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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ken Boyer - The Cardinals underappreciated All-Star

By Rick Hummel

In the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was growing up in Quincy, Ill., my best friend, Denny Campbell, and I almost daily played the APBA tabletop baseball game. He always had to manage the Cardinals, so I always provided the opposition.

I sat on the floor at his house and he sat at his desk, just far enough away to the point where I couldn't actually see him roll his two dice and I would have to take his word for it, as far as the result was concerned. Almost without fail, he would roll double sixes for his favorite player, Ken Boyer, signifying a home run.

After a highly unusual stretch of home runs by Boyer, I became suspicious, but when I arose to see what his dice looked like on the desk, they always said "66."

The late Ken Boyer wasn't quite that good, but he was good enough to be the only player whose number has been retired at Busch Stadium who isn't in the Hall of Fame — and probably won't be.

Boyer, the big, strong (6 feet 2, 200 pounds) third baseman, played in 10 All-Star Games, batting .348 with two home runs. Because they are facing premier pitching in every at-bat, many All-Stars don't come close to their lifetime averages while playing in the July classic, but Boyer seemed to thrive on the big stage.

The older parts of the reading public will not soon forget his third-inning grand slam off New York's Al Downing in Game 4 of the 1964 World Series at Yankee Stadium to rally the Cardinals from a 3-0 deficit and provide a 4-3 victory. That evened at two games apiece a Series the Cardinals eventually would win and stifled the Yankees' momentum — built from Mickey Mantle's gargantuan, game-ending homer the day before off a Barney Schultz knuckleball that didn't knuckle.

Boyer was the National League's Most Valuable Player that year, driving in a career-high 119 runs. He wound up hitting 255 of his 282 home runs for the Cardinals, for whom he played from 1955-65, before moving on to the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. His career ended in 1969 with Boyer finishing at .287 with 1,141 runs batted in.

Boyer also earned five Gold Gloves at third base and was the National League counterpart defensively to the great Brooks Robinson in Baltimore.

But, perhaps because he died (of lung cancer) so young at age 51 in 1982 — the Cardinals, en route to the World Series title that year, wore black armbands for the last month of the season in Boyer's memory — Boyer's legacy seems small compared to the Hall of Famers who are represented in the outfield at Busch Stadium.

Not so to those who played with him.


Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, a rival of Boyer's for years, said, "What you didn't realize was how good a third baseman he was because he was a good hitter.

"And ... he played the game the way it should be played in those days. You walk across the white lines and nobody's your friend. When it's over, it's a different ballgame."

Perhaps part of Boyer's legacy is that, for so much of his time with the Cardinals, he wasn't their best or most well-known player. That honor correctly belonged to Stan Musial, and Santo said that Boyer "absolutely" was overshadowed by Musial.

"There's no doubt about it," Santo said. "But, in my opinion, (Boyer) would be in the Hall of Fame."

Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon was the right fielder on the 1964 World Series champions. And after Charlie Smith, acquired from the Mets for Boyer after the 1965 season, didn't really pan out, Shannon became the ultimate successor to Boyer as the Cardinals' third baseman.

Besides Boyer's estimable accomplishments on the field, he had another responsibility. "He was the captain," Shannon said. "He was the leader of that ballclub."

Indeed, when few baseball teams had leaders so dubbed, Boyer often was referred to simply as "The Captain."

Most who saw him play would agree that Boyer, who was born in Liberty, Mo., was an understated player. For instance, he didn't have to dive for a ball that often because with a quick first step, he already was there.

He didn't seem as if he was running fast, but he chewed up huge chunks of ground as he circled the bases.

"He wasn't a guy for show, at all," Shannon said. "He wasn't flashy.

"Everything he did, he did smooth. He just did the job. And if you look up his stats, those are pretty good stats.

"He was like the Clydesdale of third basemen. He was a great big, strong guy who had a lot of grace. He was the prototype third baseman."


Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst was a teammate of Boyer's, a coach on teams Boyer played on, and then finally his manager in 1965, Boyer's last year with the Cardinals. Schoendienst, too, admired Boyer's ability to perform without need for histrionics.

"He caught the ball, threw (the hitter) out, put his glove down and then came out to hit. Boom, boom, boom," said Schoendienst. "It was nothing where he would do flip-flops or anything.

"That's just the way he played the game. The way he came up was probably the way he played on the schoolyard. He knew the game. He knew where to throw the ball and when to throw the ball."

Shannon thought that if Boyer had been able to appear in more than just one World Series "it would have really helped" his national acclaim.

But the Cardinals really contended for the National League title in only one other year, 1963, when Boyer played for them. That was the year the Cardinals ran off 19 victories in 20 games in late August and early September as they tried to reel in the league-leading Dodgers with announcer Harry Caray proclaiming nightly, "The Cardinals are coming, tra-la, tra-la."

Boyer sparked that surge by hitting .347 in the 20-game stretch, driving in 20 runs and hitting six homers. The Dodgers then came to the old Busch Stadium on Grand and Dodier and swept three from the Cardinals and went on to the league and World Series titles.

Boyer is the only Cardinal in history to have hit for the cycle twice — in 1961 and 1964. To illustrate the speed he had, Boyer, who also played center field in 1957, stole 105 bases in an era when there wasn't all that much basestealing going on. For instance, the Cardinals didn't steal more than 100 bases in a season from 1932-65.

"He was probably the best third baseman we've had here," said Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. "He moved really well and had great range.

"And he ran well. He wasn't going to outrun guys in a 100-yard dash, but ... a couple of steps, and he was off to the races. A lot of guys run fast but it takes them awhile to get going."


After Boyer retired in 1970, he returned to the organization as a coach and minor-league manager before taking over from Vern Rapp as manager of the Cardinals in April 1978. Boyer couldn't do much with that team, which lost 93 games, but then directed the Cardinals to an 86-76 record in 1979.

The next year, Boyer lost control of his team and was fired, oddly, between games of a doubleheader in Montreal on June 8, with the Cardinals sporting an 18-33 record. General manager John Claiborne had meant to dismiss Boyer before the doublehader even began but was delayed by flight issues.

Whitey Herzog, who met the team in Atlanta the next night to take over as Cardinals manager, was born in 1931, like Boyer, and though he never played with him as they came up through the minor-league ranks and into the big leagues, was keenly aware of Boyer's reputation.

"He was The Captain," Herzog said. "He hit that home run in the World Series. And I know he was a hell of a fielder."

After Boyer went to the Mets in 1966, Herzog, then a coach on that team, remembered sharing a New York apartment with Boyer when the Mets were home. When the Yankees were home, Clete Boyer, Kenny's younger brother, and Roger Maris lived in the apartment. Maris would come to the Cardinals the next season.

Herzog, not liking the makeup of that Cardinals club he took over that June 1980 night, said, "Kenny Boyer was a hell of a player, but as a manager maybe he was too laid-back. He didn't have the makeup to get rid of some of those (troublemakers)."


Perhaps Boyer's relative lack of success as manager hurt his Hall of Fame chances. Or the fact that he has been dead for so long.

But Boyer never drew higher than 25.5 percent of the writers' vote when 75 percent was needed. In fact, he was off the ballot for five years, because of lack of support, but Post-Dispatch sports editor Bob Broeg led a movement to have Boyer's name restored to the ballot and he did much better, but not nearly well enough, in the 10 elections he had remaining.

In the Veterans' Committee, where Boyer's candidacy rests now, he normally makes the final 25 or even 15 but then falls well short of election.

Schoendienst said, "When I had a chance, I always voted for him. Look at his record and other records. He's right there.But like I say, he wasn't a flashy player. If he'd put on a little show or something ..."

Ken Boyer wasn't about show. To those who played with him and against him, he was about playing the game right. And that's one of the reasons No. 14 never will be worn again by a Cardinals player, whether Ken Boyer ever makes the Hall of Fame or not.

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