Freedman, Lew. The Boyer Brothers of Baseball. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers. 2015. Pp. 252. Bibliography, Notes, Index, and 23 Photos. $29.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Jorge Iber
A quick perusal of baseball-reference.com under the heading of “Largest Baseball Families” generated a listing (though the site argues that it is likely an incomplete enumeration) of 72 clans that have produced substantial numbers of professional baseball players (at both the major and minor league levels). One of these lineages is the subject of Lew Freedman’s 2015 work, The Boyer Brothers of Baseball. The family had three brothers (Kenton, also known as Ken, Clete and Cloyd) all make it to the “big show.” A further four Boyers, Wayne, Lynn, Ron and Len, played in the minors, while one of Ken’s and one of Clete’s boys (Dave and Mickey) also signed professional contracts (though they did not reach the Majors). In total, that makes for 9 Boyers who inked contracts with professional organizations over two generations. Freedman’s work focuses on the older cohort and seeks to discern why this family from tiny Alba, Missouri, produced so much baseball talent.
Over thirty pithy chapters, Freedman discusses how two historically significant events, the Great Depression and World War II, helped the Boyers move into professional baseball. First, the clan’s patriarch, Chester Vern, managed to get a job with the Works Progress Administration that helped the family survive the economic downturn. Next, the coming of military action, and the drafting of players at all levels, created openings for hungry youths seeking a shot at professional baseball. The first to sign was Cloyd, with the St. Louis Cardinals. This was a dream come true for the Boyers, as not only was there an opportunity to earn (by comparison) “big” money, it was also the favorite team of most folks in Alba. Particularly significant is the section of the work is how Freedman notes how this family struggled and how difficult times were, even during the late 1940s. Here, the author provides a glimpse into the commonality of hope offered by sports. Unlike many today who view professional athletics as a way out for Latinos and African Americans exclusively, the Boyer story demonstrates that an underprivileged background as motivation for success in sport is part of the broader American life, and not just for minority families.
The rest of the work follows both familiar and familial paths. Eventually Kent and Clete make it to the Majors and have fairly successful careers: as players (Kent and Clete) and coaching (Kent and Cloyd). As Cloyd’s career was concluding due to injury, he managed to latch on to a job with the Yankee organization, thanks to younger brother Clete. In addition, Freedman details the story of the other eleven siblings and itemizes how and why the “dream” to become a major leaguer ended for the four Boyers who did not reach baseball’s pinnacle. Freedman also provides a sense of how sport and competition permeated the entire family by devoting a chapter specifically to the seven Boyer sisters. Unfortunately, given their ages, the Boyer sisters were denied a chance to play sports at the local high school, and mostly had to settle for cheering on their brothers. Who knows how much Boyer athletic talent went unused due to these women not having a genuine opportunity to play sports. A final chapter of interest examines the 1964 World Series from the unique perspective of a clan with interests on both teams: Ken starring with the Cardinals and Clete a slick-fielding infielder for the Yankees. In the process, the two became the first brothers to hit home runs for opposing teams in the same Fall Classic. Freedman brings the work to a conclusion by examining the post-playing and coaching careers of each, and discussing the deaths of Ken and Clete.
The Boyer Brothers of Baseball is a wonderful slice of “traditional” baseball biography. Freedman does not make any earth-shattering/changing arguments in the work, nor does he set out to do so. Instead, this is a book that provides valuable insight into the role of baseball (indeed all sports) in reshaping the life of members of one family. While only three boys from the generation in question reached the majors, others found success through education and the work ethic learned from their father. The one pointed part of the work for this reviewer was the reminder that not all ballplayers from humble backgrounds are Latino or African American. In summary, Freedman does his usual solid work (he has published close to 100 books, on a variety of topics) in his chronicling of the Boyer clan. Not in tune with the latest trends in social/sport history, or with SABR-metrics, but a readable, enjoyable, and sound contribution that will be valued by fans of the game; particularly those who enjoyed great exploits on the diamond during the early 1960s.
Jorge Iber is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His area of specialization is the study of Latino/a participation in the history of American sports. He is the author/co-author/editor of nine books. His most recent work, Mike Torrez: A Baseball Biography, is a biography of former Major Leaguer Mike Torrez (he of the pitch to Bucky “Bleeping” Dent in the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees) published by McFarland.