A slick-fielding shortstop, steady hitter, and pennant-winning manager, Boudreau’s career peaked in his fairy-tale 1948 season, but he was voted into the Hall of Fame for a career of distinguished play. He was captain of the basketball and baseball teams at the University of Illinois when he signed an agreement to join the Cleveland Indians following graduation. Big Ten officials ruled him ineligible for amateur participation for the remainder of his college career. Free to work with the pros, he appeared in one major-league game in 1938 as a pinch-hitter. He also played pro basketball with Hammond (IN) of the National Basketball League.
In 1939 he started with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League under manager Steve O’Neill. Originally a third baseman/catcher, Boudreau was moved to shortstop and teamed with second baseman Ray Mack. The young keystone combo gained attention for solid batting and adept fielding, particularly in turning double plays. Both were called up to Cleveland in the second half of the season.
In 1940, Boudreau’s first full season, he was named to the American League All-Star team and hit .295 with 101 RBIs. Boudreau played no part in the “Cleveland Crybabies” incident and the subsequent firing of manager Ossie Vitt. Cleveland struggled through a lackluster 1941 season, and in 1942 Boudreau was named player-manager. At 24, he was the youngest ever to manage a major-league team from the outset of the season.
The innovative Boudreau oversaw the transformation of Bob Lemon from an infielder to a pitcher and created the “Williams Shift” and other tactics, but was unable to lift the Indians out of the middle of the pack. His shortstop play continued to win plaudits. He compensated for limited range by intelligent positioning and sure hands, and he led AL shortstops in fielding eight times. He won the 1944 AL batting title (.327) and led the league in doubles in 1941, 1944, and 1947.
When Bill Veeck purchased the Indians in 1946, he planned to replace Boudreau as manager. When word leaked out, a public clamor arose and Boudreau was retained. In 1948 Boudreau produced one of the greatest individual seasons ever. His team won the AL pennant and World Series. He batted .355, hit 18 homers, batted in 106 runs, and scored 116. He was easily AL MVP. His play was also at times inspirational: On August 8, 1948, he was sidelined with an ankle injury for a doubleheader with the Yankees before 73,484 Indian fans at Municipal Stadium. With the Tribe trailing 6-4, he limped to the plate and delivered a game-tying single. Cleveland swept the twin bill. The Indians and Boston Red Sox ended the season tied for first. In the one-game playoff, Boudreau keyed the victory by going four-for-four with two homers.
Boudreau had little success in later seasons as a bench manager, but did become a popular baseball broadcaster in Chicago. One of the greatest shortstops in Cleveland history, he saw his number 5 retired and the street bordering Municipal Stadium renamed Boudreau Boulevard. After a bout with circulatory problems at the age of 84, Boudreau died when he suffered from cardiac arrest on August 10, 2001.