Gold Gloves—Part V: MLB 3B in Puerto Rico Winter Ball (Ken Boyer—Five-Time NL Gold Glove Winner at 3B and Ponce Lions Manager)

Ken Boyer

This is Part V in a series on Gold Gloves (GG) earned by MLB players who played winter ball in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League. Six MLB 3B who played or managed in Puerto Rico have 21 Rawlings Gold Gloves (GG) between them: five American League (AL) and 16 National League (NL). This covers 1957-to-2018. In 1957, GG were awarded to nine total MLB players by position. From 1958-on, separate AL-NL recipients received this award. Frank Malzone—1957 Boston Red Sox—won the first GG at 3B.

The most GG won by a 3B is 16 by Brooks Robinson (1960-to-1975), followed by Mike Schmidt (10), Scott Rolen (eight) and four players with six apiece—Nolan Arenado, Buddy Bell, Eric Chavez and Robin Ventura. Ken Boyer is in a group with five GG, with the 1958-61 and 1963 St. Louis Cardinals. He managed the 1975-76 Ponce Lions in Puerto Rico. Other 3B with GG and a Puerto Rico League connection were: Frank Malzone (1957-59 Boston Red Sox), Mike Schmidt (1976-1984 and 1986 Philadelphia Phillies), Terry Pendleton (1987 and 1989 Cardinals, plus 1992 Atlanta Braves), Wade Boggs (1994-95 New York Yankees) and Ken Caminiti (1996-98 San Diego Padres). Mike Lowell—with a 2005 GG for the Florida Marlins—was born in Puerto Rico, but never played winter ball there.  

Ken Boyer was born in Liberty, Missouri, on May 20, 1931, two weeks after Willie Mays’s birth in Westfield, Alabama; and five months prior to Mickey Mantle’s birth in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. Those interested in reading Ken Boyer’s SABR bio by Burton Boxerman, can click: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/d3cc1585.  St. Louis signed Boyer as a pitcher in 1949 for a $6,000 bonus, but started playing 3B for the 1950 Hamilton Cardinals—Class D Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York (PONY) League, where he hit .342, nine HR, 61 RBIs in 80 games. Shortstop Don Zimmer led the league with 23 HR for the Hornell Dodgers in an eight-team, 126-game season.

Boyer was a full-time 3B in 1951 with the Class A 90-64 Omaha Cardinals (Western League) and had a .455 SLG PCT with a .306 BA, 14 HR and 90 RBIs. Omaha lost to the Sioux City Soos in the semi-finals, a team with 2B Ronnie Samford. (Samford was Zimmer’s double play partner with the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers, the best Caribbean winter league team ever assembled.) Boyer missed 1952 and 1953 due to serving in the U.S. Army, but had a splendid 1954 campaign with the Houston Buffaloes, managed by Dixie Walker, Double-A Texas League: .319 BA, 21 HR, 116 RBIs, plus a league post-season title. Boyer’s 21 HR were half the total hit by league-leader Buster Clarkson (42) for the last-place Dallas Eagles. Clarkson also starred at 3B for the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers.

Boyer’s only winter league playing experience was with the 1954-55 Havana Lions (aka Havana Reds), managed by Adolfo Luque. Boyer was hit by a fastball behind his left ear by Cienfuegos Elephants pitcher Alfredo Ibañez on December 4, 1954, and was carried off the field, per Lou Hernández. Boyer’s bio notes he was unconscious for three days; Lou Hernández stated Boyer “was not seriously hurt.” Clearly, Boyer’s concussion made it difficult to play and he returned home.   (The author’s beisbol101 two-part blog on Dick “Siete Leguas” Hall, indicated the 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates were the first MLB team—under Branch Rickey Sr.—to require all their players to wear batting helmets; by 1956, all MLB players had to wear batting helmets.)

