Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Greatest Cardinal NOT in Cooperstown

He played eleven seasons for the St Louis Cardinals, was an All-Star seven times, won five Gold Gloves, and was the NL Most Valuable Player in 1964, leading his team to its first World Championship in eighteen years.

He was such a revered player in St Louis, the Cardinals hierarchy retired his number (14), along with seven other Cardinal greats - Ozzie Smith (1), Red Schoendienst (2), Stan Musial (6), Enos Slaughter (9), Dizzy Dean (17), Lou Brock (20), and Bob Gibson (45).  All have been inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York - except number (14) - Ken Boyer.

Boyer has been dead now for nearly thirty years, passing away a little more than a month before the Cardinals would win the 1982 World Series.  Boyer never received more than a handful of votes in his early years of Hall of Fame eligibility.  Sadly, dying seems to work in favor of induction, tugging at the heart-strings of those otherwise callous voters; still, Boyer peaked out with only 25% of the vote in 1988 - a year in which the Cardinals made it to the World Series in three of the previous six years. 

As the Cardinals faded from the national sports scene in the late '80s - early '90s, so too did the memory of Boyer's on-field accomplishments fade from the minds of the Hall of Fame voters.

Now, Boyer has another shot at Cooperstown, thanks to the Veteran's Committee selection process.  Boyer is one of nine former players on the ballot, along with one former baseball executive - Bob Howsam - a general manager for both the St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds of the '60's and '70's - helping both teams reach elite status during his tenure.

The other former players on the ballot include:  Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant, Billy Pierce and Maury Wills.

 The Veteran's Committe vote is how another great third baseman - Ron Santo - finally made it to Cooperstown three years ago.

Boyer's career numbers were similar to Santo's:  .287 lifetime batting average - 282 home runs - 2143 hits - 1104 runs scored - 1142 runs batted in - however, Boyer trumps Santo in two categories:  (1) He was a major contributor to a World Series championship and (2) he has a National League Most Valuable Player Award to his credit.  All that happened fifty years ago - in 1964.

Santo, of course, played for the Chicago Cubs, so he never had a chance to play in a World Series, and winning an MVP Award on a losing team requires Ernie Banks-type numbers, which Ron Santo never quite achieved.

On the other hand, Boyer led the NL with 119 RBI in '64, while leading the Cardinals to a pennant and world championship - and being the main cog to a pennant-winning team did the trick, as far as the voters were concerned.

The Beginning:

After losing two years to military service, Boyer broke in with the Cardinals in 1955, as a slick fielding third baseman, hitting a respectable .264 with 18 home runs in 147 games.  He improved to .306 with 26 home runs and 98 RBIs in his sophomore season.  Only an aging Stan Musial posted better offensive numbers for the Cardinals, but not by much.

Meanwhile, the team itself wasn't very good, finishing well below .500 in each of Boyer's first two major league seasons.  Then, some genius decided to convert the fleet-footed, uncomplaining Boyer into a center fielder in 1957.  Although he fielded his position brilliantly, the transition clearly detracted from his offensive production, as Boyer regressed to hit .265 with only 19 home runs.  Ironically, the Cardinals played well in '57, finishing in second place behind the Milwaukee Braves.

Luckily, the Cardinals acquired another player to patrol center field, beginning in 1958 - Curt Flood (who also belongs in the Hall of Fame) - allowing Boyer to return to third base - where he belonged.  Over the next seven seasons, Boyer played brilliantly, with remarkable consistency, as the Cardinals gradually developed into a championship-caliber team. 

After another second place finish in 1963, paced by Ken Boyer's then career-high 111 RBI the Cardinals were hopeful that 1964 was going to be "their year".  Of course, the '64 Cardinals completed a dramatic late-season comeback to surge past the fading Phillies to capture their first NL pennant since 1946.

The remarkable Ken Boyer, playing in every inning of all 162 regular season games, received the NL Most Valuable Player Award for his efforts.  The Cardinals would have finished in the second-division without his contributions in 1964.

World Series Performance:

Boyer's heroics didn't stop with the conclusion of the regular season.  In the World Series against the New York Yankees, the Cardinals had their backs up against the wall early in the Series.  Down two games to one, and losing 3-0 in the fifth inning of Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, Ken Boyer belted a grand slam home run down the left field line, giving the Redbirds a thrilling 4-3 win over the stunned Bronx Bombers.

It was the turning point of the World Series - instead of being down three games to one, the Cards had evened things up at two games apiece.  Bob Gibson eventually won Game 7 for the Cardinals, 7-5.  Boyer hit his second home run of the World Series, and wound up with a team-leading six RBI in the seven games. 

Boyer was now 33 years of age; mentally and physically exhausted.  The following season, he was unable to muster the energy and concentration necessary to continue producing as he had during the first ten years of his career.  In 1965, his batting average dropped to a career low .260, with only 13 home runs and 75 RBIs.  Shortly after the end of that dismal season, Ken Boyer was traded to the Mets for a third baseman by the name of Charley Smith.

Just like that, the Ken Boyer Era in St Louis Cardinals baseball was over.  In time, his number would be retired by an appreciative Cardinals franchise.  His legacy:  The greatest Cardinal player not in Cooperstown.

Hopefully, that will change when the committee casts its votes by December 8.

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