Duke Snider, Kenny Lofton, and Cool Papa Bell.
Jim Edmonds, Dale Murphy, and Earle Combs.
Richie Ashburn, Larry Doby, and Fred Lynn.
All center fielders—dynamite center fielders at that. These men mastered their position and captured the attention of millions of Americans throughout their careers.
Whether it be their ability to patrol the outfield, position themselves for catches, or show off their dominance behind the plate or on the base paths, these men found a way to stand out amongst their contemporaries—who tried desperately to do all the same things with lesser success.
The abilities of these men speak for themselves; the performances they have given baseball fans over the years is simply tremendous. So tremendous, in fact, that I thought it fitting to write up a column on the nature of playing center field and what it takes to be top notch at the position.
Let's begin by putting center fielders in perspective with other defense-friendly positions.
Center field is widely recognized as the third most important position on defense, behind both catcher and shortstop. That said, an argument can be made that center field is indeed the toughest position of any to play.
It requires more versatility than any other position. Players must have a strong arm, reliable glove, and wheels like no tomorrow in order to effectively hold down the fort.
Let's also keep in mind that while shortstops and catchers are to a significant degree "tolerated" when they pose an offensive liability to their team, center fielders are by and large expected to produce behind the plate as well as in the outfield. This makes fielding that much harder, as center fielders' minds must turn to offense as soon as the inning is over.
Defensively speaking, what they do is nothing short of awe inspiring. Center fielders always have the call over their teammates in the outfield—they can make plays in left or right, however they see fit. If he so chooses, a center fielder has the authorization to mow down a corner outfielder or tell him to get the hell out of the way in order to make an acrobatic diving catch.
Center fielders can play shallow or deep—and rarely choose anything in between. They will live or die by those two choices: if a runner is on base and the center fielder grossly under or overestimates, they're automatically giving up a run.
They have to possess an incredible instinct for the ball, as making the proper break and getting a good first step is pertinent to success. A bad jump on the ball in center field may result in a triple that puts your team out of the game—unlike right or left field, where a double is generally the worst-case scenario if you screw up.
Center fielders must be lighting fast without exception—they cover so much ground that a slow player is simply incapable of playing the position. They frequently sprint for 100 or more feet at a time; no other fielder goes to such lengths to turn base hits into outs.
They have to be able to judge balls off the wall. They have to gracefully pull off full speed, diving catches.
Initiating the relay throw; doubling up with pinpoint accuracy.
Communicating intentions to your teammates on the fly. Commanding the troops in the outfield with the confidence of a drill sergeant.
And perhaps most importantly: maintaining perfect position at all times.
These are the characteristics that make a top tier defensive center fielder.
Jimmy McAleer, Paul Blair, Taylor Douthit, Happy Felsch, Curt Flood, Gary Maddox, Johnny Mostil, Garry Pettis, Terry Moore, and Devon White each possessed these attributes.
Then of course comes the other side of the ball—and that's where the tricky part enters the fray. Because some of the best defensive center fielders of all time happened to be damn good on offense too.
Center fielders are fast—and many of the all time greats have stolen over 400 bases in their careers.
Center fielders are powerful—many legends have gone yard on more than 400 occasions.
Center fielders can also hit for average—really frickin' well. In fact, one center fielder happened to be better at hitting a baseball than any other man to ever set foot in a Major League stadium.
Hitting, slugging, running—and of course, defensive ability. The presence or lack of these skills is what separates the bad from the average, the good from the very good, and the great from the legendary.
What follows in the next three installments of this series is a countdown of who I believe to be the ten best all-around center fielders in the history of the game. This list is not meant to serve as a definitive guide towards player production—I simply am evaluating the all around abilities of ten men who I feel most epitomize the heart and soul of the position. Enjoy.