Two colorful characters from two different eras departed us during the month of June. Their deaths, along with those of two former major league pitchers who died earlier this spring, highlight this edition of Pastime Passings.
(Died on June 23 in Phoenix, Arizona; age 38; cause of death currently unknown): One of the game’s most colorful characters of the 1990s, Beck used an overpowering split-fingered fastball and an aggressive approach to pitching in becoming one of the decade’s most effective closers. Originally drafted by the Oakland A’s, Beck was traded to the A’s Bay Area rivals, the San Francisco Giants. In 1991, Beck made his major league debut with the Giants, soon establishing himself as the team’s relief ace. From 1991 to 1997, the hefty right-hander saved 199 games for San Francisco, helping the Giants to a 103-win season in 1993 and a National League West title in 1997. Beck later pitched for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and San Diego Padres. A hard thrower early in his career, Beck added to his air of intimidation by growing his hair long and sporting a Fu Manchu mustache. Later on, Beck made up for a loss of velocity by perfecting his splitter and his control, aggressively pounding the strike zone with fastballs. Nicknamed "Shooter" because of his gunslinging appearance and his love of cowboy boots and country music, the chain-smoking Beck was extremely popular with both fans and teammates. During a 2003 comeback with the Iowa Cubs, the blue-collar Beck lived in his Winnebago, located just outside of the stadium’s outfield fence. Fans regularly visited Beck, who responded by signing autographs and drinking beers with his newfound friends. Beck successfully returned to the major leagues with the Padres in 2004, but encountered problems with substance abuse that led him to take a leave of absence. After struggling with the Padres as a set-up reliever, the team released him in August of that season.
After his playing days, Beck dabbled in the film industry. He took an acting role in the film, Work Week, which is scheduled for release later this year.
(Died on June 4 in Atlanta, Georgia; age 70): Regarded as one of the finest defensive third basemen of all-time, Boyer emerged as a critical part of a New York Yankees dynasty that won five consecutive American League pennants in the 1960s. Boyer started his career with the Kansas City Athletics, but was routed to the Yankees as the player to be named later in the massive 11-player deal that also sent pitchers Art Ditmar and Bobby Shantz to New York. Boyer’s tenure with the Yankees included two World Championship teams in 1961 and ’62. Boyer also helped the Yankees advance to the World Series in ’63 and ’64. In the latter series, Boyer and his older brother Ken, an All-Star third baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals, each hit home runs in Game Seven. Boyer remained with the Yankees until the winter of 1966, when they traded him to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder-third baseman Bill Robinson and pitcher Chi-Chi Olivo. A right-handed batter who hit 162 home runs during his career, Boyer played with the Braves until 1971, when he clashed with Atlanta management and then left to finish out his professional career in Japan.
COMMENTARY: Summers in Cooperstown won’t be quite as colorful as they’ve been. That was one of the first reactions I had when I heard the sad news that Clete Boyer had died at the age of 70 from the effects of a massive stroke. In recent years, the hard-living Boyer had spent his summers in Cooperstown, signing autographs at baseball shops on Main Street or running his Hamburger Hall of Fame restaurant while spinning stories from his days as a player and coach. Boyer became a favorite in particular because of his connection to the Yankees—the team with the strongest following in upstate New York—and because of his down-home but forthright personality.
Boyer spent his first summer in Cooperstown living in the same building as me, in an apartment just above Mickey’s Place. I often ran into him while coming or going to work. 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 picked up the sense that Clete really missed Ken, who lost a battle with cancer at a young age in the early 1980s.
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 cited his efforts with Wade Boggs, who had been criticized for his defensive play in Boston. After Boggs joined the Yankees, Boyer convinced him to assume a lower defensive stance, 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.
And then there were Clete’s targets. 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 Buck—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, but their dislike of the manager didn’t prevent them from winning.
Still, Clete had a sense of humor about things. At that same SABR meeting, Clete comically took note of the surroundings. The meeting, held annually in Cooperstown, took place in a funeral home just off of Main Street. As Clete’s eyes rolled, most of us laughed from our seats in the casket room.
Often dressed in a blue Yankee sweatsuit, Boyer liked to wear leg weights and brag about the condition of his calves. "Look at these calves," Boyer would say calmly but proudly. Those calves served him well during the 1960s, when Boyer established a reputation as one of the two best defensive third basemen in the American League. While most historians consider Brooks Robinson the best defender of his era—and perhaps the most skilled of all-time—Boyer had his supporters who claimed he was just as good. A converted shortstop, Boyer had terrific range at third base, perhaps even better than Brooks. He definitely had the better arm—no one was better at throwing from his knees—a cannonshot that likely would have played well in the outfield. Robinson probably had better hands, along with a cat-like quickness that we saw on full display in the 1970 World Series. Boyer never enjoyed a Series quite like that, which at least partially explains 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 that part of his career, I’d like to think I made up for it, at least a little bit, by hearing what Clete had to say.
(Died on May 17 in Mt. Shasta, California; age 87; heart attack): A left-handed pitcher who played for eight teams, Wight was perhaps best known for signing Hall of Famer Joe Morgan as a scout for the Houston Colt .45s and Astros. During his playing career, Wight known for having one of the game’s best pickoff moves; in one game against the New York Yankees, he picked Mickey Mantle off twice. After his retirement, Wight became a longtime scout, first for the Astros and then for 32 years with the Atlanta Braves.
(Died on April 6 in Seattle, Washington; age 87): One of only seven major leaguers to hail from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, Bahr pitched in 46 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1946 and ’47 seasons. A veteran of World War II, Bahr split his time between starting and relieving after his military service. The right-handed swingman posted a record of 11-11 with an ERA of 3.37 for the Bucs.