When you look at the eight defensive positions around the diamond, you understand that shortstop is the most demanding infield position. It is also easy to realize that the center fielder may very well be the most athletic on the diamond. A center fielder has to be able to cove a lot of ground and just like shortstop there is no way you can afford to have a poor fielding center fielder.
In addition, the great center fielders can do a lot of damage with the bat as well. So then, this column is about my selections based on years of personally seeing them in action.
Before I launch into my selections from over the years, I feel I must nod to some of the outstanding young center fielders of today… among them, perhaps a future Hall of Famer, or two, Among them, and I have only seen them on TV, or an occasional game is: Mike Trout (Angels), Andrew McCutcheon (Pirates), Matt Kemp (Dodgers), B.J. Upton (Atlanta), Bryce Harper (Nationals). Curtis Granderson (NYY).
In fact, there is no dearth of young talent. The Angels have a dilemma of riches. Trout was doing a fantastic job in center. However, when Peter Bourjos came off the DL, they had movement in the outfield.
But Shelly, who have you picked as your all-time greats in the pasture? I must admit my selections, which are certainly open to dispute, would have my hair turning gray, if it hadn’t already been there.
In all cases, I went with the best all-around player. That’s why, when you get to number one and two, I expect to hear from a few of you.
Number 5 – Duke Snider (Brooklyn/LA Dodgers): In the days when New York had three teams, there was a popular song that it was Willie, Mickey and Duke. They were all centerfielders in New York at the same time. Snider was a blue-collar guy. Not as flashy as Mays, nor as powerful as mantle, but he was consistent.
During his career, he finished among the top three in the NL in all categories: batting average, slugging, hits, runs, RBI, doubles, triples, home runs, total bases and stolen bases. He also hit better than 40 Home Runs in 5 consecutive seasons from 1953-57… he hit 407 career homers.
Number 4- Ken Griffey (Sea/ Cincinnati): His dad was a major league star. So, I guess he was destined to achieve the greatness. Drafted number one in the 1987 draft at 19 Two years later, he arrived in the majors to stay. He probably would have broken all the Homer Run records, if injuries hadn’t hobbled him quite a bit.
As it was, he hit 633 Home Runs and was 5th on the all-time list when he retired. Among the things, and it is a big one, he is credited with saving Seattle’s failing franchise before he backed up his bags and moved to his hometown of Cincinnati. One of the thrills I personally got was seeing him and his dad playing in the same outfield for a brief time.
Junior hit 56 homers each in 1957 and 58. He won 10 consecutive gold gloves. He probably would have broken all Home Run records if he hadn’t been hurt.
Number 3- Mickey Mantle (NYY): A three-time MVP, there was no question; Mickey was the 1950’s biggest star. He was the centerpiece of a Yankee team that won 7 championships. After playing alongside the great Joe DiMaggio for one season, he replaced “ Joltin’ Joe” in 1952.
Mantle hit for both average and power. He had extraordinary speed, most of the time playing on legs that hurt. Most people think of him as the best switch hitter of all time. Over the years, he hit 536 Home Runs, batted .298 and to this day, holds World Series records in Home Runs (18), RBI’s (40), runs (42), and walks (43).
If he hadn’t been injured so many times, there is not doubt his career numbers would have been even more spectacular.
Number2- Joe DiMaggio (NYY): An ongoing argument among fans has always been the question who is the greatest center fielder. Many make a case for Joe D. Everything he did in the field, or at bat, he made it look effortlessly. His 56 game hitting streak stands to this day as a monument of his greatness. He missed 3 prime seasons because of World War II. He was an All-star during every one of the seasons he did play.
He was MVP three times, led the league in homers twice. At age 22, he had 167 RBI’s. He finished his career with an unbelievable nine World Series titles.
You know, coming from Boston where I got to see his younger brother Dominic patrol center field, I have always felt that Dom, sometimes called the “Little professor” was shortchanged. If he weren’t Joe’s brother with his sensational fielding and the numbers he put up, at any other time, without his older brother’s shadow, he would also have been in the Hall of Fame.
Number 1- Willie Mays (NY/SF): They called him the “say hey” kid. But if he were playing today, he would be called a five-tool player. Willie hit for average and power. stole bases, chase down everything in centerfield and had a great arm.
He had played in the Negro Leagues, but came to the “Bigs” at the age of 19. He had a stint in the army, but when he came back in 1954, he helped defeat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
I saw it while I was sitting in a bar in Denver on leave from the Army. To this day, I will never forget the over-the- shoulder running toward the center field wall catch when he took a sure hit away from the powerful Vic Wertz. That sensational play with men on base saved the title for the Giants.
He was NL MVP that year, hitting .345 with 41 Home Runs… he was MVP again in 1965 (.317, 52 HR), eleven years later, when he retired, he was third on the all-time Home Run list with 660… at that time, only Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron had hit more.
You think about your choices, which are just as valid as mine!
Next in series, Right Fielders