Bill Virdon, Boyer’s Havana teammate and St. Louis prospect, played the entire winter and hit .340. Don Blasingame (2B) and Dick Schofield (SS) were two other St. Louis prospects with second-place Havana (36-33). Almendares (44-25) won the league title, but fell short to the previously mentioned Santurce Crabbers in the February 1955 Caribbean Series, hosted by Caracas, Venezuela. The Crabbers had Roberto Clemente in LF, Willie Mays in CF, Bob Thurman in RF; George Crowe (1B) and Harry Chiti at catcher; plus Clarkson, Zimmer and Samford mentioned earlier. All four Cuban professional teams—Havana, Almendares, Marianao Tigers and Cienfuegos—played every game in the capital city’s Grand Stadium.

From 1955-to-1956 and 1958-to-1965, Ken Boyer was the starting 3B for St. Louis, earning five GG. Boyer played CF in 1957, allowing rookie Eddie Kasko to cover 3B. Boyer led all NL OF in fielding PCT. The acquisition of Curt Flood in 1958 was the main reason St. Louis moved Boyer back to 3B. Boyer served as team captain, 1959-to-1965; was the 1964 NL MVP; and played in seven All-Star games and one (1964) World Series. Boyer’s first MLB hit—in his first regular season game—was a two-run homer off Paul Minner of the Chicago Cubs, April 12, 1955, at Wrigley Field. He went eight for 23 in his seven All-Star games, including homers at Yankee Stadium (Game Two) in 1960 and at Shea Stadium in 1964. His All-Star games slash line was: .348/.423/.609, with a 1.032 OPS. Boyer’s grand slam off the Yankees Al Downing in Game Four of the 1964 World Series gave St. Louis a 4-3 win, deadlocking the series at two games. He scored three runs and had three hits in Game Seven, a 7-5 win by Bob Gibson.

Boyer, who wore #14, hit for the cycle in game two of a home twin-bill against the Cubs, September 14, 1961. His ninth-inning double tied the game; then, he homered in the 11th, for a walk-off 6-5 win, to become the first player in MLB history to complete a cycle with a walk-off homer. Three years later, he was the 19th player in MLB history to hit for the cycle twice, when he led the Cardinals to a 7-1 road win versus the Houston Colt 45s. And Boyer was the glue of the St. Louis IF, one which all four players—Bill White (1B), Julián Javier (2B), Boyer and Dick Groat (SS)—were named as starters for the 1963 MLB All-Star Game. Boyer’s 1964 NL MVP season featured a league-leading 119 RBI, the first time a NL 3B had the most RBIs since Heinie Zimmerman’s 102 for John McGraw’s 1917 New York Giants. (Coincidentally, McGraw played one season at 3B for the 1900 SL Cardinals.)

Boyer’s GG-caliber play at 3B, starting in 1958, coincided with him becoming the team’s cleanup hitter. His 41 fielding double plays in 1958 were the second-highest in NL history at the time. Boyer’s 156 putouts in 1958 led the NL. His career fielding PCT at 3B was .952, identical to his 1955 rookie season at the hot corner. Boyer turned 355 double plays; committed 264 errors; and had 3,652 assists at 3B for St. Louis, the New York Mets (1966-67), Chicago White Sox (1967-68) and 1968 Los Angeles Dodgers.  

Long-time St. Louis Cardinals fans recall Boyer’s 29-game hitting streak from August 10 to September 12, 1959, when he batted .350 with eight homers and 23 RBIs. He fell one game short of Stan Musial’s 30-game hit streak in 1950 and four shy of Rogers Hornsby’s all-time team record of 33 straight games with a hit in 1922. Albert Pujols hit in 30 consecutive games for St. Louis in 2003.  Harry Walker’s 29 straight games with a hit in 1943 put him in a fourth-place tie with Boyer in this team category. Boyer, tied for third with seven grand slams, behind Pujols (12) and Musial (9), ranks high in franchise career totals through the 2018 season, including:

  • Third in home runs (255) behind Stan Musial (475) and Albert Pujols (445)
  • Fifth in RBIs (1,001)
  • Sixth in total bases (3,011)
  • Seventh in AB (6,334)
  • Eighth in runs (988) and hits (1,855)
  • Ninth in games played (1,667) and walks (629).

