The New York Yankees’ rather surprising decision to hire Aaron Boone as their manager has me thinking about connections between the Boone family and the Detroit Tigers. The Boones are regarded as baseball royalty; they are one of the few families who have ever had three generations make the major leagues. The family line began with the late Ray Boone, continued with son Bob, and then culminated with the presence of grandsons Aaron and Bret.
So what is the Detroit connection to the Boone clan? After the 1974 season, the Tigers were seeking a successor to an aging Bill Freehan behind the plate. Tigers general manager Jim Campbell engaged in serious trade talks with Philadelphia about Bob Boone, Aaron’s father. According to the rumor of the day, the Tigers would have sent Freehan and veteran center fielder Mickey Stanley to the Phillies for Boone. For some reason, the trade fell through, with Freehan and Stanley remaining in Detroit for the rest of their careers. Boone stayed with Philadelphia through 1981, when he became a free agent and signed with the California Angels.
While Bob never did play for the Tigers, his lookalike father Ray did—and then some. Signed by Cleveland prior to the 1942 season, the elder Boone toiled in the Indians’ farm system for seven seasons before finally earning his first chance at the major leagues in 1948. Still only 24 years old, he struggled to find traction during his first two seasons, but then emerged as the Indians’ starting shortstop in 1950, when he hit .301. Then came a downturn in 1951, followed by a slight uptick in ’52. After a slow start the following season, the Indians decided to move on. At the June 15th trading deadline, they sent Boone, pitcher Steve Gromek, and two other players to the Tigers for catcher Joe Ginsburg, pitcher Art Houtteman, and two additional players.
The trade represented a boon for the Tigers—pun intended. They had been looking for a quality third baseman ever since the departure of George Kell. Ever the wise man, Tigers manager Fred Hutchinson immediately converted Boone from shortstop to third base, where he excelled defensively. The move would also allow Boone to relax as a hitter. In his first game for the Tigers, Boone banged out three hits in three at-bats, including a home run. His debut represented a sign of good things to come. Continuing to hit well over the balance of the season, Boone batted .312 for the Tigers, with 22 home runs and an OPS of .951.
Boone’s half-season with the Tigers drew positive words from general manager Charlie Gehringer, a man who could sometimes be sparse with his praise of players. “I always considered him a sound hitter,” Gehringer told The Sporting News. “He isn’t fooled often. Have you noticed how he guards the plate and tries to hit to right field when the count is two strikes? Other hitters would profit if they did this instead of taking that last wild swing.”
Given a full season with the Tigers in 1954, Boone continued to play well. He batted .295, drew more walks than he collected strikeouts (71 to 53), and hit 20 home runs. He also fielded third base skillfully, not surprising for a man with the range and footwork of a shortstop. Boone’s first-half performance made him a popular figure in Detroit, where fans showed their support in the All-Star Game balloting. Boone won the voting at third base, beating out the likes of Al Rosen and Kell, who was now in Chicago. At season’s end, Boone received some back-of-the-ballot support for MVP.
Boone put up another productive season in 1955. Once again hitting 20 home runs, he led the league in RBIs (with 116) and finished 16th in the league MVP race. He did all of this despite the worsening condition of his knees, which were found to have calcium deposits. Boone had been bothered by the chronic condition since childhood, but it was only now that the calcium deposits were beginning to cause him serious pain. The more that Boone played, the more that his knees bothered him, but he still managed to appear in 135 games.
In 1956, Boone continued to persevere, while showing increased power. He hit 25 home runs, his best output with the Tigers. He also batted .308 with an OPS of .920. Another All-Star game nod came his way.
In 1957, Jack Tighe became Tigers manager and decided to make a change with Boone. Believing that the demands of playing third base were taking a toll on his knees, Tighe moved Boone from third base to first base. Boone approved of the decision, but even in light of the lesser demands of first base, he started to show some falloff at the plate. His power cut in half, he hit only 12 home runs and saw his OPS fall to .771. Of course, Boone was also 33 years old. The combination of advancing age and the weakened condition of his knees had begun the inevitable decline.
Boone once again played first base in 1958, but his hitting continued to diminish. A slow start to the season would bring an end to Boone’s time in Detroit. Once again traded at the deadline, five years to the day that the Tigers had acquired him, Boone was sent to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Tito Francona and pitcher Bill Fischer. Over his last three seasons, Boone bounced from team to team, putting in time with the White Sox, Kansas City A’s, Milwaukee Braves, and Boston Red Sox before retiring in 1960.
Boone’s time in Detroit was relatively brief—parts or all of six seasons—but those seasons established him as one of the Tigers’ best players of the era, along with being a fan favorite. Boone’s only shortcoming as Tiger was his timing; during his six seasons, the Tigers never finished higher than fourth place in the American League. Clearly, Boone deserved better. He was a top-notch third baseman who would have fit in nicely with a team like the ’68 Tigers.
So whenever the Tigers take on the Yankees in 2018 and you notice a shot of Aaron Boone in the dugout, think for a moment about the man who started the Boone family business in baseball. Ray Boone was the patriarch of that particular line of baseball royalty.