The Center Fielders

The loss of Duke Snider and a spring training have gotten me to thinking about one of baseball’s glamour positions, center field. So for the next short while I’m going to turn to the position on this site. Some posts will be my standard bios with commentary, others will be on different issues.

Did you ever notice just how many really good center fielders there were? I didn’t say “great”, I said “really good.”  Jim Edmonds is one of those. He just retired and I have to admit I loved watching him play. It wasn’t his hitting that I enjoyed, although it was pretty good too, but it was his play in the field. It seem like the guy could catch everything, no matter how far he had to run or how far he had to stretch out. Torii Hunter is another of those that I simply love to watch field. I’ve been known to offer up a prayer to the effect of “Let someone hit a shot to center just so the world can see Edmonds  (or Hunter) go get it.” Sometimes it gets answered.

Those kinds of guys have existed for a long time. I remember the 1966 World Series pitted Paul Blair against Willie Davis, two truly fine enter fielders of the era. The Series turned on pitching (and three errors on two consecutive plays by Davis) but both were tremendous in the field (Ok, not Davis in game 2). In 1941 Joe DiMaggio faced off against Pete Reiser. In 1927 it was Earle Combs against Lloyd Waner. I could go further back.

But you know what? There aren’t really a lot of great center fielders. Now I suppose we’ll all have different definitions of “great” and that’s part of the joy of baseball. But to make a partial point about it, take a look at the last 30 years of Hall of Fame voting (1981-2010). In 1980 Duke Snider got in. In the 30 years since there have been only two or, depending on where you put Robin Yount and Andre Dawson, three or four center fielders make the Hall. The only two sure center fielders are Richie Ashburn in 1995 by the veteran’s committee and Kirby Puckett by the writers in 2001. To me Yount is a shortstop and Dawson plays right, but others may disagree.  Considering how many quality center fielders there have been in the last 30 years, that’s not a lot being defined as “great.”

Take a minute, sit down, and draw up your own list of the five greatest center fielders ever, leaving out 19th Century and Negro League players and concentrating on the players since 1901. Here’s mine alphabetically: Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Speaker. Yours may vary and that’s not the point. I’ll bet it didn’t take long to come up with the list, did it? Now go to 10. See if it doesn’t get really harder as you get toward nine and ten (passing Griffey, Puckett, and Snider as examples). Mine did. And by 15 I was beginning to list guys like Edmonds and Hunter who I knew weren’t “great.”

This problem isn’t unique. Try it with first basemen or third basemen or left fielders. You get the same results. There are a few truly amazing players, then an entire truckload of very good ones.  But I want to stick with center fielders for a few days.


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6 Responses to “The Center Fielders”

  1. Bill Miller Says:

    I think my all-time list of best center fielders would look like this:

    1) Willie Mays
    2) Ty Cobb
    3) Mickey Mantle
    4) Joe DiMaggio
    5) Tris Speaker
    6) Ken Griffey, Jr.
    7) Duke Snider
    8) Kirby Puckett
    9) Jim Edmonds
    10) Andruw Jones
    11) Kenny Lofton
    12) Richie Ashburn
    13) Bobby Murcer
    14) Paul Blair
    15) Dom DiMaggio

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Certainly not a bad list. But see what I mean by what happens when you get to 15? Dom is nowhere near as good as his brother. Did you find it harder to make up the list as you got further down?

  3. keitho Says:

    Reading this post has me thirsting for baseball — only 13 more days!

    Let’s see…

    I’m gong to go by the center fielders I’ve seen play. I’m disqualifying Mays because I saw him well past his prime.

    (in no particular order)

    Fred Lynn

    Jim Edmonds

    Torii Hunter

    Ken Griffey Jr

    Andruw Jones

    (honorable mention) Garry Maddox — I always liked him.

  4. Vinnie Says:

    Greatness by it’s very definition will exclude just about everything within the catagory that’s being described. Doesn’t matter if it’s sport, art, music or whatever subject we look at. And it’s accepted almost universally as such.

    Seems too that the 1950’s was an era of an exceptional wealth of talented center fielders, maybe the greatest single decade in history. We had three of the all time greats, plus three other hall of famers, some terrific offensive and defensive, like Gus Bell, Dom DiMaggio and Vada Pinson, great glove men like Jim Busby, Jimmy Piersall, Bill Tuttle, Bill Bruton, Jim Landis, Bill Virdon who could hit a little and then the Bobby Del Greco’s and Tommy Umphlett’s who were all glove.

  5. verdun2 Says:

    When I was doing my own list preparatory to doing this post, Vada Pinson came to mind almost immediately. He mad my list, but in many ways became the man who was the line between great and very good. Always liked him, thought he was underrated (playing next to Frank Robinson will do that to you), and never quite decided what to do about the Hall of Fame for him.

  6. vinnie Says:

    Had his career followed the path that the first three or four promised, it seemed that he was surely headed in the direction of a hall of fame career. For whatever reasons, his inconsistancy and then the years when pitching over powered hitting certainly added to his struggles. Like Tony Oliva, this era ruined a lot of promising careers and I don’t think anyone yet has come up with a way of measuring the real value of those who suffered through it any more than we’ve been able to put those great pitching years and careers into true context either.

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