No. 3: Oscar Charleston
Oscar Charleston will never get the recognition he deserves due to Major League Baseball's "color line" policy, which existed from the late 1800s through 1946. The policy excluded black players from the league, which, in addition to being an awful stain on our nation's history, meant that fans were deprived of watching some of the greatest hitters, pitchers, and fielders show off their skills in front of a mainstream audience.
Fortunately, black ballplayers got together during this time of turmoil and formed the Negro Leagues, which hosted some of the best baseball talent known to man. Names like Satchel Paige, John Henry Lloyd, and Buck Leonard may be unfamiliar to the common fan but are legendary amongst the few who got to witness such genius on the field, as well as the historians who have since acknowledged their accomplishments.
Oscar Charleston is one of those men: Both his contemporaries and the students of the game alike seem convinced that he is one of—if not the—greatest center fielders of all time.
Early in his career, Charleston's speed and aggressive base-running style earned him the nickname "the Black Ty Cobb." He swiped bags in Cobb-like fashion, sliding with his spikes high. He consistently hit for a high average, posting an average over .350 each year from 1922 to 1930, including two seasons of .400 or better. Also like Cobb, Charleston could get on base by utilizing his talent for drag bunting.
That being said, his contemporaries (including former major-league players) insist that Charleston's defensive abilities exceeded that of the great Cobb. In the words of teammate Dave Malarcher:
"Some people asked me, 'Why are you playing so close to the right field foul line?' What they didn't know was that Charleston covered all three fields, and my responsibility was to make sure of balls down the line and those in foul territory.
Charleston had sticky hands and excellent range. His speed allowed him to cover the entire outfield effectively—and as was typical of the elite center fielders of his day, he played shallow yet was still able to run down deep shots.
But unlike Cobb, Charleston had a cannon for an arm.
In addition, Charleston's contemporaries insist that Oscar was a much more vicious slugger than "the Georgia Peach"; in the prime of his career, Charleston was indeed compared to Babe Ruth for his ability to hit for both average and power.
He best showed off this balanced offensive attack in 1921, as it is estimated that in 60 games, Charleston hit .446 with 28 stolen bases, while also leading the league in doubles, triples, home runs, total bases, and slugging average.
Charleston had quite a complex personality. He was a notorious brawler, whose fights both on and off the field are as legendary as his athletic feats. Charleston regularly fought with umpires, opponents, and even Cuban soldiers when he played in the Cuban winter leagues.
The most infamous tale of Charleston asserts that he once pulled the hood off of a Ku Klux Klan member and dared him to speak.
Despite his short temper, Charleston was the kind of guy you'd want in your clubhouse. He was protective of younger players, who idolized him for his charisma and leadership. The centerpiece of the Harrisburg Giants from 1922 to 1927, he led an otherwise average team to three-straight second-place finishes in his last three seasons with the organization.
Charleston performed quite well against major-league ballplayers when they met during the offseason. In 53 exhibition games against white major leaguers, he hit .318 with 11 home runs. His talents did not go unnoticed by those in the all-white majors: John McGraw, the infamous manager of the New York Giants, claimed that Charleston was the best player he ever saw.
Since seasons in the Negro leagues were so short and statistics so irregularly kept, it's difficult to gauge the true performance of a legend like Oscar Charleston. All we can go on are the limited statistics that we do have and the tales of his brilliance that have been handed down throughout the generations.
It could be that I am overrating Oscar Charleston by placing him in the three slot on this list. But it seems just as likely that, given his amazing all-around abilities, declaring him merely the third best to ever play his position is indeed an injustice.
No. 2: Tris Speaker
Before Andruw Jones, there was Tris Speaker.
Spending the first half of his career in Boston and the later half in Cleveland, "Spoke" (as he was known) played a shallower center field than anyone else in the history of the game.
And when I say he played shallow, I'm talking shallow.
Shallow as in, never more than 40 feet from the infield; some have even said as close as 15 to 20 feet at times.
Shallow like he was digging a shallow grave for whatever unlucky hitter whacked a liner his way.
Spoke played so shallow that sometimes he covered second on infield grounders. He played so shallow that in 1918, he executed two unassisted double plays, where he caught line drives and ran to second to double up.
Speaker played so close to the diamond that Red Sox catcher Bill Carrigan would sometimes fire pickoff throws to Spoke, who, sprinting in from center, would find his way to second and tag out opposing runners.
You may be wondering: What's so special about playing shallow? Can't anyone do it?
Anyone can play shallow, but only someone with swift backward flight can do it effectively. And Spoke was the guy who invented the very notion of backward flight.
When balls were hit deep in center, Speaker would turn towards the outfield and sprint for his life; then he'd catch the ball over his shoulder running full speed. In the words of teammate Smokey Joe Wood:
Speaker played a real shallow center field and he had that terrific instinct—at the crack of the bat he'd be off with his back to the infield, and then he'd turn and glance over his shoulder at the last minute and catch the ball so easily that it looked like there was nothing to it, nothing at all. Nobody else was even in the same league with him.
