2022 Golden Days Era Committee Candidates: Ken Boyer and Maury Wills

This post is part of a series concerning the 2022 Golden Days Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Ken Boyer

2022 Golden Days Candidate: Ken Boyer

Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Ken Boyer 62.8 46.2 54.5
Avg. HOF 3B 68.6 43.1 55.9
2143 282 .287/.349/.462 116

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

One of three brothers who spent time in the majors, Boyer spent the bulk of his 15-year career (1955-69) vying with Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Ron Santo for recognition as the NL’s top third baseman. An outstanding all-around player with good power, speed, and an excellent glove — but comparatively little flash, for he was all business – Boyer earned All-Star honors in seven seasons and won five Gold Gloves, all of them during his initial 11-year run with the Cardinals. In 1964, he took home NL MVP honors while helping St. Louis to its first championship in 18 years.

Boyer was born on May 20, 1931 in Liberty, Missouri, the third-oldest son in a family of 14 (!) children. He was nearly four years younger than Cloyd Boyer, who pitched in the majors from 1949-52 and ’55, and nearly six years older than Clete Boyer, also a third baseman from 1955-57 and ’59-71; four other brothers (Wayne, Lynn, Len, and Ron) played in the minors. The Cardinals signed Ken as a pitcher in 1949, paying him a $6,000 bonus. While his pitching results weren’t awful, he took his strong arm to third base when the need presented itself on his Class D Hamilton Cardinals team; he hit .342, slugged .575, and showed off outstanding defense.

Boyer’s progress to the majors was interrupted by a two-year stint in the Army during the Korean War; he didn’t play at all in 1952 or ’53. Upon returning, the 23-year-old Boyer put in a strong season at Double-A Houston in 1954, then made the Cardinals out of spring training the following year, and even homered in his major leagued debut, a two-run shot off the Cubs’ Paul Minner that trimmed an eighth-inning lead to 14-4. That was the first of 18 homers Boyer hit as a rookie while batting .264/.311/.425 (94 OPS+); he also stole 22 bases but was caught a league-high 17 times.

Boyer came into his own in 1956, batting .306/.347/.494 (124 OPS+) with 26 homers and making his first All-Star team. It was the first year of a nine-season run across which Boyer would hit a combined .299/.364/.491 (124 OPS+) while averaging 25 homers and 6.1 WAR; seven times, he ranked among the NL’s top 10 in WAR while doing so five times apiece in batting average and on-base percentage, and four times in slugging percentage. Boyer set career highs in home runs (32), slugging percentage (.570) and OPS+ (144) in 1960, then followed that up with highs in WAR (8.0), AVG, and OBP while hitting .329/.397/.533 (136 OPS+) in ’61. He made the All-Star team every year from 1959-64, including the twice-a-summer version of the event in the first four of those seasons.

The Cardinals were not a very good team for the first leg of Boyer’s career; from 1954-59, they cracked .500 just once. With Boyer absorbing the lessons of Stan Musial and helping to pass them along to a younger core — first baseman Bill White, second baseman Julian Javier, center fielder Curt Flood, and later catcher Tim McCarver — the team began trending in the right direction. The Cardinals went 86-68 in 1960, and continued to improve, particularly as right-hander Bob Gibson emerged as a star. After going 93-69 and finishing second to the Dodgers in 1963 — a six-game deficit, their smallest since ’49 — they matched that record and won the pennant the following year, spurred by the mid-June acquisition of left fielder Lou Brock; they beat out a Phillies team that closed September with 10 straight losses. Boyer hit .295/.365/.489 while driving in a league-high 119 runs. In a case of the writers rewarding the top player on a winning team with the MVP award, he took home the trophy, though his 6.1 WAR ranked 10th, well behind Willie Mays (11.0), Santo (8.9), Phillies rookie Dick Allen (8.8), Frank Robinson (7.9) et al.

Though Boyer hit just .222/.241/.481 in the seven-game World Series against the Yankees and his brother Clete, he came up big by supplying all the scoring via a grand slam off Al Downing in the Cardinals’ 4-3 win in Game 4. Additionally, he went 3-for-4 with a double and a homer in the Cardinals’ 7-5 win in Game 7. His brother also homered, to date the only time that’s happened in World Series play.

