Posts Tagged ‘Center Field’

Legacy

March 16, 2011

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.

The Center Fielders

March 11, 2011

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.