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Greatest Center Fielders


by Aman Verjee


1. Willie Mays

2. Ty Cobb

3. Mickey Mantle 

4. Tris Speaker

5. Joe DiMaggio


Honorable Mention: Ken Griffey, Jr., Max Carey, Kirby Puckett, Duke Snider

Best Defensively: Mays, Richie Ashburn, Carey, Speaker


     The list of greatest center fielders looks a lot like the list of greatest all-'round players.  A center fielder has to be fleet of foot, a good athlete, and competent with the glove; but he is also the captain of the defense, and can play any ball that he wants, so he has to have leadership skills, knowledge of hitters and good instincts.  It's also a good hitter's position, since an outfielder can't be a drag on his team's offensive performance; immortalized in both music (John Fogerty's "Center Field") and literature (Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint"), this is a position for the best ballplayer on a team.  So the fact that man who tops this list also tops the list of best all-'rounbd ballplayers isn't surprising:



1. Willie Mays

Batting Titles: 1 (7 top five NL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 5 (14 top five NL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 2 (10 top five NL finishes)


     To hit 660 home runs is extraordinary; if Mays hadn't missed slightly more than a year and a half to military service, he would quite likely have broken Babe Ruth's record before Hank Aaron did.  He is 1st all-time in outfield putouts, 3rd in total bases and home runs, 4th in extra base hits, 6th in runs scored and 8th in RBIs.

     To accumulate such audacious offensive numbers while playing many of his best years in the 1960s, when offense dropped precipitously, is simply not to be believed.  In the decade of the '60s, only five times did a team score 20 runs in a game; in 1999 alone, it happened nine times.  Between 1963 and 1969, the NL ERA averaged about 3.50 - in the latter half of the 1990s, it has been around 4.25.

     As a hitter, Mays definitely rates as one of the best of all-time, leading the league in slugging 5 times, home runs 4 times, and maintaining a lifetime slugging average of .557, which compares favorably to Stan Musial (.557), Hank Aaron (.555), Mickey Mantle (.557) and even Joe DiMaggio (.579).  His relative production (OBA+SLG, controlled for park factor and league average) is a solid 157, putting him in line with Stan Musial (157), Hank Greenberg (157) and Jimmie Foxx (161).  According to Total Baseball, he led the league in batting runs 6 times and relative total production 5 times; according to Stats, Inc. he led the NL in runs created and in RC/9 innings 5 times each.  He was also one of the game's great baserunners, leading the league in steals on 4 separate occasions.

     But where he really outdistances his peers is on defense.  The best defensive center fielder ever, he should be revered for his contributions with his glove - he led the league three times in range factor (plays per game), and once in throwing assists.  The Gold Glove Award didn't come along until 1957, Willie Mays' sixth season.  Nevertheless, he won 12 of the awards, more than any other outfielder.  Everyone remembers the catch Mays made in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, the catch that robbed Vic Wertz of an extra-base hit in deep center field of the Polo Grounds; but his bare-handed grabs and frequent running catches were much more spectacular.
     According to Total Baseball, he is fourth all-time among outfielders in Fielding Runs, so it's no wonder that this five-tool player had the highest Total Player Rating on 9 separate occasions.  Only Babe Ruth can top that.



2. Ty Cobb


Batting Titles: 13 (17 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 9 (15 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 7 (16 top five AL finishes)


Click here for HOF Biography


     His reputation as a hitter is almost overshadowed by the reputation as the fiercest competitor ever.  He would ceremoniously pick out a prominent location in the dugout and start sharpening his spikes in full view of suddenly nervous opposing infielders; he would also slide hard into second base with spikes elevated whenever he could.  He was so dominant at his peak that he won 12 batting titles in 13 years, and despite the fact that he was a hated player he was elected to the Hall of Fame in the 1936 inaugural class with more votes than the other four players - Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.  Cobb's batting eye was certainly keen, but his baserunning won just as many games. Until Lou Brock came along half-a-century later, he was the career steal leader.  He would steal second, then proceed directly to third as the throw came in behind him.  A young catcher asked a veteran what to do when Cobb broke for second.  "Throw to third," came the deadpan reply.

