Six center fielders typically are regarded as the best to play the position. I’ve seen four of them from a perspective that renders it futile to judge where each belongs in a ranking.
My first and last glimpse of the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle came during a 1966 Sunday doubleheader against the White Sox at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Mantle started in center. He made it through all nine innings of the first game, and batted once in the second game before he was given the rest of the sweltering afternoon off.
Mantle went 0-for-5, which might be why my only memory of him is kneeling in the on-deck circle, the No. 7 on the back of his gray jersey whispering for me to savor the scene. He would appear in center 18 more times that summer before converting into a first baseman for his final two seasons.
In 1968, I saw Joe DiMaggio wielding a fungo bat in the same Comiskey Park infield. What struck me was the color of the Athletics jacket he wore — green — and, of course, the white shoes. DiMaggio had accepted a job as hitting instructor for the team that recently had moved from Kansas City to Oakland, giving him a chance to reconnect with his Bay Area roots and, more important, accumulate the two years of service time needed for a maximum pension allowance.
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My senior year of high school was winding down to its last week when some friends and I skipped out at lunch for a Cubs game against the Mets at Wrigley Field. Willie Mays batted leadoff for the visitors and played center. He made six putouts, drew a walk and hit a pair of singles, the second of which drove home the winning run in a 14-inning Mets’ victory. Nothing remarkable, aside from the fact Mays did all this at the age of 41 and I got home in time for dinner.
And then there is Ken Griffey Jr. Between watching him at Wrigley Field as a 20-year old phenom participating in the 1990 All-Star Game and as a 40-year-old designated hitter contemplating retirement, I’ve got enough mental snap shots of Griffey to see him in my sleep.
Such a various array of eye-witness observations — Mantle motionless in the on-deck circle, Griffey bursting from first to home, his strides as graceful as those of a thoroughbred spinning out of the turn — is why analysis is all about the stats. Statistics don’t tell everything, of course, but they are all we’ve got in a best-ever-center fielder conversation that also must include Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.
Baseball statistics, much like the players the numbers quantify, are better than they used to be and not as good as they’re going to be. Take, for instance, the Wins Above Replacement metric abbreviated as WAR. In 2004, Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus combined a WAR metric measuring the entirety of a player’s career along with his seven-year prime. Known as JAWS — the Jaffe WAR score system — it ranks the best center fielders of all time in this order: Mays, Cobb, Mantle, Speaker, Griffey and DiMaggio.
Mays’ status as No. 1 is difficult to dispute. A classic five-tool talent, he hit 660 home runs, led the NL in stolen bases four times, and earned 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards. The only reason he didn’t win 16 or 17 Gold Gloves is that the award wasn’t conceived until 1957, three years after his legend-sealing, back-to-the-ball catch in the 1954 World Series.
Statistics don’t tell everything, of course, but they are all we’ve got in a best-ever-center fielder conversation.
Cobb owned some 90 baseball records when he retired in 1928, including a .367 lifetime batting average that will endure until rules are adjusted to give hitters four strikes for an out and three balls for a walk. And though baseball lore portrays him as a detested psycho creep, he was elected into the first Hall of Fame class with more support — 222 of 226 votes — than the universally beloved Babe Ruth got.
Like Cobb, Mantle is as famous for his flaws as for his skill. Which is too bad, because he had the skill to produce a career .421 on-base percentage, significantly better than the .384 OBP of Mays, his generational peer and ballpark neighbor during the 1950s, when the Giants’ home at the Polo Grounds was a short walk over a Harlem River bridge from Yankee Stadium.
Speaker is the underrated one of the best-ever bunch. Cobb had the crazy numbers and polarizing personality, but all Speaker did was hit .354, with 345 homers. He died 57 years ago, yet remains the career leader in doubles (792) and outfield assists (449).
DiMaggio was introduced before a 1969 game at Yankee Stadium as “baseball’s greatest living player,” a title he liked so much he demanded it at every public appearance he made until his death in 1999. A three-time MVP and 13-time All-Star, DiMaggio led the Yankees to 10 pennants and nine World Series championships during a career truncated in its prime by three years of military obligations.
DiMaggio’s power numbers — he finished with 361 career homers — aren’t as gaudy as his 56-game hitting streak in 1941, but remember: He was a right-handed hitter who played half his games in Yankee Stadium, where it was 457 feet from home plate to the left-center alley.
Had a 1947 trade been worked out sending DiMaggio to the Red Sox for Ted Williams — it was proposed during a late-night bar conversation between executives whose paperwork was supplied by several cocktail napkins — there’s no telling the kind of numbers DiMaggio would have put up in Boston’s Fenway Park.
Mays, Cobb, Mantle, Speaker, DiMaggio: Amid this of cavalcade of superstars is Griffey, whose many injuries turned the second half of his career into a cruel payback for how easy everything seemed to be for him during the first half.
The No. 1 center fielder of all time? Advanced stats point to Mays, who continued playing until 1973, long after his prime, long after Cobb and Speaker died, long after DiMaggio and Mantle retired.
But advanced stats aren’t unkind to Ken Griffey Jr. They place him as the best center fielder of the past 50 years, endorsing what was obvious during those days and nights he created magic inside the Kingdome.
I missed some beautiful summer sunsets, but that’s OK. Mine eyes saw the glory.