However, Speaker was, in fact, famous for saying that the crack of the bat was too late to start running; that a shallow center fielder needed to get a jump before the ball even touched the bat to have a chance at it. Spoke had an instinct for the ball like none other; he somehow knew when to start running towards the outfield before the ball had even been hit.
Speaker had a great throwing arm as well—his contemporaries claim one of the best in the league. His powerful gun, shallow positioning, and uncanny knowledge of where the ball was going made him arguably the most effective, defensive center fielder in baseball history.
Spoke was a true field general in center, directing traffic and assigning territorial responsibility between himself and his two wingmen. From 1910 to 1915, he was the fearless leader of Boston's legendary outfield, winged by Harry Hooper in right and Duffy Lewis in left.
Lewis claims that he respected Speaker's instincts to the extent that never once did they collide during their six seasons together.
Speaker still holds major-league records, both in career baserunner kills (450) and double plays (136). He is also the all-time American League leader in putouts (6,706). Throughout his career, Speaker led the league in putouts seven times, assists three times, and double plays six times.
That being said, the No. 2 slot seems pretty high up on this list for a fielding specialist—even at a position like center, where defense is so important. The thing is: Speaker wasn't really a fielding specialist.
In point of fact, Spoke was one of the greatest all-around baseball players of his generation, and indeed of all time.
Speaker could run like the wind, and stole bases with regularity. His 432 career swipes are particularly impressive when you consider he hardly stole at all during the second half of his career.
And boy, could the guy hit.
His .345 career batting average is fifth all time. Because he played during the same era as Ty Cobb, he only won a single batting title—but finished in the top three in the league an astounding 10 times.
Speaker was a master of slapping doubles into outfield gaps. He led the league in the category eight times, and his career mark of 792 is the most of any major-league player.
He was also a patient hitter, posting league highs in OBP on four occasions. He could hit for power as well, leading the league in home runs in 1912 and slugging average in 1916.
Despite his legendary skills as a ballplayer, Speaker played in the shadow of Ty Cobb throughout his career. People respected Speaker, but when all was said in done, Cobb was thought of as the better all-around player, as he hit for a higher average and stole consistently more bases than Spoke.
For the purpose of this list, however, Speaker gets the nod over "the Georgia Peach." Cobb may have been the more talented overall player, but Speaker better epitomizes the position of center field.
Everything Cobb learned about playing effective defense—shallow positioning, backward flight, getting a good jump on the ball—he learned from Spoke.
Speaker was a revolutionary in the outfield, who changed the way his position was played; he would influence fielders of both his era and future eras alike.
And, for what it's worth, Spoke performed a lot better than Cobb at the defining moments of his career.
Consider this: In three World Series losses, Cobb posted a .262 batting average, .314 on base percentage, and .354 slugging average. On the flip side, in three World Series wins, Speaker hit a far more respectable .306, with a .398 OBP, and .458 SLG.
So there you have it: Tris Speaker in the two slot. Which leaves only one option for the greatest center fielder of all time...
No. 1: Willie Mays
We've discussed Tris Speaker's mastery of shallow center field, Joe DiMaggio's ability to get wood on every pitch, and Ty Cobb's knack for poking singles through the holes. We've acknowledged Kirby Puckett's heart, Mickey Mantle's raw talent, and Oscar Charleston's unjust lack of notoriety.
We've clarified why Ken Griffey Jr., Max Carey, and Andruw Jones deserve spots on this list—while Richie Ashburn, Dale Murphy, and Duke Snider narrowly miss the cut.
Now, it's time to wrap it all up. And what better way to do that than by narrowing in on the man, the myth, the legend—Willie Mays, who, in my mind, is unquestionably the greatest center fielder in baseball history.
Simply put, "the Say Hey Kid" could do it all. He was the ultimate five-tool player; never before and never again will the game see a better combination of all-around skills on a baseball field.
Let's begin with base running. It's a common fallacy to point to Willie's 338 career-stolen bases and say "good, but not great."
Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
Willie Mays is deprived of the credit he deserves for his stellar abilities on the base paths, due simply to the trends of the era he played in. There's a reason that Ty Cobb claimed in his later days that Mays had "restored the art of base running to the game."
Mays led the league in stolen bases for four-straight seasons from 1956-1959, yet never garnered more than 40 thefts in a year. Is that because he wasn't a superb base stealer?
No! It's because managers weren't calling for their players to steal bases regularly, like they had in the past and would again a few decades later.
Jackie Robinson was also known as one of the leagues' greatest baserunners—and he never stole more than 40 bags in a season either. The 40's and 50's simply weren't times when base stealing was popular. It's important therefore to put Mays's numbers into context.
Had Mays played during a different period in baseball history, it's not out of the question that he could have grabbed 70 or 80 steals some seasons and got his career totals above 600.
Every statistical indicator of running ability points to Willie Mays being one of the best of his era on the basepaths—he posted league highs in triples on three occasions and finished in the top three in runs scored 11 times throughout his career.
Another area of expertise that is often overlooked is Mays's ability to hit a baseball.
Again, casual fans may glance at his career batting average of .302 and say "good, but not great." After all, while hitting over .300 for your career is impressive, it's surely not the mark of a brilliant hitter. Right?
