Born to Play Ball - Center Fielders
Willie Mays (1951-1973)
The Say Hey Kid
"As a batter, his only weakness is a wild pitch."
- Bill Rigney
The most complete ball player in history, Willie Mays was the first five-tool player: he could hit, hit for power, run, throw and field like no one else. Ted Williams once said, "They invented the All Star game for Willie Mays." Playing for the New York, and then San Francisco, Giants, Mays burst onto the national stage in the 1954 World Series with what is referred to as simply "The Catch." In the Series' first game, and with the scored tied in the 8th inning, Cleveland Indians' hitter Vic Wertz launched a 450-foot shot to center with two runners on base. Mays, caught playing shallow, sprinted toward the wall, caught the ball over his shoulder, whirled and threw back to the infield, preventing the runners from scoring. It may be the greatest play in the history of the game.
Born in Alabama, Mays' athletic ability was clear at an early age. He played several sports in high school and was offered college scholarships in football and basketball, but chose professional baseball. Like other players of color at the time, Mays was taunted while in the minor leagues. The racism he experienced never held him back and after batting .477 for the Giants' minor league team, he was called up to the majors in 1951, winning the Rookie of the Year award.
Always quick with a smile, Mays played the game with unbounded enthusiasm while demoralizing opponents with a home run, a stolen base, or a spectacular play in the field. In the 1960s, it was Mays, not Hank Aaron, that everyone thought could catch Babe Ruth's career home run total. He missed two seasons due to military service; otherwise he would have reached Ruth's 714 home runs. He finished with 660 homers and over 3,000 hits, the first ever in the 500-3,000 club and still one of only four to ever do it.
He won two MVP awards, was a 20-time All Star, and a 12-time Gold Glove recipient, even though he played in windy Candlestick Park.
Giants' president Peter Mogowan once said that Mays "would routinely do things you never saw anyone else do. He'd score from first base on a single. He'd take two bases on a pop-up. He'd throw somebody out at the plate on one bounce. And the bigger the game, the better he played."
When Mays himself was asked at his Hall of Fame induction who was the best player he ever saw, he replied, "I don't mean to be boastful, but I was." Few could argue with him.
Ty Cobb (1905-1928)
The Georgia Peach
"Cobb lived off the field as though he wished to live forever. He lived on the field as though it was his last day."
- Branch Rickey
If anyone played the game as though it were a matter of life or death, it was Ty Cobb. The stories of Cobb's aggressive play and temperament are legendary - he sharpened his spikes to hurt opposing players when he slid into them (untrue), he assaulted a heckler who was handicapped (true). Cobb would bunt, steal bases, run over opponents, and do all of the little things to gain the advantage, what he called the "inside style" of the game. What Cobb could never stomach was the new style created by the likes of Babe Ruth - winning with home runs.
As Ruth's popularity grew in the 1920s, relations between the two grew bitter. Cobb believed the game demanded a certain type of play and life style. Ruth threatened both by gorging himself on home runs, beer and hot dogs. Cobb rapped out singles and practiced self-denial, dismissing Ruth's long ball as a hit anyone could make. In one game, Cobb told a reporter he was going to prove it - Ty went 6 for 6 with three round trippers in the game. Ruth was unimpressed, saying "If I just tried for them dinky singles, I could have batted around .600."
Though his popularity might have been eclipsed by the late 1920s, his records lasted decades and some may never be broken, including his career batting average of .366 and most batting titles (11). When he retired he held the record for most hits, steals, runs scored, games played, at bats and most seasons batting over .300. It took more than 50 years for many of these records to be broken. He is easily the greatest player to don a Detroit Tigers uniform.
Cobb was born in Georgia to a demanding father who expected the young Ty to study hard to become a physician or politician. When Ty left to play baseball, his father warned, "Don't come home a failure." Maybe this was the source of his intensity on the field, but whatever the source, Cobb is easily one of the ten greatest players in the history of the game. His peers confirmed it when he was the first person elected to the Hall of Fame, above Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Honus Wagner.
Mickey Mantle (1951-1968)
"Until I saw Mantle peel down for his shower in the clubhouse ..., I never knew how he developed his brutal power, but his bare back looked like a barrel full of snakes."
- Sportswriter Dale Lancaster
Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle was the All-American boy when he burst into the major leagues. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and an infectious smile made him a darling to fans of the New York Yankees. His skills on the playing field were like nothing ever seen before. He was arguably the fastest player in the game, he hit mammoth home runs, and he hit for average. Branch Rickey took one look at him and declared, "He's the best prospect I've ever seen."
His father groomed him to be a switch hitter, and he had equal power from either side of the plate, but it was a power none had seen before. He is credited with several blasts over 600 feet. Yankee manager Casey Stengel once said, "That kid can hit balls over buildings." The Mick finished his career with 536 homers and led the Yankees to 12 World Series, winning seven of the Fall Classics. When he retired, Mantle had scored more runs, hit more homers and drove in more runs than anyone in World Series play.
