Clete Boyer’s final Topps card strikes me as incongruous. It shows him holding a bat, when it was his glove that made him such an important contributor to winning teams during the 1960s. The 1971 Topps also shows him wearing pinstripes, but not those of the Yankees. Instead, we see him with the Atlanta Braves.
That’s what happens with a lot of the finale cards: You see a player wearing the colors of a team with which he is almost never associated. In Boyer’s case, the Braves were not even the final team of his playing career. He became embroiled in a nasty dispute with Braves general manager Paul Richards, who tersely gave him his release; Boyer decided to continue his career with the Taiyo Whales of the Japanese Leagues.
Boyer played his last game for the Whales in 1975, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I experienced The World According to Clete Boyer firsthand. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, he decided to spend his summers here in Cooperstown.
Boyer spent his first Cooperstown summer living in the same building as me, in an apartment just above Mickey’s Place, one of the largest memorabilia dealers in the village. I often ran into him while coming or going to work at the Hall of Fame, located just a block away. Even if I was running late, Boyer’s yarns usually kept me planted for at least a few moments. Clete liked to talk about his brother Ken, an underrated player whom he felt deserved a place in the Hall of Fame. Always willing to defer to Ken’s superiority as a ballplayer, Clete talked about his older brother with pride and admiration; there was never any jealousy. I sensed that Clete really missed Ken, who lost a battle with cancer in 1982 at the age of 51.
While Clete didn’t like to boast about himself as a player, he did show some pride in his work as a coach and spring training instructor. Boyer often discussed his efforts with Wade Boggs, who had been criticized for his defensive play with the Red Sox. After Boggs joined the Yankees, Boyer convinced him to assume a lower defensive stance, moving into a deep crouch as the pitch was being delivered, as a way of improving his lateral quickness on ground balls. Boyer’s hours of work with Boggs in spring training paid off, resulting in the lone Gold Glove of his Hall of Fame career.
Clete obviously helped Boggs, but there were others whom he considered his enemies. For better or worse, he was honest about those he didn’t like in baseball, particularly Buck Showalter. Boyer worked on Showalter’s staff in the early 1990s, only to be fired by the manager under nebulous circumstances. Considering Showalter disloyal and manipulative, Clete resented him—and never hesitated to let anyone know about it.
Another target was Casey Stengel, who managed Boyer with the Yankees. During a memorable appearance by Clete at a Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) meeting in Cooperstown, Boyer recalled how Stengel once pinch-hit for him in the first inning of a World Series game. Boyer said most of the Yankees couldn’t stand Stengel—and there may be a lot of truth to that—but their dislike of the manager rarely prevented them from winning.
Still, Clete had a sense of humor about things. At that same SABR meeting, he comically took note of the surroundings. The meeting, held annually in Cooperstown, took place in a funeral home just off Main Street. As Clete’s eyes rolled looking around the casket room, most of us rolled off our seats in laughter.
Clete had a serious side, too. I once approached him about doing a book detailing stories from his days with the Yankees; it would be called Clete Boyer’s Tales From The Yankee Dugout. He refused the invitation; as he put it, he didn’t want to “tell tales” against his old teammates like Mickey Mantle. I tried to explain that the book was not intended to be a “kiss and tell” book in the vein of Ball Four, but that explanation didn’t satisfy him. He thought that I wanted him to be Jim Bouton, and he simply wanted no part of that.
What he did want to do was relax and shoot the breeze with the tourists in Cooperstown. As Boyer spent his summers here, he signed autographs at Mickey’s Place and other baseball shops on Main Street. He eventually opened his own restaurant, a roadside establishment known as Clete Boyer’s Hamburger Hall of Fame. We occasionally took our lunch hour at the Hamburger Hall, where Clete could be heard spinning stories from his days as a player and coach. Boyer became a local favorite in particular because of his connection to the Yankees—he team with the strongest following in upstate New York—and because of his down-home but forthright personality. Sometimes, he was a little too forthright: A couple of waitresses could tell you about his flirtatious ways.
Often dressed in a blue Yankees sweatsuit, Boyer liked to wear leg weights and brag about the condition of his legs. “Look at these calves,” Boyer would say calmly but proudly. Boyer was fanatical about those calves, practically to the point of obsession.
Those calves did serve him well playing for the Yankees in the 1960s, when Boyer established a reputation as one of the two best defensive third basemen in the American League. Unfortunately, Brooks Robinson was the other, which translated into Boyer never winning a Gold Glove during his American League career. His only Gold Glove would come in 1969, by which time he was playing in the National League and competing against Ron Santo, not Robinson.
While most historians consider Brooks Robinson the best defender of his era—not to mention the greatest of all time—Boyer had his supporters who claimed he was just as good. (For what it’s worth, TotalZone favors Robinson over Boyer for their careers, 293 to 162.) A converted middle infielder who played shortstop and second base with the Kansas City A’s, Boyer had terrific range at third base, perhaps even better than Robinson. He definitely had the better arm, cannon-blaster that likely would have played well from the outfield. No one was better at throwing from his knees to first base,
On the other hand, Robinson probably had better hands, along with a cat-like quickness that he put on full display against the “Big Red Machine” in the 1970 World Series. Boyer never enjoyed a Series quite like that, perhaps explaining why his reputation for general fielding excellence has usually ranked behind that of Robinson.
I really can’t say whether Boyer was better than Robinson. I saw Brooks many times throughout the 1970s, but never did see Boyer play. Although I missed out on seeing him in action, I’d like to think I made up for it, at least a little bit, by hearing what Clete had to say.
Those days came to an end in 2007. That’s when Boyer succumbed to the effects of a massive stroke. Always a hard drinker, even in his later years, Boyer died at the age of 70.
From time to time, I think about Clete, especially when I look at his 1971 Topps card. I miss seeing him on Main Street. After all, it was pretty cool telling people that I lived in the same building as a baseball celebrity. Even if I did have to hear about those calves one too many times.