Ken Boyer

Why the Cardinals cleared third base for rookie Ken Boyer

On February 18, 1955, the Cardinals signed promising third base prospect Ken Boyer to his first big-league contract with an eye toward making him their starting third baseman that season.

The Cardinals already had cleared room for Boyer by trading all-star third baseman Ray Jablonski and pitcher Gerry Staley to Cincinnati for relief pitcher Frank Smith. Jablonski had burst onto the scene two years earlier, hitting 21 homers and driving in 112 to finish third in the National Leage Rookie of the Year balloting in 1953, then following that performance with a .296 batting average, 12 homers, and 104 RBIs in 1954.

Nonetheless, the Cardinals were so excited by Boyer’s potential that they were willing to trade Jablonski to leave third base open for Boyer.

“There’s no doubt that there’s bound to be less pressure than trying to beat out a man who drove in 100 runs in the big leagues,” Boyer said.[1]

Though Cardinals vice president Bill Walsingham insisted that the Cardinals had plenty of options at third base, including moving rookie outfielder Bill Virdon to third or moving second baseman Red Schoendienst to third base and installing Don Blasingame at second, it was clear that Boyer was the Cardinals’ preferred choice.

“We weren’t putting all of our eggs in one basket by depending entirely upon this rookie, Boyer, to replace Jabbo,” Walsingham said. “I know that everyone in the Cardinal minor league organization is high on Ken and he will be given every opportunity to take over, but as I pointed out before, our 1955 team will have a lot of flexibility and versatility.”[2]

Boyer had begun his professional baseball career as a pitcher after Cardinals owner Fred Saigh signed him for $6,000. At the time, any player who signed for more than $6,000 was deemed a “bonus player” and had to be kept on the major-league roster. Instead, Boyer was assigned to Class D Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he went 5-1 with a 3.42 ERA.

As a 19-year-old, Boyer went 6-8 with a 4.39 ERA. While his pitching stats were pedestrian, Boyer shined in the batter’s box, batting .342 with 17 doubles, six triples, and nine homers in 80 games. It proved to be his final season on the mound, as manager Vedie Himsl converted him to third base.

“I had been a shortstop in high school, but I was terrible when I began at third base,” Boyer said. “I’m glad of the change, though, because my arm hurt when I pitched and there’s nothing like getting to play every day.”[3]

In 1951, Boyer hit .306 with 14 homers and 90 RBIs in Class A Omaha, then missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons while serving in the Army. When he returned in 1954, he hadn’t missed a beat. Playing for the Houston Buffaloes in the Class AA Texas League, Boyer hit .319 with 21 homers and 116 RBIs, becoming just the 16th rookie in the history of the league to exceed 200 hits, as he finished the year with 202, including a 30-game hit streak.[4]

According to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Boyer was said to possess “a great throwing arm, wide range and (a) perfect temperament.”[5] St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports editor J. Roy Stockton wrote that “if Boyer is as good as observers insist he is, third base will be stronger than it was last season. Boyer, if he can field, won’t have to hit much above .300 to be an improvement over Ray Jablonski.”[6]

The Globe-Democrat reported that Boyer “was the cause of considerable alarm” when the team learned that he had been beaned while playing the Cuban Winter League in November. Fortunately, there turned out to be little cause for alarm.

“I was out about a month and a half but came back and hit .305,” Boyer said. “I’m looking forward to a good year.”[7]

Boyer did enjoy a good year, hitting a two-run homer on April 12 for his first major-league hit. He finished the year with a .264 batting average to go along with 18 homers, 62 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases. The following year, he made the first of seven career all-star teams as he hit .306 with 26 homers and 98 RBIs.

In 1957, Boyer went through another position change, this time moving to center field to allow rookie Eddie Kasko to break into the lineup. That year, he led all National League outfielders in fielding percentage, then returned to third base in 1958, where he won the first of four consecutive gold gloves and earned MVP votes for the first of seven consecutive years.

Named the Cardinals’ team captain in 1959, Boyer was a 33-year-old in 1964 when he hit .295 with 24 homers and led all of baseball with a career-high 119 RBIs. Not coincidentally, Boyer won the National League MVP Award as he led the Cardinals to the National League pennant and, ultimately, the World Series title. That season, Boyer hit for the cycle for the second time in his career, then capped off the year with a game-winning grand slam in Game 4 of the World Series.

After the 1965 season, the Cardinals traded Boyer to the Mets for Al Jackson and Charley Smith. After stints with the White Sox and Dodgers, he chose to retire following the 1969 season. He ended his 15-year major league career with 2,143 hits, a .287 career batting average, and 282 home runs.

After his playing career ended, Boyer became a manager in the Cardinals’ minor league system. In 1978, he was named manager to replace Vern Rapp. He managed the club to a 166-190 record before he was replaced by Whitey Herzog early in the 1980 season.

In 1984, two years after his passing from cancer, the Cardinals retired his number 14. He was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2014.

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[1] Bob Broeg, “Boyer, Cunningham, Four Others Sign; Only 4 Birds Out,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1955.

[2] Ray Gillespie, “Cards See Clover Era In Talent Crop,” The Sporting News, February 23, 1955.

[3] Bob Broeg, “Boyer, Cunningham, Four Others Sign; Only 4 Birds Out,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1955.

[4] “Birds Sign Cunningham, Boyer And Four Others,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 20, 1955.

[5] “Birds Sign Cunningham, Boyer And Four Others,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 20, 1955.

[6] J. Roy Stockton, “Extra Innings,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 27, 1955.

[7] “Birds Sign Cunningham, Boyer And Four Others,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 20, 1955.