Yet there was a tragic side to this all-time great. As a high school football player, Mantle injured his leg which later became infected; for the rest of his life his legs were in constant pain, eventually eroding the Mick's great talents. He was haunted by the fact that few of the Mantle men lived past the age of 40, leading him to live life on the edge. There were few nights that Mantle and teammates Whitey Ford and Billy Martin were not at the bars till the wee hours of the morning. His drinking did not subside when he retired in 1969, leading him to eventually check into the Betty Ford Clinic in 1994. It was a decision that was too late to save his liver. Mantle lamented, "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." The legendary Mick passed away in 1995.
Joe Dimaggio (1936-1951)
The Yankee Clipper
"Joe Dimaggio batting sometimes gave the impression, the suggestion that the old rules and dimensions of baseball no longer applied to him, and that the game had at last grown unfairly easy."
- Donald Hall
One of nine children born to Sicilian immigrants, Joe Dimaggio lived out the American dream at a time when Americans wrestled with their own dream. Playing centerfield for the New York Yankees, "Joltin' Joe" led the Bronx Bombers to nine World Series titles in his career, a number likely less because he served in the armed forces during World War II. He won three MVP awards and holds the hallowed record of a 56-game hitting streak that remains beyond the reach of the game's best hitters.
Dimaggio came from a baseball family, with his brothers Vince and Dom also playing center field in the majors. Much has been made of how great defensively Joe was, but one baseball historian has stated, "How can he [Joe] be the greatest center fielder of all time if he's the third best center fielder in his family?" What separated the brothers was Joe's offensive numbers, including a lifetime .325 average while hitting 361 home runs playing in Yankee Stadium, where the left and left center dimensions were as deep as 457 feet. In his 1941 MVP season, he batted .357, hit 30 homers, drove in 125, and struck out only 17 times, and played a great center field.
Dimaggio played the game with a grace that few could match. One teammate said, "There was an aura about him. He walked like no one else walked. He did things so easily. He was immaculate in everything he did. Kings of State wanted to meet him and be with him. He carried himself so well. He could fit in any place in the world." This son of an immigrant was a celebrity in his own right who married the glamorous Marilyn Monroe and inspired Simon and Garfunkel to sing, "Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you," at a time when America was at its greatest disillusionment. In an age of heroes, Joltin' Joe was a man who represented the best of that era.
Ken Griffey, Jr. (1989-present)
"We love Ken Griffey, Jr., because he is everything we would like to be. He's young, he's good-looking, he's got the best smile in the world, and he's a heroic athlete."
- Reggie Jackson
Ken Griffey, Jr., was destined to play baseball. He was born in the little town of Donora, Pennsylvania, the same town that produced Stan Musial and his father Ken Griffey, Sr., a member of the vaunted Cincinnati Reds' Big Red Machine of the 1970s. "Junior" spent his youth in the Reds' clubhouse with such players as Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez and honed his skills to a level that made him the first overall pick in the baseball draft by the Seattle Mariners. At age 19, he was a regular in Seattle's lineup in 1989.
Displaying dazzling speed, a strong arm, and power, Griffey was considered by many as the best player in all of baseball for much of the 1990s. He would go on to win 10 Gold Gloves and two MVP awards in Seattle, leading the Mariners to the post season in 1995 and 1997. He has the most beautiful home run swing that baseball has ever seen - so good that he was the youngest player to reach 400 round-trippers, surpassing Jimmie Foxx. Most experts assumed that it would be Griffey (not Barry Bonds) who might break Hank Aaron's home run total.
In 2000, Junior was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, not because the Mariners were unhappy with him, but because Griffey wanted to be closer to family. He was thrilled to be joining the Reds, the team of his father and of his youth, and though he could have made much more as a free agent, Griffey signed a long term deal with the Reds. To Griffey, "It doesn't matter how much money you make; it's where you feel happy." The future seemed bright, but a rash of injuries limited him to only 554 of the Reds' 972 games between 2001 and 2006. And each time he came back from those injuries, his power and speed seemed to be diminished. Were it not for those infirmities, it would have been when, not if, he would surpass Aaron on the all-time homer list.
Tris Speaker (1907-1928)
The Gray Eagle
"It would be useless for any player to attempt to explain successful batting."
- Tris Speaker
Can you name who has the most doubles or who is fifth all-time in batting average and hits? If you said Tris Speaker, you know your baseball history. Playing most of his career with the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, Speaker spent his career as the second best player in the game, first to Ty Cobb, then to Babe Ruth.
One aspect where he was second to none was on defense, roaming center field as one of the best who ever played the game. He played so shallow in center field that he had several unassisted double plays at second base.
His career was all the more remarkable after a rash of injuries in his youth, including a broken right arm after a fall from a horse. While still in a cast, Speaker would throw left-handed until it became so comfortable that he stayed a southpaw when his arm healed. Later playing football, his left arm was so damaged that surgeons wanted to amputate it, but Speaker would not hear of it. And a good thing, too, as Speaker, arm healed, became one of the game's all-time greats.