Clete Boyer - 1965 Topps baseball card

Former New York Yankee Third Baseman
Clete Boyer Proudly Wore The Pinstripes

By Todd Newville

It was good to be a Yankee. Just ask former third baseman Clete Boyer.

A mainstay in the infield for the New York Yankees in the 1960s, Boyer was known for a great glove and a solid bat. He reckons that if he had played his prime years for anyone else but the Bronx Bombers, his name would be just another entry in the baseball encyclopedia.

But, thanks to wearing the vaunted pinstripes, Boyer still reaps the dividends of playing for perhaps the greatest sports franchise in history.

"It was a great thrill to play for the Yankees," said Boyer, who last played for the Yanks in 1966. "The Yankees have the best fans because they remember you all your life. I was a good player but not a great player. But, when I go to New York, they remember you like you played there last year.

"Most of the places you go into, you can't even buy a drink or your own food. They won't let you pay. That's the difference in New York and most anywhere else. They'll buy it for you. Well, you can leave the tip but you don't pay. It's a great feeling to know they still remember your name. It's an amazing life."

Boyer played for five straight American League pennant winners - from 1960 to '64. In 1961, the Yankees beat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series in five games. In '62, New York edged past the San Francisco Giants for the world championship in a thrilling seven-game tilt.

All the while, Boyer was the guardian of the hot corner. He played the position arguably better than anyone else ever has for the Yankees. Red Rolfe was a great third baseman for the Yankees before Boyer - a .289 career hitter who played on six Yankee pennant winners and five World Series champs in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Former Yankee third baseman Clete Boyer poses with author Todd Newville during the Venture Sports Show on December 13th, 2002, in Duluth, Ga. Boyer signed autographs for Toys For Tots that day.
Graig Nettles (who led the American League in home runs with 32 in 1976) could later lay claim to being the best Yankee third baseman there ever was when he played for New York. Boyer, in fact, set a World Series record with 65 assists at third base - a mark later broken by Nettles.

For sure, Boyer was the man in the 1960s - and he was considered a Yankee through and through. After coming over from the Kansas City Athletics in 1957 in a 12-player trade, Boyer became one of the key pieces to an infield many consider to be one of the best of all-time. Count Boyer as one of the experts who thinks that Yankee infield was second to none.

"It was special," Boyer said.

Moose Skowron was at first base when the Yankees won it all in 1961 with a gaudy 109-53 record during the regular season. Joe Pepitone later stepped in and provided a mighty slick glove - joining Boyer, shortstop Tony Kubek and second baseman Bobby Richardson for one of the most talented infield quartets in baseball.

"Our best infield was with Pepitone," said the 66-year-old Boyer. "Skowron was a great hitter and the 1961 team was the most famous team. I'm not saying it was the best because I thought in 1962 we were pretty darn good. But, with me, Pepitone, Bobby and Tony, that was the best infield I ever saw.

"Skowron used to use a frying pan for a glove. I would kid him and tell him it should be illegal. He'd get mad at me for saying that. But, Pepitone was in the class of Don Mattingly and Gil Hodges as far as great fielding first basemen go. Pepitone made it an art. That infield was the best - with or without me."

Boyer had a cannon for an arm and was always in position to make the tough plays as evidenced by his 2.24 assists per game - which ranks eighth all-time among major league third basemen. He saved 201 runs during his career at third base, which (according to Total Baseball) is second only to Mike Schmidt's 265 fielding runs.

(From left to right) third baseman Clete Boyer, shortstop Tony Kubek, second baseman Bobby Richardson, and first baseman Joe Pepitone formed a formidable infield quartet for the Yankees in the 1960s.
In 1962, he had 396 assists (eighth most in history for a third baseman) while patrolling the hot corner along with a .964 fielding percentage. In 1965, Boyer helped turn 46 double plays (fifth most in a single season for third basemen) while sporting a .968 fielding percentage.