Hampered by back problems, Boyer slipped to a 91 OPS and 1.8 WAR in 1965, his age-34 season, after which he was traded to the Mets for pitcher Al Jackson and third baseman Charley Smith. Boyer rebounded to a 101 OPS+ and 2.9 WAR, albeit on a 95-loss team going nowhere. The following July, he was traded to the White Sox, who were running first in what wound up as a thrilling four-team race that went down to the season’s final day. The White Sox were managed by Eddie Stanky, who had been at the helm when Boyer broke in with the Cardinals. Though Boyer didn’t play badly, he appeared in just 67 games for the team before being released in May 1968. He was picked up by the Dodgers, spending the remainder of that season and the next with them.

After his playing days were done, Boyer managed in the minors, then took over the Cardinals from early 1978 to early ’80; in his one full season (1979), he guided the team to an 86-76 record and a third-place finish. While he moved into a scouting role and was slated to manage the team’s Triple-A Louisville affiliate in 1982, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on September 7 of that year, at age 52.

Boyer never got much traction in the BBWAA voting, either before or after his death. From 1975-79, he maxed out at 4.7%, and was bumped off the ballot when the Five Percent rule was put in place in 1980. He was one of 11 players who had his eligibility restored in 1985, only five of whom cleared the bar and remained on the ballot, along with Allen, Flood, Santo, and Vada Pinson. He remained on the ballot through 1994, topping out at 25.5% in ’88, nowhere near enough for election. Neither did he fare well via the expanded Veterans Committee in the 2003, ’05, and ’07 elections, maxing out at 18.8% in the middle of those years. Similarly, on both the 2012 and ’15 Golden Era ballots, he finished below the threshold where they announce the actual vote totals so as not to embarrass anyone.

All of which is to say that within this Golden Days group, Boyer might feel like ballast, here to round out a ballot without having much chance at getting elected. That’s a shame, because he was damn good. For the 1956-64 period, he ranked sixth among all position players in value:

WAR Leaders 1956-64

Rk Player Age AVG OBP SLG OPS+ WAR/pos
1 Willie Mays+ 25-33 .315 .389 .588 164 84.2
2 Hank Aaron+ 22-30 .324 .382 .581 164 73.0
3 Mickey Mantle+ 24-32 .315 .445 .615 189 68.2
4 Eddie Mathews+ 24-32 .275 .381 .508 146 60.5
5 Frank Robinson+ 20-28 .304 .390 .556 150 58.7
6 Ken Boyer 25-33 .299 .364 .491 124 55.0
7 Al Kaline+ 21-29 .307 .377 .503 134 50.8
8 Ernie Banks+ 25-33 .280 .341 .531 132 50.1
9 Rocky Colavito 22-30 .271 .364 .514 136 38.5
10 Roberto Clemente+ 21-29 .312 .349 .450 117 37.7

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

That’s a pretty good group! Of course the comparison is manicured perfectly to Boyer’s best years, but even if I expand the range to cover the full extent of his career, he’s ninth on the list, in similar company (Kaline, Clemente, and Banks passes him), and one spot ahead of Santo. Boyer was a better fielder than Santo (via Total Zone, +73 runs to +21), and a better baserunner (+19 runs to -34, including double play avoidance), though not as good a hitter (116 OPS+ to 125).

Even having lost time to military service, Boyer ranks 14th among third basemen in JAWS, just 1.4 points below the standard, with a seven-year peak that ranks ninth, 3.2 points above the standard. At a position that’s grossly underrepresented — there are just 15 enshrined third basemen, not including Negro League players, compared to 20 second basemen, 23 shortstops, and 27 right fielders — that should be good enough for Cooperstown.

If I had a ballot for this group, Boyer would be one of my four choices. I don’t expect that enough voters will see it that way, but I do appreciate that he’s being kept in the conversation, and will get his due someday.

