Classic Yankees: Clete Boyer

He had one brother that could hit, won an MVP award, got HOF consideration and who had his number retired. He also had another brother who pitched in the majors. He was one of fourteen children.

When he became a Yankee, Mickey Mantle told him it was ok to wear #6 (Mantle’s number as a rookie in 1951). Originally, he didn’t want to do so because of his reverence for Stan (the Man) Musial.

Clete Boyer couldn’t hit like brother Ken Boyer, or pitch like brother Cloyd Boyer, but he could field. Unfortunately for him, he played at the same time as Brooks Robinson. As a result, his only Gold Glove came after he was traded from the Yankees to the National League.

Boyer began his major league career at the age of 18 for the Kansas City Athletics in 1955. In 47 games, he played SS, 3B and 2B and hit .241/.268/.253, OPS+ 41 (only one of his 19 hits was for extra bases—a double).

His second season with the A’s in 1956, he got into 67 games, and hit .217/.284/.279, OPS+ 50, playing 2B and 3B. In 1957 saw very limited duty in the majors; 10 games at second and third base and not even one plate appearance.  In June that year, Boyer was named as a player-to-be-named-later to help complete a February trade which included Art Ditmar, Bobby Shantz, Irv Noren, Tom Morgan, Mickey McDermott, Billy Hunter and others.  He was now a Yankee.

He didn’t come back to the majors until 1959 though. That year, Boyer played shortstop and third base for the Yanks, getting into 47 games, and hitting .175/.215/.193, OPS+ 15.

1960 saw the last year of Gil McDougald, and finally Boyer saw more playing time, playing in 124 games. 99 were at third, and another 33 were at short (obviously, in some games, Boyer played at both positions). He hit .242 with 14 HR and 46 RBI, OPS+ 89. In the World Series, Boyer went 3-for-12, 2 doubles, 1 triple and 1 RBI. But in Game 1, he suffered the embarrassment of being PH for—in the second inning! In that game, the Yanks scored a run in the top of the first on a Maris homer, but the Pirates scored three in the bottom of the first. In the top of the second, Berra and Skowron singled. With men on first and second, no out, Boyer looked forward to his first World Series at bat. But then he heard a whistle. Casey Stengel was pinch-hitting for him! Dale Long flied out, Bobby Richardson lined into a DP and the Yanks didn’t score. The Yanks lost the game 6-4, and later, the Series.

Casey was gone after 1960, and so was McDougald. Ralph Houk made Boyer the regular 3B for 1961. In 148 games, Boyer was at third base for 141, shortstop in 12 and actually had one game in the outfield. He hit .242/.285/.405, OPS+ 79. In Game One of the WS, he made a couple of great defensive plays—predating by 17 years the great defensive plays another Yankees 3B, Graig Nettles, would make in the 1978 WS. Boyer was 4 for 15, 2 doubles, 3 RBI in the WS.

Some time back, I was at the HOF in Cooperstown when I was informed that Boyer was up the street signing autographs. I have an autographed ball. It is signed #6 Clete Boyer W.S. Champs 1961. In speaking to Boyer, and in introducing my nephew to him, Clete, in referring to his brother Ken, the 1964 NL MVP for the Cardinals, pointed to the HOF and stated, “He should be in there.”  There will be more on that later.

1962 saw one of Boyer’s best seasons as a Yankee, and he was a key contributor in the WS. Boyer hit .272/.331/.413, OPS+ 101. He hit .318 in the WS, 7 for 22, 1 double, 1 HR and 4 RBI. The HR, in the top of the 7th of Game One, broke a 2-2 tie in a game the Yanks won 6-2. It was Whitey Ford’s 10th and last WS win. It was the second and last WS championship team for Boyer.

1962 saw Mickey Mantle win his third and last MVP, with Bobby Richardson finishing second. It was Boyer who said of Mantle, “The line I’ll remember as long as I live about Mantle is the one some writer wrote: ‘Mickey Mantle is a celebrity in his own clubhouse.’ He was super in everything.”  Boyer added that “He (Mantle) is the only baseball player I know who is a bigger hero to his teammates than he is to the fans.”

