Legacy

Yankee Stadium 1930s configuration

There are some positions that are just simply the glamour spots for a team. For the Giants, as evidenced by their latest championship and their long history of great pitchers, it’s the mound. For the Red Sox it’s left field.  Both teams have produced an inordinate number of high quality players at the position. For the Yankees, that position is, with apologies to catchers and second base, center field.

The Yankees were formed in Baltimore in 1901 and shifted to New York in 1903. The “Yankees” team moniker came during the teens. They were a team that was sporadically competitive prior to 1920 and the arrival of Babe Ruth. Afterwards they were the dominant franchise. Whether the team was winning or losing, they have usually had a fine center fielder since. the key word there is “usually.”

Way back in 1921 when it all began, the center fielder was the immortal Elmer Miller (that’s OK, I never heard of him either). Whitey Witt came in ’22. Not a bad player but certainly not the reason they were winning (That Ruth kid had something to do with it). He stayed through 1925, hit .287 with no power and not much speed. He gave way to Earle Combs, who was a revelation in center. Combs could hit (.325), had doubles power (309), and speed. He didn’t steal a lot of bases (with Ruth and Gehrig hitting behind you, would you?), but the papers of the time indicate he was adept at going from first to third on a good single and coming home from second on a clean base hit to the outfield. And of course he was on base quite a bit (OBP of .397, which ain’t bad, but not all that great either. He never finished higher than 5th in OBP.) for Ruth and Gehrig to drive home. He stayed through 1935 and eventually made the Hall of Fame. His successor was Joe DiMaggio who  stayed in center through 1951 and was replaced by Mickey Mantle in 1952. Mantle remained a fixture in New York through 1968.

Now I don’t mean to imply that Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle played every game in center between 1925 and 1968. Obviously they missed games, and DiMaggio lost three years to World War II. Additionally, Mantle moved to first base in the last two years. But as a rule for the entire period a Hall of Famer stood in center field for New York. That’s not a unique event. Take a look at Boston left fielders from Ted Williams through Jim Rice, but the Yankees center fielders played on winners year after year.

Bobby Murcer replaced Mantle (after running Joe Pepitone and Bill Robinson out there for a couple of years). He’s generally overlooked as a Yankees center fielder, but he was pretty good. He wasn’t DiMaggio or Mantle, but he may have been Combs. There have been a lot of really terrific underrated players in baseball history. Murcer is in the list and, in my opinion, toward the top. He lasted through 1974 then came back in 1979 (although not as the regular center fielder). He was also the last of the power hitters who spent significant time out in center.

The rest of the 1970s and 1980s saw New York send a lot of men to center. They won two World Series titles with Mickey Rivers out there. But as a rule guys like Jerry Mumphrey and Ruppert Jones weren’t anything to write home about. They did try Rickey Henderson in center in the mid to late 1980s. As a center fielder Rickey Henderson made left fielder Rickey Henderson look like Roberto Clemente (Henderson led the league in errors in 1985.). But at least he could track down the ball. All the searching for a quality center fielder changed when Bernie Williams showed up. He gave New York a fine center fielder. He could hit, run, play the field. He won a  batting title and hit clean up on four World Series winners. Is he a Hall of Famer? We’ll find out in a couple of years.

I know that’s not a  comprehensive list of Yankees center fielders, not even since 1921, but what I wanted to show was a long and sustained period of quality play at one position. And the Yankees center fielders certainly, despite some hiccups, did that.

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4 Responses to “Legacy”

  1. Bill Miller Says:

    Here’s something that I thought was interesting: Career OPS+ Bobby Murcer – 124, Bernie Williams – 125, Earle Coombs – 125.
    All were very good, but I’m not sure any of them belong in The Hall.
    I like this series, Bill

  2. Kevin G Says:

    More props for Bobby Murcer. My favorite Yankee. Nice post V

  3. verdun2 Says:

    Happy to please both of you.
    v

  4. keithosaunders Says:

    Bernie Williams was a fine player and a clutch hitter but I don’t think he is quite hall of fame material. He was a class act, though, and I think the Yankees should have signed him for that last season and let him have a farewell tour.

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