Maury Wills

2022 Golden Days Candidate: Maury Wills

Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Maury Wills 39.6 29.6 34.6
Avg. HOF SS 67.8 43.2 55.5
2134 20 .281/.330/.331 88

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

A switch-hitting shortstop in the majors for 14 seasons (1959-72), mostly with the Dodgers, Wills is generally credited with reviving the art of the stolen base, a particularly useful tactic in the run-parched environment of Dodger Stadium in the early-to-mid 1960s. The electrifying Wills led the league in steals every year from 1960-65, setting a since-broken major league record with 104 in ’62 — a performance that helped him earn NL MVP honors — while playing a significant role on three Dodgers world championship teams.

Born on October 2, 1932 in Washington, DC, Wills starred in three sports at Cardozo High School, earning all-city honors in all three, and drew particular interest from colleges as a quarterback and safety, but “baseball was my true love,” as he later said. The Dodgers, on the hunt for Black players in the wake of Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough, signed him in the summer of 1950 for a bonus of just $500, far short of the $6,000 Wills and his family envisioned.

Wills toiled in the minors for parts of nine seasons (1951-59), twice leaving the Dodgers’ organization via conditional deals; he spent 1957 playing for the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate, the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, and went to spring training with the Tigers in ’59. The turning point for Wills actually came in 1958, after the Dodgers reclaimed him from the Reds, when Triple-A Spokane Indians manager Bobby Bragan encouraged the righty-swinging Wills to learn to switch-hit, moving him even closer to first base.

With Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese having retired after the 1958 season, the Dodgers’ first in Los Angeles, the team was in search of a shortstop. With neither Don Zimmer nor Bob Lillis panning out, and with Wills batting a sizzling .313/.387/.391 with 25 steals at Spokane, he was called up in early June. By early July, he was the regular. While his .260/.298/.298 (55 OPS+) showing was subpar, it still represented an upgrade over the even weaker performance of Zimmer, and he sizzled in September (.345/.382/.405) as the Dodgers won a three-way pennant race over the Giants and Braves, beating the latter twice in a best-of-three tiebreaker series at season’s end. Wills started all six World Series games as the Dodgers beat the White Sox.

Finding a home atop the batting order midway through the 1960 season, Wills used his skills as a bunter and base thief to ignite Los Angeles’ offense. He hit .295/.342/.331 while stealing a league-high 50 bases in 62 attempts, good for 2.5 WAR. After stealing 35 bases the following year while making his first All-Star team, Wills swiped a whopping 104 — a mark that stood until it was broken by Lou Brock in 1974 — in 117 attempts in 1962. He surpassed Ty Cobb’s single-season record of 96 in the Dodgers’ 156th game, the same number Cobb needed in 1915 (his Tigers played two tie games), satisfying commissioner Ford C. Frick’s ruling on whether his feat would count as the major league record.

The frequent running took a physical toll on Wills, amplified by opposing groundskeepers adding sand to the clay around first base to make traction more difficult. Still, he hit .299/.347/.373 with 10 triples and 130 runs scored; including his 19 baserunning runs (the highest single-season total in B-Ref’s database) and average-ish defense that nonetheless earned him a Gold Glove, he finished with 6.0 WAR, good for fourth in the league. His performance was such a unique throwback that he beat out heavy-hitters like NL home run and WAR leader Willie Mays and teammate Tommy Davis (.346/.374/.535, 230 hits, 27 homers, 153 RBI) to win the NL MVP award.

Alas, the Dodgers lost the pennant via a playoff versus the Giants — which did enable Wills to set a still-standing record of 165 games played in a regular season — but they would win the World Series in 1963 and ’65, with Wills hitting for a career-best 112 OPS+ (on a .302/.355/.349 line) in the former year and stealing 94 bases in the latter before making a stellar showing (.367/.387.467) against the Twins (starring Golden Days ballot-mates Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva) in the Fall Classic.

Wills made five All-Star teams from 1961-66, but he fell out of favor with his sinking batting averages and on-base percentages, not to mention his going AWOL to play banjo with Don Ho and Sammy Davis Jr. during the Dodgers’ post-1966 World Series trip to Japan to play a exhibition games. With Walter O’Malley already in a foul mood due to the sudden retirement of Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ owner ordered general manager Buzzie Bavasi to trade Wills.

