off Ken's MVP campaign. Ken did his part to ensure that he would have a World Series ring of his own by belting a game-winning grand slam off Al Downing in Game 4 (Clete said he quietly clapped in his glove) and notching a three-hit game in the finale, including another homer. Clete's series was not as good, but he did manage a ninth-inning homer off Bob Gibson in Game 7 to keep the series alive, making the duo the first brothers to ever go deep in the same World Series game.

1964 was Ken's year though, as Gibson closed out the Yankees. Thirteen years later, their older brother Cloyd, the former pitcher, got a World Series ring too, as pitching coach for the '77 Yankees. Not too bad for a huge family with little money from southeast Missouri.

On to the Launching Pad

Boyer had suffered off-years at the plate in '63 and '64, but rebounded the next couple seasons to a much more respectable 104 OPS+, 32 homers, and 6.9 WAR in 292 games. The only problem was that it seemed like everyone around him was declining or retiring. It was a shame to Boyer, who was also very well-liked in the clubhouse and one of the regulars on the town with Mantle and Whitey Ford. The Yankees dropped like an anvil to sixth place in '65 and dead-last in '66.

The new CBS-led Yankees ownership group knew that Boyer still had talent though, so they decided that it would make sense to ship him out since it wasn't like the team was going anywhere. They found a taker in the Braves, who had just finished their first season in Atlanta after moving from Milwaukee. So on November 29, 1966, Boyer's 10-year career with the organization came to a close, as the Braves acquired him in exchange for 23-year-old outfielder Bill Robinson and veteran Chi-Chi Olivo.

Boyer Braves Focus on Sport/Getty

It was a bit of a disappointment to leave New York, but Atlanta was extremely welcoming. They thought so much of Boyer that they brought him on to replace a future Hall of Famer in 500-homer hitter Eddie Mathews. In his first year in Atlanta, Boyer lived up to the hype and took advantage of his new home park, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was nicknamed "the Launching Pad" due to its tendency toward homers. It was at a good altitude and the ball flew off the bat on a hot summer night. The right-handed Boyer saw many long Yankee Stadium drives die in deep left field, "Death Valley," but in 1967, he belted a career-high 26 homers while hitting .245/.292/.423 with a 104 wRC+.

The Braves hovered around mediocrity for Boyer's first couple years there, but in 1969, Boyer returned to playoffs as Atlanta won 93 games and the NL West in the first year of divisional play. Boyer had a rebound himself, as a '68 season ruined by injuries on pitches to the hand was redeemed with 14 homers and 3.3 fWAR in '69. After years and years of being overlooked for an AL Gold Glove at third due to playing in the same league as the legendary Brooks Robinson, Boyer at last earned some hardware with an NL Gold Glove.

However, the Miracle Mets swept the Braves away in the NLCS. Boyer could only knock one hit in the last playoff series of his career. His numbers slipped again in 1970, and after a salary dispute with management early in '71, Boyer negotiated his release.

A unique new opportunity arose for Boyer when the Taiyo Whales of Japan's Central League reached out to him to see if he would be interested in joining them for the '72 season. With no MLB offers waiting, the 35-year-old Boyer decided to give it a try. It turned out to be a brilliant decision, as he made double what he was making in Atlanta and took advantage of Japan's cozy parks, averaging 17 homers and a .437 slugging percentage per season during his four years with Taiyo. While they never sniffed the playoffs, Boyer enjoyed his time there and became one of the first former major-leaguers to truly embrace Japanese baseball and culture.

Boyer wanted to stay involved with baseball, and he immediately entered coaching, first with Taiyo in 1976 before eventually returning stateside. When Billy Martin became the skipper of the now-Oakland A's in 1980, Boyer was tapped to be his third base coach, returning to his original franchise. He remained in that role under multiple Oakland managers through '85. The Yankees hired Boyer first as a minor-league infield instructor, and then to join Martin again in the dugout in '88, only to find himself out of the job after Martin's fifth and final Yankees firing.

The Yankees briefly had Boyer managing their Ft. Lauderdale club in '89, and then Stump Merrill had Boyer on his Yankees coaching staff in '91. When a young Buck Showalter ascended to the Yankees managerial reins in '92, he made the 55-year-old Boyer his third base coach to add an older voice to the clubhouse. He was bumped up to bench coach in '94 before finally stepping away from the rigors of a 162-game coaching schedule. Boyer remained involved with the Yankees organization through 2003 as an instructor and Old-Timers' Day regular, and then passed away at age 70 in June 2007 due to complications from a stroke.

Graig Nettles, Wade Boggs, Scott Brosius, and Alex Rodriguez were all terrific defenders at third who followed Clete Boyer. Did their gloves hold up to Boyer's? It's hard to say, but his reputation was sterling and even his opponents greatly admired his defensive acumen. Either way, Boyer was an important cog of championship Yankees teams and an even more valued member of an impressive baseball family.

Thanks again for the autograph all those years ago, Clete. Rest easy.

Andrew’s rank: 52
Tanya’s rank: 60
Community rank: 55.45
WAR rank: 60.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1959 22 NYY 47 124 114 4 20 2 0 0 3 1 0 6 23 .175 .215 .193 .408 15 22 -0.5 -0.5
1960 23 NYY 124 431 393 54 95 20 1 14 46 2 3 23 85 .242 .285 .405 .690 89 159 2.5 2.4
1961 24 NYY 148 579 504 61 113 19 5 11 55 1 3 63 83 .224 .308 .347 .656 79 175 3.8 3.7
1962 25 NYY 158 633 566 85 154 24 1 18 68 3 2 51 106 .272 .331 .413 .745 101 234 4.6 5.1
1963 26 NYY 152 596 557 59 140 20 3 12 54 4 2 33 91 .251 .295 .363 .657 84 202 2.5 2.5
1964 27 NYY 147 554 510 43 111 10 5 8 52 6 1 36 93 .218 .269 .304 .573 58 155 -0.2 0.4
1965 28 NYY 148 562 514 69 129 23 6 18 58 4 1 39 79 .251 .304 .424 .728 106 218 2.9 3.3
1966 29 NYY 144 558 500 59 120 22 4 14 57 6 0 46 48 .240 .303 .384 .687 101 192 4.0 3.2
NYY (8 yrs) 1068 4037 3658 434 882 140 25 95 393 27 12 297 608 .241 .298 .371 .669 86 1357 19.6 20.1

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Freedman, Lew. The Boyer Brothers of Baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2015.

Goldstein, Richard. "Clete Boyer, 70, a Yankee Known For His Slick Fielding, Dies," New York Times, 5 Jun. 2007.

Halberstam, David. October 1964. New York: Open Road Media, 1994.

Leavy, Jane. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

SABR

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