Name: Cletis Leroy Boyer “Clete” Boyer
Position: Third baseman
Born: February 9, 1937 (Cassville, 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
A pivotal role player during the 1960s, third baseman Clete Boyer was often overshadowed by his counterparts and members of his own family. His baseball career took him all over the world as both a player and a coach. But his sure hand at third base and contributions to five consecutive pennants and two World Series titles land him at number 75 on our Top 100 list.
Being one of 14 children born to Mable and Vern Boyer, it was always going to be difficult for Clete to stand out.
The Boyers were raised in the small rural town of Alba, Missouri. Vern Boyer supported his family as a marble cutter. Clete was born during the Great Depression and his family life — like many during that period — was filled with hardship. Those circumstances did not stop the family from making the most of their opportunities. Remarkably, all seven of the Boyer boys would sign major league contracts. The oldest, Cloyd Boyer, signed with the Cardinals and broke into the majors as a pitcher in 1949.
The Cardinals had their eye on the Boyers, as all four of Clete’s older brothers would sign with the Cardinals — including Ken, who won National League MVP in 1964 and multiple Gold Gloves for St. Louis.
Clete starred as a two-sport athlete in both basketball and baseball during his high school days. His athleticism caught the attention of many scouts. With Clete making the Top 100 Yankees of all time, you naturally may be asking how he ended up going from the Cardinals to the Yankees. But despite the family history, the Cardinals never signed Clete — it was the Kansas City Athletics who originally signed the budding infielder in May of 1955. Clete’s signing was part of the “bonus baby” rule at the time, which meant that Kansas City would have to keep Boyer on the major league roster for a minimum of two years. Each team was allowed to make two “bonus baby” signings per year. The Yankees never made an offer to Clete.
Required to be on the big league roster, it was clear that Clete was not ready for major league play, and he struggled to find his rhythm at the plate and in the lineup for Kansas City. Boyer hit .241 in 1955 (47 games) and .217 in 1956 (67 games), seeing time at multiple positions throughout the infield.
On the surface, it might have seemed curious why the Yankees didn’t attempt to sign Boyer, but there was a clear relationship between new Athletics ownership and Yankees brass. Rumor has it that the Yankees provided the A’s with the money to sign Boyer — since the Yankees’ “bonus baby” money had already been used in 1955. An original trade between the Athletics and Yankees was vetoed in February of 1957 that would have sent Boyer to the Yankees, citing that Boyer had not spent two years with his original club. In June of that same year — with the two-year timeframe completed — Boyer was sent to the Yankees in a 13-player deal. Following the trade, the Yankees sent Boyer to Class-A Binghamton to find his game.
Cracking the Lineup
In Binghamton, Boyer showed power and a knack for the shortstop position. Boyer was promoted to Triple-A in ’58 and continued to show his complete game, hitting .284 and collecting 22 home runs in the process. Boyer’s big season in Triple-A earned him a spot on the Opening Day roster in ‘59.
Boyer struggled to find playing time behind Tony Kubek at shortstop. And when he did, he simply did not hit. The Yankees smartly sent Boyer back to Triple-A Richmond to find his footing at third base. The move to third would set up Boyer for the remainder of his career — as his defense would come to define his time as a Yankee.
The work in Richmond would pay off when Boyer was named the starting third baseman at the start of the 1960 season. He was a regular in the lineup, appearing in 124 games and slugging 14 home runs. The Yankees went on to win the AL pennant and Boyer would appear in his first World Series — but not without drama.
What seems to be a common theme among the non-superstar Yankees of the Casey Stengel managerial era is that his platoon style of managing was overzealous and often rubbed players the wrong way. Game 1 of the 1960 World Series saw much of the same from Stengel. Trailing in the second inning, Stengel pinch-hit for Boyer — in what would have been his first World Series at bat. Boyer’s disdain for Stengel peaked in that moment and the Yankees would go on to lose that World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Stengel was let go at the end of the 1960 season, and replacement Ralph Houk allowed his regulars to play every day. And while Boyer struggled at the plate, his dominant defensive play continued to come into form. His 353 assists at third base led the league in 1961. Boyer had a strong and accurate arm with Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson once stating “When I made the double play, I could just about close my eyes, put my glove up and the ball would be there.” It was players like Richardson and Boyer — who did not define that Yankees era compared to their superstar teammates — that always found a way to come up big when it mattered most.