Bavasi complied, sending Wills to the Pirates, for whom he had two very good seasons, hitting for a 98 OPS+, stealing 81 bases, and totaling 7.8 WAR. Drafted away by the Expos in the expansion draft in late 1968, he became increasingly unhappy to the point of briefly retiring in early June, but was soon dealt back to the Dodgers along with future pinch-hitting legend Manny Mota in exchange for Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich. He stuck around until 1972, the year that Bill Russell emerged as the regular shortstop and the first piece in place for what would become the game’s longest-running infield.

Wills retired with 586 steals, 21 more than any other player from 1920-72; today, his total ranks 20th all-time. Though he ranked among the league’s top 10 in stolen base percentage eight times from 1960-68, by modern standards his career 73.8% success rate is nothing special. Even so, he was 55 runs above average on the basepaths and another 21 above average in double play avoidance; his combined total for the aforementioned 1920-72 period ranked second only to Luis Aparicio, and overall it’s still 22nd.

For all of that, Wills’ batting line was pretty unremarkable even given the adjustments for his low-scoring environment; his 88 OPS+ is one point ahead of that of Ozzie Smith, but he was merely average defensively, no small accomplishment for a 14-year career at a premium defensive position, but no wizard. Even accounting for his baserunning, he dented the WAR leaderboard only in 1962. He ranks just 48th at the position in JAWS, below every enshrined shortstop as well as current BBWAA candidate Omar Vizquel; Carlos Correa (34.2) will pass him next year. Even giving Wills a subjectively sizable bonus for restoring the stolen base to prominence, and for the level of excitement and entertainment he must have created with his speed and small-ball skills — an aspect that’s not very well captured in WAR — I just don’t see where he’s a strong enough candidate for election.

Not every voter has felt that way. Wills debuted on the 1978 ballot with 30.3% of the vote, a share that portends a reasonable chance of eventual election. By 1981, he climbed to 40.6%, but then things took a turn. The Mariners named him as their manager on August 4, 1980, to take over for the fired Darrell Johnson. Wills’ lack of experience — he had passed up a chance to manage in the minors at Bavasi’s encouragement, though had managed in Mexican winter leagues for a few years — quickly showed. Not only did the Mariners go 20-38 in the remainder of that season and start the next one 6-18, but he made “unconscionable strategic mistakes, third-grade, sandlot mistakes. And he compounded his mistakes by claiming to know all or by blaming somebody else,” to use the description of Steve Rudman of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His brief tenure was a veritable fiasco.

It turns out Wills had a bigger problem: cocaine. Accounts vary as to whether it was the spring of 1980 before he was hired, or the following spring, after a longtime romantic relationship ended with his partner running off with another ballplayer to whom he’d introduced her during the 1980-81 offseason. After being fired, he spiraled downward, freebasing cocaine, drinking daily, and covering his windows with blankets. He had already left a rehab program prematurely when in December 1983 he was arrested for driving a car reported as stolen, and possessing an estimated $7 worth of cocaine. Both charges were eventually dismissed, and Wills eventually cleaned up, with former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe and executive Fred Claire both playing parts in getting him help. He returned to baseball as an instructor (I spotted him tutoring Dodgers neophytes in bunting in Dodgertown in the springs of both 1989 and 2003, and at an Ogden Raptors game in 2010).

Electorally, the damage was done as far as the writers were concerned. Wills spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot but didn’t even reach 30% after 1981, and only intermittently broke 25%. He topped out at 40% on the expanded Veterans Committee ballots in 2007, but receded to 23.4% two years later and wasn’t included on the 2012 Golden Era ballot. He did receive 56.3% on the 2015 one, however, placing him fourth behind Allen, Oliva, and Kaat, and so it’s fair to say that he’s got some momentum coming into this ballot. Again, I think he’s far from the best choice available, but if Harold Baines can get elected by a 16-member committee, so can Wills, who at least left a bigger mark on baseball history. We’ll see.

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