If not for a fellow named Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles, Boyer might have won a few Gold Gloves in the American League. Robinson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1983, won 16 consecutive Gold Gloves at third base from 1960 to 1975.

"Brooks Robinson beat me out of about seven Gold Gloves," Boyer said, "but God gave me a lot of ability. I felt like Houdini out there. I loved defense and I had a great arm. I didn't have the best arm in the world but I had a great arm and I was quick with it.

"I had a lot of ability and I won't deny that. You don't like to hear people brag and, when I say this, remember I was a good friend with Ted Williams. But, I used to tell people that I was Ted Williams at third base. Defense is reflexes and instinct. I had it."

Born February 9, 1937, in Cassville, Mo., Cletis Leroy Boyer was one of 14 children - seven girls and seven boys. Of course, all the boys played baseball and five of them played professionally. Three reached the major leagues.

Ken Boyer (who died in 1982) was a standout third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was the National League MVP in 1964 after leading the Cards to the World Series title - at the expense of his younger brother Clete and the Yanks. That season, Ken (a seven-time National League All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner) hit .295 with 24 home runs and a league-leading 119 RBI.

Cloyd Boyer (the oldest of the three major league Boyers) was a pitcher with the Cardinals in the early 1950s. A torn rotator cuff limited him to a lifetime 20-23 record over five seasons. The Boyers are one of only 16 families to produce three or more major league siblings.

Clete (162) and Ken (282) combined for 444 lifetime homers - fourth most in history among major league brother combinations. The duo also became the first pair of brothers to homer in the same World Series game when both connected during the pivotal Game 7 of the 1964 World Series - won by Ken's Cardinals 7-5 in St. Louis.

"Ken was great," Clete said. "Cloyd was a pitcher with the Cardinals by 21. When he was 23, he hurt his rotator cuff and they didn't operate on it back then. He pitched a few more years but he really didn't have a career because of that injury. Ken was Hall of Fame material. He was a great person as well as a great player."

With the Yankees, Boyer (like many capable hitters) found himself at the mercy of "Death Valley," the vast outfield expanse in left and center fields where many potential doubles and home runs fell harmlessly into the gloves of waiting outfielders.

"It was 457 feet to left center and 461 feet to center field," Boyer recalled. "I hit third in the minor leagues at Triple A. I go to the Yankees and they have Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Elston Howard, Skowron and Yogi Berra. So, I had to hit eighth."

New York Yankees third baseman Clete Boyer (6) flips the ball to shortstop Tony Kubek during a game at Yankee Stadium.

That meant Boyer's place in the lineup was just in front of the pitcher, offering the 6-foot, 182-pound hitter little or no protection.

"You can't hit eighth in front of the pitcher if you have power," Boyer said. "They'll knock you down. And, when you stand in the box at Yankee Stadium and look at how far that fence was... I used to tell people I couldn't hit a golf ball that far.

"If you were a visiting player, it didn't bother you 'cause you only were there for three games. But, when you play half your games there, it drove you nuts. The park killed me."

Still, Boyer found a way to contribute with his bat and, at times, his contributions at the plate helped at the most opportune moments. A lifetime .242 hitter, Boyer had his best years as a Yankee in 1962 and '65. In '62, he hit .272 with 18 home runs and 68 RBI. In '65, Boyer hit .251 with 18 homers and 58 ribbies.

In the World Series, he stepped it up a notch. He hit .318 against the Giants in '62 along with four RBI and a pivotal homer in Game 1. Leading off the seventh inning, Boyer's circuit blast broke a 2-2 tie. He also knocked in what proved to be the deciding run in a 3-2 victory during Game 3. His sixth-inning single in Game 4 knocked in a run to tie the game 2-2.

The '62 Series went down to the final out. Game 7 featured a pitching duel between aces Ralph Terry for the Yanks and Jack Sanford of the Giants. Terry carried a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth at Candlestick Park.

After Matty Alou led off with a bunt single, Terry struck out the next two hitters. Then, Willie Mays stepped to the plate.