Boyer and Cooperstown Hall of Fame 2B Rogers Hornsby have a special connection beyond the fact both are connected to St. Louis World Series champs which defeated the New York Yankees in seven games—Hornsby, player-manager, 1926 Cardinals; and Boyer, team captain, 1964 Cardinals. Both managed the Ponce Leones (Lions) in Puerto Rico’s Winter League, 25 years apart—Hornsby, 1950-51; and Boyer, 1975-76. Ponce’s “glory years” came in two separate periods, preceding Hornsby and Boyer as managers. Ponce won five Puerto Rico titles in six seasons, 1941-42 through 1946-47, under manager George Scales. The Lions captured three league titles in four seasons, plus the February 1972 Caribbean Series, between 1968-69 and 1971-72.  Hornsby’s Lions finished third of five teams at 43-35, falling short in the league playoffs to eventual champion Santurce, led by George Scales. Boyer’s Lions were fifth of six teams at 26-34, two games behind four-place Santurce, managed by Jack McKeon.

“We knew from the beginning that we would have to get the job done with our [Santurce] pitching and they came through,” said McKeon. “With a couple of hitters we would have been right up there [with Bayamón and Caguas].” Ken Boyer lamented the fact that so many of his imported pitchers had gone home. “We also lost catcher Marc Hill and 1B Keith Hernández,” said Boyer. “We had a couple of games booted away and in a 60-game schedule, you can’t afford to give away anything. A bad start can kill you too.”

Durwood Merrill, who umpired in Puerto Rico’s Winter League in the mid-1970s, and went on to a long career as an AL arbiter, recalled that Boyer, McKeon, Caguas’ Jim Bunning and Frank Robinson (in 1974-75) all “wanted to get noticed in their pursuit of big league managing jobs.” Merrill told the author this made for colorful arguments in regular season and post-season games.

The 1975-76 Ponce Lions only hit 15 homers in 60 games, just one more than the 14 clouted by home run leader Benigno “Benny” Ayala of the Arecibo Lobos (Wolves). Keith Hernández hit none in his 24 Ponce games, but drew 21 walks. Cirilo “Tommy” Cruz led the club with six home runs. Six other Lions combined for nine homers, with Otto Vélez and import Ellis Valentine hitting two each. Vélez, who enjoyed playing for Ken Boyer, went 0-for-3 the last day of the season, to finish at .328, .003 behind league-leader Dan Driessen’s .331 BA for Bayamón. “I had been hit by a pitch and was a bit tentative at the plate,” recalled Vélez. Gilberto Flores and Ramón Avilés were two other Lions who played for Boyer in 1975-76. They had long Puerto Rico League careers, and were used to player turnover, including imports who left early.

One import who remained with Ponce the entire 1975-76 season was Chicago White Sox prospect Pete Vukovich, a future (1982) Cy Young Winner with the Milwaukee Brewers. Vuckovich completed nine of his 15 Ponce starts, going 8-6, 2.24 ERA (fourth-best), in 116.1 innings, and 48 striketouts-to-42 walks. Vuckovich opined, in Rory Costello’s SABR bio that: “Ken’s the man that got me thinking like a big leaguer. He [Boyer] said to give it my best and not let little things bother me. He taught me the importance of concentration.”

Ken Boyer went on to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, from 1978-to-1980, posting a 166-190 record, .466. He was fired after 51 games in 1980 and (eventually) replaced by Whitey Herzog.

Boyer passed away in St. Louis, on September 7, 1982, at age 51, from lung cancer. His #14 was retired by St. Louis in 1984. Thirty years later, he was inducted in the first (2014) St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame class, a group which now includes 43 former players, managers, coaches, scouts and executives. Bob Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial and Branch Rickey Sr. (GM, manager, president) were among those inducted in 2014. Boyer’s St. Louis Cardinals 11-year totals were: .293 BA (1,855 hits in 6,334 AB), with 255 HR and 1,001 RBIs. His MLB slash line: .287/.349/.462, with a .810 OPS, along with 282 HR and 1,141 RBIs.

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