     His disdain for the boisterous Babe and his grandstanding home runs was palpable.  By May, 1925, he was so fed up of reporters asking him about Babe Ruth's awesome home run power, Cobb told reporters that hitting home runs didn't take any special skill.  To prove his point, he changed his split-hand grip that day to a Ruthian-style grip, with both hands near the knob of the bat, and then hit three HR in that day's game against the Browns.  To pound the point home, he hit two more the next day.

     A mean-spirited bench jockey and unabashed racist, he had a terrible temper.  In 1912, after he could bear the insults of a fan no longer, he waded into the stands and beat the fan senseless.  He was suspended, and when his teammates refused to play until he was reinstated, they participated in baseball's first strike.  In Game 2 of the 1909 World Series, he taunted the National League's great star, shortstop Honus Wagner, by yelling from firs tbase, "Watch out, Krauthead, I'm comin' down on the next pitch!"  (Sure enough, he went on the next pitch - Wagner calmly applied a firm tag to Cobb's lower lip and got him out.) 



3. Mickey Mantle


Batting Titles: 1 (6 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 4 (11 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 3 (12 top five AL finishes)


Click here for HOF Biography


     At the tender age of 24, the Mick turned in one of the greatest single seasons of all time - a Triple Crown performance with 52 HR, a .353 batting average and 130 RBI, not to mention a league-leading 132 runs scored.  It seemed that the sky was the limit for this kid - and though he indeed attained great heights during his career, there was also the sense that he could have been even better.

     Unfortunately, an arrested case of osteomyelitis and a terrible, hard-drinking lifestyle resulted in numerous injuries and frequent surgery, and took most of his speed away from him.  Consider: Mantle hit 49 triples in the first seven years of his career, 23 in the last 11.  He was a fine center fielder for the first seven years of his career, then a decent one, and finally became a first baseman his last two seasons.

     Still, the three-time MVP had an 11-year stretch, from 1952 to 1962, where he may have been the best ballplayer ever, with the possible exception of Babe Ruth.  In that span, Mantle led the AL in on-base percentage twice, slugging percentage 3 times, home runs 4 times and walks 5 times - but that vastly understates his contribution, because he annually ranked among the league leaders.  Once he took the torch from DiMaggio in 1952, his Yankees ran off two straight pennants (their fourth and fifth in a row) and World Series titles, then after a second place showing in 1954 they won 9 pennants and 4 World Championships in 10 years.

     Over his career, his slugging percentage is almost identical to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and about 20 points lower than DiMaggio; but his lifetime on-base average of .423 is 20 points better than DiMaggio and 35 points better than Mays and 45 points better than Aaron - and that's despite hitting in cavernous Yankee Stadium throughout his career.

     A multi-talented offensive threat, he could get to first from home as fast as anyone in the game.  He also used a drag bunt from the left side that made it nearly impossible to throw him out, and he was once clocked at 3.1 seconds from home to first base.  Over his career, he stole 153 bases, against just 38 caught-stealing - given the era he played in and the Yankees' power lineup around him, that's a remarkable statistic.  And he had power not seen since Foxx and Ruth - even though he was not quite 5'11", Mantle hit some tremendous home runs.  He reached the gothic wrought-iron facade that hung from the old stadium's roof five times.  He is widely remembered for a home run on May 30, 1956, when only the top 18 inches of the right-field facade kept the ball in the park, and for another on May 22, 1963, when the ball was still rising when it hit the facade a few feet from the top.  Mantle struck the same right-field facade on August 7, 1955, against Detroit; on May 5, 1956, against Kansas City; and on June 23, 1957, against the White Sox.

     Maybe the single best statistic for Mantle's presence is the number of times that Roger Maris was intentionally walked in his magical 1961 season: zero.  Only Alex Rodriguez in 1998 hit more than 40 HR without drawing an IBB.  With Mantle hitting behind him, he hit 119 points better than when others were in the on-deck circle.

     In short, Mickey Mantle was a baseball star of the highest magnitude. When Detroit great Al Kaline was taunted by a youngster who said, "You're not half as good as Mickey Mantle," he replied, "Son, nobody is half as good as Mickey Mantle."


