He is an athlete.He is 6 feet 2 inches tall and he weighs 195 pounds, yet he moves lightly andquickly, with perfectly controlled grace. His hands are powerful, yet they arebeautifully formed, supple, sensitive, quick. His legs are heavy and muscular,yet they look as though they had been carved by Michelangelo. His name isKenton Lloyd Boyer. He is an athlete.
Two months ago hewas a great athlete. Now the wise men of baseball wonder if he'll ever escapemediocrity.
In the spring ofthis year he was the subject most talked about (and almost always with delight)in the camp of the St. Louis Cardinals. As late as the 30th of June he led theNational League in home runs, in runs batted in and in runs produced, and hewas second in batting. He was the National League's third baseman in theAll-Star Game in July, and in it was outstanding; he made three hits and two ofthe greatest fielding plays a third baseman has ever made.
Of him, in thespring, taciturn Fred Hutchinson, manager of the Cardinals, said: "He's thekind of player you dream about: terrific speed, brute strength, a great arm.There's nothing he can't do. He's the best base runner on the team. I think hehas the greatest future of any young player in the league."
September 2, 1956
But in August theslow-moving, slow-talking Hutchinson benched Boyer. The player you dream aboutsat in the dugout through eight straight games, watching Bobby Morgan, a .240hitter, play in his place. He had slowly but steadily slumped through July andhad all but stopped dead early in August. His average had declined to .306. Hehad stopped hitting home runs (19 before July 1, only two after). In the last10 games before Hutchinson decided at last to bench him, Boyer had batted afutile .174 and had not had one extra-base hit.
The rest,Hutchinson hoped, would restore his power. But when Boyer finally did return tothe lineup, volatile Frank Lane, general manager of the Cardinals, screameddown from the press box high behind home plate in Busch Stadium in St. Louis:"Swing the bat, damn it! Swing the bat!" And then to the others in thepress box, and to the sky and to the world for that matter, Lane complained:"He hasn't swung hard in two months."
Down on the fieldBoyer demonstrated that Lane was, technically, exaggerating, for he did swinghard, once or twice. Once he hit a long foul that didn't miss being a home runby much, and he followed that with a sharp double to left. But more often heswung weakly, off balance, seemingly fooled by the pitch. When he managed abase hit, it was frequently one that he had sliced to right, rather than pulledto left. Lane was exaggerating, but he was right. Now Hutchinson, his dream ofMay an August nightmare, has recast his opinion of the spring. "Boyer haseverything he needs to be a great player except for one thing. He has todevelop more drive, more aggressiveness. He doesn't push enough."
Frank Lane saidsubstantially the same thing, in language that was perhaps a little morecolorful, a bit more earthy and specific.
A St. Louissportswriter who follows the Cardinals said, in a wistful tone, "I thinkmaybe the only thing wrong with Ken is that he was born with so much ability.He never had to try hard. Somebody else, a fellow like Stanky or Billy Martin,has to fight all the way. Stanky had to scramble and work like the devil tolearn how to do things Ken could do the first time he tried them. If he haddrive, if he was Enos Slaughter, say, he'd be the greatest ballplayer you eversaw."
Boyer himself,quiet and self-assured, did not seem as disturbed by his slump, which he seemedto feel was a temporary thing.
"I don't knowif I am a .330 hitter," he said calmly, and the implication was clear thathe felt that his hitting slump was probably a leveling off process, working inaccordance with the immutable laws of chance, and that an average of .306 or sowas nothing that a second-year man in the major leagues need be ashamed of. Heseemed mildly disturbed that others should blame his hitting decline on hispersonality.
"Lane talkedto me," Boyer said. "He's talked about drive and aggressiveness. Idon't think I really know what he means. I know that I try, that I giveeverything I have. I don't loaf. I know that all my life people have beensaying that to me, that I don't look as if I'm trying. I guess I don't look asif I'm putting out. But I am.
"I don'tthink hustle is something you can see all the time. Like Enos Slaughter.Everybody talks about the way he runs in and off the field between innings.That's the least important part of Slaughter's hustle. The thing that counts isthe way he runs on the bases and in the outfield. That's what makes him ahustling ballplayer, not the way he runs off the field.
"Take Musial.I heard about him for years and when I sit next to him on the bench I know thathe wants to win in the worst way. He hustles. His legs aren't so good now asthey were, but he used to be going for the extra base all the time. But youdidn't see him breaking his back running in off the field. Or Alvin Dark.Anyone will tell you Dark's a hustling ballplayer. Or Robinson. I don't believethere's anyone who hustles more than Robinson does. And he walks off the fieldbetween innings."
Boyer insiststhat he hustles, and anyone who has watched him streak back at an angle intoleft field foul territory after a shallow foul fly understands that he does.But perhaps it's true, too, that he does not have that innate compulsion tosucceed, to win, at all costs.
Boyer was born in1931 in Liberty, Mo., which is near Kansas City, but his home town—that is, thetown he really grew up in—is Alba, a small place not too far outside of Joplin,in southwestern Missouri. He had six brothers (and five sisters) and across thestreet from his home the town was thoughtful enough to build a ball park. TheBoyer brothers and the boys of three neighboring families took over the park,more or less. As they grew older they played together pretty much as a unit inthe same league for several years. Ken, third in age of the Boyer brothers,played shortstop. One of his opponents was a stocky, blond shortstop on theBaxter Springs (Kan.) team named Mickey Mantle, who was five months youngerthan Boyer and not as good a ballplayer at that time. Boyer was the league'sAll-Star shortstop in three different seasons.