In 1963, Moose Skowron was gone, and Joe Pepitone was now the first baseman. It was this infield (Pepitone, Richardson, Kubek and himself) that, with no disrespect to Skowron, Boyer thought was the best defensively. Boyer hit .251-12-54 in 1963, OPS+ 84. The deep LF (402), LCF (457) and CF (461) at the old Stadium did Boyer no favors. Boyer was just 1 for 13 in the WS, with six strikeouts as the Yanks were swept by the Dodgers. Despite the six strikeouts, it was Boyer who was the only Yankee regular not to strikeout against Sandy Koufax in Game One, when Koufax fanned 15 (a then record). Koufax did get Boyer twice in Game Four.

1964 saw Boyer slump to .218/.269/.304 with an OPS+ of only 58. The MVP that season was Brooks Robinson, who beat out Mantle and Howard for the award. Of course, it was Brooks who beat out Boyer for the Gold Glove every year.

The 1964 WS saw Boyer matched up against his brother Ken at 3B. This was Ken’s MVP year, and Ken’s Cardinal team beat the Yanks in the WS four games to three. Clete had a strange feeling in Game 4, for while proud of his brother, it was Ken’s grand slam in the sixth that overcome a 3-0 Yankee lead and that enabled the Cards to win that game 4-3. In Game 7, Clete hit a HR off of Bob Gibson in the 9th inning, but it was too late to win the game and Series for the Yanks. Clete was 5 for 24 in that 1964 WS, 1 HR, and 3 RBI. Ken had homered again in that Game 7. He and Clete were the first pair of brothers to hit home runs for opposing teams in the same WS game.

Boyer rebounded in 1965, but other major stars were on the decline. Known for his glove and not for his stick, Boyer could not pick up the slack left by aging and/or injured stars like Mantle, Maris and Howard. Clete did hit .251/.304/.424, OPS+ 106.

Despite his great glove, Clete Boyer was never named to an All-Star team.

In 1966, Boyer played his last season with the Yankees, hitting .240/.303/384, OPS+ 101. Even after being named the starting 3B in 1961, Boyer still would play some games at SS and in 1963, a game at 2B.

Boyer was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Chi-Chi Olivo and Bill Robinson in November 1966. A little over a week later, the Yanks traded Roger Maris to St. Louis for Boyer’s replacement, Charlie Smith. While Smith replaced Boyer in NY, Boyer was replacing HOF 3B Eddie Mathews in Atlanta. As for Robinson, he was dubbed the “black Mickey Mantle,” but his three years in the Bronx were terrible, as he hit .206 with 16 HR in those three years. Death Valley gobbled him up. Later, Robinson would be a decent OF for the Phils, and would help the “We are Family” Pirates to a WS title in 1979.

Boyer found the launching pad of Atlanta more to his liking. In 1967 he received his only MVP consideration, finishing 21st after a season in which he hit .245-26-96, OPS+ 104. He had a terrible injury-plagued season in 1968, playing in just 71 games and hitting .227-4-17, OPS+ 75.

1969 saw Boyer’s last postseason action as the Braves won the N.L. West then fell in the NLCS to the Amazin’ Mets. It marked Boyer’s only Gold Glove season. He hit .250-14-57, OPS+ 95. He was 1 for 9 with 3 RBI in that NLCS. He and brother Ken became the first pair of brothers to each win Gold Gloves.

Boyer’s postseason mark was .221-2-14 in 30 games.

In 1970, Boyer was just 33, but it marked his last full season in the bigs. He hit his usual, .246-16-62, OPS+ 79.

In 1971 he got into a feud with Braves’ management and was released. At the time he was hitting .245-6-19, OPS+ 102. From Wikipedia: Boyer complained that the organization didn’t teach the players the proper fundamentals. Richards countered that Boyer was a troublemaker.

Boyer then went to Japan to play from 1972-1975, rooming with Sadaharu Oh. He coached there in 1976 and eventually came back to the U.S.A. to coach for Billy Martin in NY and in Oakland.

He opened a restaurant near Cooperstown in 2000 (which is how I met him in the early part of that decade) and died in 2007, age 70, from a brain hemorrhage.

Wikipedia states that Boyer was the first professional athlete to be interred in an Eternal Image MLB-branded urn. His family had his cremated remains placed in a New York Yankees urn.

Although Boyer is most famous for wearing #6 for the Yanks and Braves (1961-1971), he also wore #12 and also #34 early in his career.  He was a .242 hitter with an OPS+ of 86. His 162 g. average was .242-15-61.

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