The league average throughout Mays's tenure in the majors was .263—that puts him nearly .40 points above his contemporaries, which ain't too shabby. Furthermore, he finished in the top three in the league in hitting six times, and won a batting title in 1954.
That's the mark of a great hitter, not a good one.
Some things Willie does get his due credit for are his power numbers and defensive abilities.
Mays hit 660 home runs throughout a career that spanned the '50s and '60s. While taken at face value, that 660 mark seems impressive, in proper context, it is, in fact, mind-boggling.
The 1960s were known as the greatest era of pitching in baseball history—so great that the mound was lowered by 33 percent of its original height in 1968 to increase offensive production.
Yet somehow, facing legends like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, Mays managed to whack 378 dingers during the decade, including 49 in '62, 47 in '64, and '52 in 65. During his offensive peak from 1961 to 1965, Mays averaged 45 blasts, 118 RBI, and a .606 slugging average per season.
One can only imagine what someone with Mays's power could have done during the home run boom in the late '90s and early '00s.
Let's also keep in mind that Mays lost a few years early in his career to fight in the Korean War. Playing his first full season in 1951, Mays missed the majority of the 1952 season and the 1953 season entirely. When he returned to the majors in 1954, he hit 41 bombs, 110 RBI, and led the league with a .345 batting average.
We'll never know what Mays might have accomplished in those critical years, but it seems reasonable to assume he would have hit at least 60 more home runs, had he not gone to war. That would increase his lifetime total to 720, further solidifying his reputation as the best power-hitting center fielder to ever step on a baseball field.
Defensively speaking, Willie Mays was as good as they come.
During his rookie season, Mays found himself running full speed after a deeply hit ball in Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. As he located the ball over his shoulder, he realized it was rapidly hooking away from his glove.
Not knowing what else to do, Mays stuck out his bare hand and made the catch—Pittsburgh's General Manager Branch Rickey called it "the finest catch I've ever seen."
This would be the first of numerous dazzling grabs Willie Mays would make in center field throughout his career. He would become a human highlight reel, the likes of which the world had never seen, first at the Polo Grounds in New York and later at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Mays's most famous moment on the defensive side of the ball came in Game One of the 1954 World Series, where he robbed Cleveland's Vic Wertz with a running basket catch deep in center field of the Polo Grounds.
What is less well known, but perhaps even more impressive, is the throw Mays made immediately after the catch, which prevented Larry Doby from scoring and forced Al Rosen to sprint back to first.
Mays could get to more balls in center than anyone in the game. Like Tris Speaker before him and Andruw Jones after him, he played unconventionally close to the infield where he could turn line drives into outs, confident that he'd be able to run down balls hit over his head.
He had a strong and accurate arm, posting a league-leading 23 assists in 1955, a total he never approached again due to the respect baserunners gave him for the rest of his career. His 7,095 career putouts are a major-league record.
Need more evidence of his brilliance in center?
Consider this: The Rawlings Gold Glove award was invented in 1957, and Mays received the honor for the first 12 years it was available. Should Gold Gloves had been given out at an earlier time, and had Mays not missed nearly two seasons due to the war, he could have won as many as 18 awards.
Not only is Mays regarded by his contemporaries as the best defensive player to ever grace center, but in addition, many of those who played before Mays credit "the Say Hey Kid" with this honor.
Both Harry Hooper and Duffy Lewis, who played alongside Tris Speaker during the peak of his defensive brilliance, acknowledge that while Spoke was phenomenal, Willie was even better.
Of any other position on the baseball field, the great center fielders of all time are well-balanced players. Legends at the position can hit singles, doubles, triples, and home runs, throw bullets to the catcher from deep in the outfield, track down balls over their shoulder at full sprint, and make Michael Johnson look like Yokozuna on the base paths.
Willie Mays is the player that best demonstrates this balance of talents and everything it means to be a major league center fielder. He captivated audiences nationwide with his skills on both offense and defense, and continues to make baseball historians salivate today with the remarkable numbers he put up throughout his 22-year career.
For those of you who were lucky enough to see Mays play—hold on to those memories with all your might, and tell your grandkids about Willie once they are physically prepared to ingest his brilliance (a.k.a. are potty trained).
Because in all likelihood, there will never be another center fielder like "the Say Hey Kid."
Thanks for reading! If you disagree with my rankings (and I'm sure you do in some way or another), I encourage you to leave a comment. Or better yet, make your own list!
Other Notable Center Fielders Not Mentioned in this Column:
Earl Averill, Wally Berger, Cesar Cedeno, Dom DiMaggio, Hugh Duffy, Steve Finley, Marquis Grissom, Billy Hamilton, Torii Hunter, Bill Lange, Clyde Milan, Dwayne Murphy, Amos Otis, Vada Pinson, Spot Poles, Edd Rousch, George Van Haltren, Andy Van Slyke, Turkey Stearnes, Lloyd Waner, Bernie Williams, Hack Wilson, Jimmy Wynn
6) (History of the Game thread) http://www.baseball-fever.com
8) James, Bill (2003). The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: Simon & Schuster.
9) Ritter, Lawrence (1966). The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It. New York: William Morrow and Co.