Buford Cooper,the team's coach, was a St. Louis Cardinal "bird dog," a volunteerscout who received a flat fee of $250 for snaring a good prospect for theCardinals and a $1,000 bonus if the boy became established in the majors.(Cooper received his bonus for Ken Boyer just a few months ago.) Cloyd Boyer,Ken's oldest brother, signed with St. Louis and pitched for both the Cardinalsand the Kansas City Athletics. Wayne, the second brother, was an excellentprospect and played minor league ball before giving up baseball to studydentistry. Ken signed at 18 after his graduation from high school. His youngerbrother, Lynn, was a good first baseman in minor league ball, but he broke hiswrist this season and has decided to quit baseball and go to college. The nextyounger brother, Cletis, signed a bonus contract with the Kansas City Athleticslast year. (Cloyd since has gone back down to the minors, to Sacramento, but in1955 three Boyer brothers were active major leaguers at the same time, thusjoining the Wrights, the Delahantys, the Sewells and the DiMaggios in a uniquegroup of families that could boast of three brothers simultaneously in themajor leagues.)
In all, nine ofthe dozen or so boys in the four families in the Boyers' immediate neighborhoodlater played professional baseball. In this remarkably gifted group of youngathletes, Boyer was outstanding. He was a high 'school basketball player ofgreat skill and had athletic scholarships offered to him from more than a dozenmajor colleges. When he signed with the Cardinals he could have received asizeable bonus.
Boyer spent onlytwo minor league seasons as a third baseman before becoming the St. Louisregular at that position in 1955, though it took six years, counting two duringwhich the Cardinals experimented with him as a pitcher and two more in theArmy. The idea persists that inwardly Boyer feels that if he had been startedat 18 as a third baseman he would have made it up to the Cardinals that muchfaster. Did he, he was asked, ever have any doubts that he would reach themajor leagues? He considered the question seriously, trying to remember.
"No," hesaid slowly. "No. I don't think I ever did. I might have been a littlescared going up to Houston, but when I got there and saw the players I said tomyself, 'Hell, I played with fellows like this in the Army.' "
Boyer'sself-confidence is based on an almost innocent appreciation of his owncapability.
"Anathlete," he said, "first of all has to have ability that the dear Lordgives him. The plays that Willie Mays makes, they aren't all planned andthought out. A big part of it is ability the dear Lord gave him. Then you haveto have desire. And that's not just wanting to. It's—well, my brother Wayne. Heand Cloyd and I were always pretty much together playing ball when we were kidsand he was just about as good as either of us. Cloyd and I both made themajors. But Wayne, he was always sort of a bookworm. And he looked ahead anddecided, well, he was going to go to college. He's in dental school now andthen he'll start to practice, and when we're all through in our career,baseball, he'll be just really getting under way in his. He thinks things outand plans them, and he's doing what he wants to do. But I always had the desireto play big league ball."
The desire, then,would seem to be there, and certainly the ability that the dear Lord gave him.If Hutchinson and Lane are right, that the catalyst needed to turn thesequalities into baseball greatness is an aggressive desire to win, not just toplay, then they face the greatest challenge in their careers. For an athletelike Kenton Lloyd Boyer to die on the vine as a run-of-the-mill ballplayerwould be in its own unique way a baseball tragedy.
The Brooklyn Dodgers went west for the last time thisseason on a 10-game road trip which is vital to their hopes of repeating aschampions of the National League. In St. Louis, their first stop, they got offto a fine start by sweeping a two-game series. With the trip nearly over, theDodgers were holding their own and appeared to be in good shape for thefeverish five weeks left of the pennant campaign, most of which they will spendin Ebbets Field.
The irony, though, was that an erratically pitchedball in the ninth inning of the second game in St. Louis may have more effecton the pennant race than all the games won or lost by the Dodgers last week.The pitch hit Clem Labine, rubber-armed relief specialist of the Dodgers, onthe right wrist and chipped a bone, crippling him for at least two weeks andperhaps crippling the Dodgers for the rest of the season.
A few simple figures are sufficient to point out whatLabine means to the Dodgers. In the 116 games played by Brooklyn, he appearedin 52 and was responsible for over a third of the club's victories, with 16saves and nine wins credited to him. Just how long Brooklyn can continue to winwithout Clem Labine warming up in the bullpen is a worrisome riddle.
That game between the Cardinals and Dodgers wasremarkable in other respects too. The Cardinals played hot potato with the balland by generously conceding four unearned runs managed to insure a Dodgervictory, 5-3. That in itself isn't so surprising, considering the fortunes ofSt. Louis baseball this season. The stunner to Cardinal fans was the fact thatthe leader of the circuslike festivities in the St. Louis infield was noneother than The Man, Stan Musial. He made two glaring errors and went hitlessfor the second night in a row. Afterwards Musial had to admit, "It was theworst game I ever played." Evidently the fans thought so, too, for whenStan came to the plate in the eighth inning they bombarded him with the loudestchorus of boos in his long career (next day 10 of them inserted their apologiesin the St. Louis press). Cardinal General Manager Frank Lane nearly burst ablood vessel hurling derisive remarks at Musial and the bumbling Cardinals fromthe press box. Then, pulling the neatest switch of this political year, heturned just as emphatically to their defense when the fans started booing.
For different reasons, it was a night both clubs wouldlike to forget.
BROTHER CLOYD, 28. Former major league pitcher (Cards, A's). Now in minors.
BROTHER WAYNE, 26. Former minor league pitcher-outfielder. Now in dentistry.
BROTHER LYNN, 21. Former minor league first baseman. Entering college.
BROTHER CLETIS, 19. Major league infielder with Athletics. Bonus: $35,000.
BROTHER RONALD, 12. Little League pitcher-outfielder. Entering seventh grade.
BROTHER LEONARD, 9. A likely rookie pitching prospect. Entering fifth grade.