(From left to right) Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Clete Boyer celebrate in the clubhouse following a 6-2 victory in Game 1 of the 1962 World Series against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. Boyer hit a seventh-inning home run in the game to put the Yanks ahead for good. (Photo courtesy of Clete Boyer)
"I'm thinking that we're going to get Mays," Boyer claimed. "We put a shift on, thinking he's going to pull the ball. What does he do? He hit the damn ball to right for a double."

A strong throw from Maris kept Alou at third. So, with men on second and third and two outs, the dangerous Willie McCovey stepped into the box.

"I just know that we're going to walk McCovey to set up a force," Boyer said. "That would bring (Orlando) Cepeda up and I'm thinking that I don't want to be the goat. I just know that Cepeda would have hit a ball off my knees or something. I'd have had my face plastered across the New York papers with a pair of horns coming out of my head."

But, after a conference on the mound, Terry confirmed that he wanted to pitch to McCovey. Three pitches later, the Series ended in a blink of an eye when McCovey sent a screaming liner right to Richardson at second base.

"I thought we lost the game," Boyer sighed. "Thank goodness that Richardson was a religious man."

Whether it was divine intervention or not, Boyer thinks that someone upstairs was always looking after him and his baseball career.

"I knew when I was 17 years old that I was going to play in the big leagues," said Boyer, who hit .233 with two homers and 11 RBI in five World Series with New York. "Other people didn't know it, but in my heart, I knew it."

It wasn't until after Boyer left the Yankees that he actually fulfilled his Gold Glove and slugging aspirations. He was traded to the Atlanta Braves after the 1966 season. In '67, he posted career highs in homers with 26 and RBI with 96. In 1969, he helped the Braves win their first-ever division title by winning his only Gold Glove award.

Clete Boyer (shown on his 1966 Topps baseball card) is arguably the finest third baseman that the New York Yankees have ever had. Along with his brother Ken, the Boyers hit a combined 444 homers in the majors - fourth most in history for a major league sibling combo.
"I could hit," said Boyer, who now lives in Norcross, Ga., where he operates a picture framing business, "but I was better defensively. That's where my value was. I loved third base and I knew the game. I could teach kids how to play."

Indeed, Boyer made a fine coach after his playing days. After completing his playing career with a stint in Japan, Boyer became a minor league instructor for the Braves. In 1980, he was named the third base coach and the infield instructor for the Oakland A's, where former Yankee teammate Billy Martin was manager. That job lasted five years.

Carney Lansford (who won the American League batting title in 1981 with the Boston Red Sox) became Boyer's prize pupil in Oakland. In 1988, Boyer returned to the Yankees as a minor league instructor. He managed at Class A Fort Lauderdale in 1989. Then, he spent the next two seasons as the third base coach for the Triple A Columbus Clippers. In 1992, he became third base coach for the Yankees and lasted three seasons.

After coming over from the Bosox, Wade Boggs rejuvenated his career by winning back-to-back Gold Gloves in 1994 and '95 - the first of his career. Current Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter also benefited from Boyer's expertise.

"In 1994, he made 54 errors in the minor leagues," Boyer said of Jeter, the current Yankee captain. "Now, look at him."

Boyer is certainly proud of his Yankee heritage. When he's not spending his time at his restaurant in Cooperstown, N.Y., during the summer, he is a featured instructor during Yankee fantasy camps in the winter. He can also be found at the occasional baseball card show - signing autographs (often for charity) while proudly wearing a Yankees cap and assorted apparel.

He even lives on Yankee time as the watch on his left wrist will attest.

"If I had played with anybody else," said Boyer, "the fans wouldn't even know my name."

Maybe. But, without his glove at third base, perhaps the Yankees might not have won five pennants and two World Series during his tenure. Boyer certainly earned the respect of Yankee fans while playing in the Big Apple.

For that, he may never go hungry again.

(Reprinted in its entirety from the June 2004 issue of Baseball Digest.)

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