Before Derek Jeter came along and reserved a spot on the wall of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park for his pinstriped jersey, the most famous number “2” in Yankee history had been a red-headed graduate of Dartmouth named Robert Abial Rolfe. Though hair-color earned him the workingman’s nickname he made famous, Rolfe was an Ivy League gentleman. An article in “Baseball Digest” once referred to him as “the best-educated, best dressed, politest Bronx Bomber of the thirties.”
Those Joe McCarthy-led Yankee teams put up some incredible offensive numbers during their pre-WWII era of success and it was their great third baseman Rolfe, batting second, who would help light the fuse for the team’s explosive lineup. Here’s some examples: In the three-season period from 1937-to-1939, Rolfe scored a total of 414 runs. In 1937, Rolfe scored the incredible total of 143 runs and didn’t even lead the team in scoring that year because Joe DiMaggio scored 151. In 1938, five different Yankees scored at least 109 runs. The 1939 Yankee team lost Lou Gehrig to ALS disease yet seven members of their starting lineup scored at least 87 runs that year and the team won 106 regular season games and then swept the Reds four straight in the World Series. During Rolfe’s decade-long Yankee career, he averaged 130 runs scored for every 162 games he played.
Rolfe was one of Manager Joe McCarthy’s all-time favorite players because he worked so hard and so smart at getting better and gaining every possible advantage over an opponent on the field. It was Rolfe who was one of the first players in baseball to keep a “book” on opposing hitters that he would use to change his fielding position at the hot corner, based on who was in the batters box. His book on opposing pitchers was just as detailed. He knew and could tell his Yankee teammates what pitch to expect in a pressure situation from every pitcher in the league. He did not ignore opposing fielders either. He would make notes how an outfielder fielded line drives and if they had a tendency to drop to their knee or back up on the ball, you could be sure the next time Rolfe hit one of his patented line drives at them he’d end up sliding safely into second. It may have been because Rolfe did so much thinking as a player he never found time to just relax and enjoy the game he played so well. He developed painful ulcers which were the primary reason he retired at the young age of 33 after New York lost the 1942 World Series to the Cardinals.
Rolfe got back into the big leagues as a Manager with the Tigers in 1949 and led Detroit to a 95-win season the following year, just three games behind the AL Pennant-winning 1950 Yankees. At the time, he attributed his success to cracking the whip on a bunch of Detroit players who he claimed had grown complacent. By 1952, many of those same players turned on Rolfe, claiming he was impossible to satisfy and the Tigers fired him. Born on October 17, 1908 in Penacook, NH, Rolfe returned to Dartmouth as athletic director. He died in 1969. Dartmouth’s baseball stadium is named after him.
My first memory of Clete Boyer was of him playing third base for the great New York Yankee team of 1961. I can still see him in his number 6 pinstriped jersey, making a diving stop on a hard hit ground ball down the line and jumping to his feet to throw a bullet to Moose Skowron with his powerful right arm to nip an opposing runner at first base. Just one season before, Casey Stengel had almost destroyed Boyer’s confidence by pinch-hitting Dale Long for him in the second inning of the very first game of the 1960 World Series. Ralph Houk had replaced Stengel in 1961 and assured Boyer he would be New York’s every day third baseman. Clete was constantly among league leaders in assists, chances and double plays but he would watch Brooks Robinson win the AL Gold Glove for third baseman year in and year out. Boyer had to leave the league to win his first and only Gold Glove for Atlanta, in 1969.
Clete was not a great hitter but his offensive numbers with New York would have been better if he did not occupy the eighth spot in the Yankee lineup. With the pitcher hitting behind him, Boyer saw very few strikes and was too aggressive at the plate to work the count effectively. As a result, he usually hit in the .240s and struck out close to 100 times a year during his Yankee career. But he also had enough power to hit 95 home runs during his eight seasons in New York, a respectable number considering that he played half his games in a Yankee Stadium that was not at all conducive to right-handed power.
Boyer was the Yankees’ regular third baseman for seven seasons, winning five pennants and two World Series during that time. He was one of the few veterans on the team not to experience a drastic decline in his offensive numbers during the debacle seasons of 1965 and ’66. Still, he was purged during the mid-sixties house-cleaning that saw New York trade one veteran after another in return for mediocre players who would never succeed with the Yankees. In Boyer’s case, he was swapped for a young outfielder from the Braves named Bill Robinson who hit just .206 during three dreadful seasons in pinstripes. Meanwhile, Boyer had a career year his first season in Atlanta, with 26 home runs and 96 RBIs in 1967. Clete remained with the Braves until he retired as a player after the 1971 season.
Born in Cassville, MO, in 1937, Clete was one of 14 Boyer children. His older brothers, Cloyd, a pitcher and Ken, a third baseman and one-time NL MVP with St Louis, also played in the big leagues. Clete died in 2007. He shares his February 9th birthday with another third baseman who played on the great 1927 Yankee team, this one-time Yankee second base prospect and this one-time Yankee catching prospect.
Number 1 – Alex Rodriguez – Passed Nettles in both home runs and RBIs as a Yankee in 2010 even though he’s played 500 fewer games.
Number 2 – Graig Nettles – Won two rings, two Gold Gloves, hit most home runs, and played most games as Yankee third baseman.
Number 3 – Red Rolfe – A .289 lifetime hitter with five rings and a great glove.
Number 4 – Clete Boyer
Number 5 – Wade Boggs – Won two rings, two Gold Gloves and averaged .313 in pinstripes.
|NYY (8 yrs)||1068||4037||3658||434||882||140||25||95||393||27||297||608||.241||.298||.371||.669|
|ATL (5 yrs)||533||2105||1914||193||467||56||7||66||251||13||159||282||.244||.303||.384||.687|
|KCA (3 yrs)||124||226||208||18||47||4||1||1||10||1||14||41||.226||.278||.269||.547|