In life, boundless perseverance is the great equalizer. Talent and the will to compete oftentimes overcome the circumstances in life dictated by one’s birth. So it was with Jasper County’s bands of brothers.
Set a generation apart, the Boyer boys of Alba and the Wright brothers of Carthage were not afforded the life of the privileged few. Perhaps their lives' circumstances and their hardscrabble upbringings explain their remarkable athletic achievements.
Vern and Mabel Boyer’s sons, Kenny and Clete, were two of 14 children. The Boyer boys came of age during the lead and zinc mining boom days in Jasper County. Miners started a rumor claiming you could walk underground from Alba to Commerce, Oklahoma, home of the Boyers' contemporary, Mickey Mantle, who made a name for himself playing baseball for the Baxter Springs Whiz Kids.
Vern worked cutting marble in the marble quarry in Carthage. Mabel was as prolific at bearing children as her two sons were on the baseball diamond. When questioned by an older child why she entered a hospital to deliver one of her 14 children, Mabel replied, “I just wanted to see what it was like.”
Her sons would square off in the fall classic — the 1964 World Series.
Kenny, in crimson and cream, played for the St. Louis Cardinals; Clete, in white and navy blue pinstripes, played for the New York Yankees. Kenny’s grand slam in Game 4 was the turning point in the Series won by the Cardinals, four games to three.
It took the Bronx Bombers more than a decade to recover from Kenny’s monster blast in Game 4.
Just east of the Boyer home place in Alba on Missouri Highway 96, another athletic dynasty began to take shape a generation later in Carthage.
During the years of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which struck down Jim Crow segregation, and when the Carthage School District stopped the forced busing of African American students to Joplin, J.C. and Elaine Wright started a family in the Maple Leaf City. The Wrights raised their children at a time when businesses refused service to black residents and “white privilege” often meant black student-athletes deferred to white athletes of lesser talent for playing time.
Charlie, the youngest, played college football for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals to play football before the team moved to Arizona, he played in the Canadian Football League. Joe, the middle son, averaged 30 points a game playing basketball for the Carthage Tigers. Earning a scholarship to Kansas State University, Joe averaged 18 points a game for Kansas State, eventually playing professionally in Europe in the Continental League.
But it was the eldest brother, Felix, a three-sport threat in high school, who distinguished himself as the greatest athlete ever to suit up in the blue and white of the Carthage Tigers.
Graduating from Drake University in 1981, his teaching experience was short lived. His style of play and athleticism caught the eye of NFL talent scouts with the Cleveland Browns. Felix played for coach Marty Schottenheimer’s Browns. Three times Wright played for the AFC championship and the right to play in the Super Bowl.
In 1989, he led the entire league with nine interceptions.
Competing at a high level, Wright had 29 career interceptions during his professional football career.
Though he would go on to play and coach and achieve in professional baseball, nothing would come close to Kenny Boyer’s monster home run, which humbled the mighty Yankees in 1964. Clete would take his baseball talent to Japan and owned "Clete Boyer's Hamburger Hall of Fame” restaurant near Cooperstown, New York, where you could order a Mickey Mantle Deluxe Cheeseburger.
Joe Wright today gives back to the community mentoring successful youth basketball camps. His brother Felix, in addition to being a restaurateur — he operated a restaurant on Range Line Road in Joplin for several years — now advises NFL and NBA athletes on how to manage their finances through his counseling service Sports Trust.
And so it is that through the lives of the Boyers and Wrights we are reminded of the words of the philosopher who once said, “From life’s humble beginnings oftentimes spring the mighty oak of perseverance and triumph.”
Jean Griffith lives in Carthage.