The Yankees walked through the AL to another pennant in 1961. Game 1 of the 1961 World Series would take on a much different tone than Boyer’s Game 1 of the previous season. Boyer made two diving plays in that game — proceeding to throw both runners out from his knees. His two incredible plays would help secure a two-hit shutout for Whitey Ford. Ford later said, “No third baseman ever played better than Clete did in the 1961 Series.” Boyer would win his first World Series title that season and Whitey Ford was named MVP.
Boyer rode his World Series momentum into his best Yankee season in 1962. He again led the league in assists but also put together his best offensive season — sporting a 101 wRC+, and 5.1 fWAR. Boyer would collect his second World Series ring in 1962 after putting up a .318/.333/.500 slash line in the seven-game classic against the Giants. Boyer’s home run in Game 1 broke a 2-2 tie, which gave the Yankees a lead and ultimately a win.
This season was the pinnacle of Boyer’s Yankee tenure: clutch hits, great defensive plays, and winning.
Battle of the Boyers
The next two seasons were a regression at the plate for Boyer. He posted an 83 wRC+ in ’63 and a 57 wRC+ in ’64. Boyer still impressed in the field with flashy defense and the Yankees continued to win pennants, but Boyer and the Yankees fell in back-to-back World Series to the Dodgers and then the Cardinals.
Despite the loss for Clete, the 1964 World Series was a special one for the Boyer family. Clete and brother Ken — the third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals — were facing each other in the fall classic. Ken, fresh off an MVP season was getting his first experience of postseason baseball and did not disappoint. His offensive game, including a grand slam in Game 4 propelled Ken’s Cardinals over Clete’s Yankees. Clete recalls quietly rooting for his brother, silently pulling for a family member who was looking to secure his first World Series title. Baseball was always a family affair, so it was fitting that this scenario played out for the Boyer family.
Clete would never make it back to the World Series.
New York, Atlanta, Japan
Boyer rebounded in ’65, cracking 18 home runs and posting a 104 wRC+. His production at the plate continued into ’66 but the Yankees were in free-fall. After five straight pennants, the Yankees missed the playoffs in ’65 and finished last in ’66. With new ownership in place and the Yankees going nowhere, the organization decided to move on from Boyer, trading him to the Atlanta Braves on November 29, 1966.
Boyer used the motivation of replacing Braves legend Eddie Mathews, the hitter-friendly confines of “The Launching Pad” (then Atlanta Stadium), and the protection of Joe Torre and Hank Aaron to propel himself to career-high power numbers. He hit 26 home runs and posted 96 RBIs during his first season in the South.
Boyer could never repeat his offensive production from his first season with the Braves but put up solid numbers again in ’69 after an injury-plagued ’68 season. The 1969 season was special for Boyer, who after years of playing in the same league as Brooks Robinson was able to secure his first Gold Glove award. Joe Torre talking about Boyer said, “He came up during the Brooks Robinson era and didn’t get as much attention because of Brooksie, but he could play third base … Great arm”.
By 1971, a public feud between Braves GM Paul Richards and Boyer was brewing regarding a contract dispute. Richards had slashed Boyer’s salary in 1970 and 1971, with Richards calling Boyer a “sorry player.” The disdain ultimately led to the buyout of Boyer’s contract. With little interest from other major league clubs, Clete Boyer’s 16-year MLB career was over.
Boyer remained in baseball as an international player for the Taiyo Whales in Japan. The experience provided him with a larger salary and some hitter-friendly ballparks. His playing days came to an end after the 1975 season, but he remained in baseball as a coach. Boyer had stints on the Yankees coaching staff under three managers: Billy Martin (1988), Stump Merrill (1991), and Buck Showalter (1992-1994), before finally calling it quits from baseball. He passed away a little over a decade later at age 70 due to complications from a brain hemorrhage in 2007.
While his offensive numbers never jumped off the page, both Hall-of-Fame teammates and opponents marveled at his defensive abilities. Despite bigger names surrounding Clete Boyer his whole life, he was able to carve out a unique and successful baseball career. His contributions to the multiple championship teams land Clete Boyer at No. 75.
Staff rank: 75
Community rank: 93
Stats rank: 53
2013 rank: 56
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Wancho, Joseph. SABR Bio