4. Tris Speaker


Click here for HOF Biography


     From 1910 to 1915, Speaker captained Boston's legendary outfield which included Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper - the premier defensive fielder of his day, he made 161 of their record 455 assists.  In Lewis's words, "Speaker was the king of the outfield...It was always `Take it,' or `I got it.' In all the years we never bumped each other."

     Tris Speaker revolutionized outfield play by positioning himself in shallow center field, which resulted in his recording more assists (450) than any other outfielder.  Twice he threw out a record 35 American League baserunners in a single season.  He was a terrific hitter as well, a lifetime .345 hitter who led the AL in slugging percentage once, in on-base average 4 times and in doubles 8 times.  Typically, he was overshadowed by Ty Cobb early in his career and by Babe Ruth late in his career; as a result, according to Total Baseball he only led the league in batter runs once, in 1916, even though his career total batter runs of 793 isn't that far from Cobb (1,004).  His 248 fielding runs are the highest of any outfielder ever.

     Because of his defensive work and base stealing (432 career steals), he led the AL in Total Player Rating 5 times, while Cobb did it only 4 times.  He is the all-time ML leader in doubles (793), leading the AL eight times.  Speaker is also the all-time ML leader in outfield assists (448) and double plays (139), as well as the AL leader in outfield putouts (6,706).  He is fifth in hits, seventh in triples and fewest strikeouts, eighth in runs, ninth in extra-base hits, and tenth in total bases.

     Speaker was elected to the Hall of Fame in the second round, a year after the first five (Cobb, Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner) went in - he went in with Nap Lajoie and Cy Young (he got more votes than Young, though fewer than Lajoie). 



5. Joe DiMaggio


Batting Titles: 2 (4 top five AL finishes)

Slugging Percentage Titles: 2 (10 top five AL finishes)

On-Base Average Titles: 0 (3 top five AL finishes)


Click here for HOF Biography


     Baseball has produced many icons, but it has produced only one Joe DiMaggio.  It says much of his reputation for cool professionalism that he is remembered almost as much for kicking the dirt in frustration in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series as he is for his 56-game hit streak.  His career transcends numbers - he did things in the nature of leadership and defense that can't be quantified.  Even so, when you look at Joe DiMaggio's career ledger, you have to break it into two halves - before World War II and after it.  Look at the following annualized figures:

1936 - 1942 .339 31.28 132.86 122.57 .607 .400
1946 - 1951 .304 23.67 101.17 88.67 .540 .387


     One has to wonder: what might have been?  What if World War II hadn't cost him three seasons of the prime of his career?  What if his post-war performances hadn't been hobbled by the painful heel injuries that caused to miss half of 1949 and forced his retirement at the age of 36, young for an all-time great?  And what if Yankee Stadium's infamous "Death Valley" in left-center field - then 457 feet instead of today's 399 - hadn't cost him 60 or 70 home runs (Dago hit just 148 homers at home and 213 HR in visiting ballparks during his career)?

     From 1936 to 1942, no one outslugged Dago, save perhaps Ted Williams.  He was chosen to the All-Star game 13 times in 13 seasons.  The Yankee Clipper could do everything well: hit, hit for power, play defense and run the bases - one of the best all-around players of his era, with a generous dash of class added in, he led the  Yankees to World Championships 5 times in 7 years before the war and 4 times in 6 years after.

     He was a beautiful hitter with a classic swing.  He had an exceptionally wide stance that gave him a controlled short stride, and his strong wrists generated enormous power; his ability to wait until the last instant before lashing into a pitch was nonpareil, and he struck out just 369 times in his career compared to his 361 homers, the lowest strikeout:HR ratio of all time.

     But after returning from military service in 1946, DiMaggio was never quite the same - though he did win his third MVP award in 1947, this was a criminal act of robbery of Ted Williams, who won the Triple Crown that year.  DiMaggio had 20 HR, 97 RBI and hit .315, while Williams hit .343, hammered 32 HR and drove in 114, while topping DiMaggio in both slugging percentage and on-base average by over 100 points each.  Still, even in the late 1940s, he was a picture of grace in center field, one that will never be forgotten by those who saw him play.

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