Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider rank among the greatest center fielders in baseball history.
Only Joe DiMaggio knew when to quit.
During spring training in 1951, DiMaggio hinted that he might retire following the season. Since 1947, DiMaggio had suffered a number of debilitating injuries.
DiMaggio had an operation on his left heel in 1947 to remove a three-inch bone spur. He later had a bone spur on his right heel as well, and he played with an injured shoulder (that might pop out of its socket at any time) during the final years of his career.
The New York Yankees won the 1951 World Series, beating Bobby Thomson's New York Giants. After the final game of that Series, DiMaggio told his teammates that he had played his last game.
DiMaggio had his worst season in 1951, batting only .263 with 12 home runs, a .365 on base average, and a .422 slugging average,
It is necessary, however, to compare DiMaggio's final season with the rest of his career.
From 1936-42 and 1946-50, DiMaggio hit .329, averaged 29 home runs a season, had a .401 on base average, and slugged .589. He defended freedom from 1943-1945, missing three peak seasons. He knew when to retire.
Mickey Mantle, some would say, did not.
Mantle regretted that he lost his .300 lifetime batting average because he stayed around too long. From 1965-68, Mickey hit only .254, compared to .309 from 1951-64.
During his last four seasons, Mantle averaged 20 home runs, only 53 RBIs, an on-base average of .386 and a slugging average of .450, numbers that pale when compared to his previous seasons.
Until 1965, Mickey averaged 32 home runs, 93 RBIs, had a .429 on-base average and slugged .582.
But there is a disclaimer. At the end of 1964, Mantle had 454 home runs. By not retiring, he finished he career with a .298 batting average and 536 home runs, which is arguably more impressive than finishing with a .309 average and 454 home runs.
Willie Mays did finish with a lifetime batting average better than .300 (barely, at .302), but by 1969, at 38 years old, Mays' skills started to decline rapidly.
From 1951-68, Willie hit .308 with a .384 on base average, a .578 slugging average. He hit about 35 home runs a season, with 97 RBIs.
In his final five seasons, including the final two with sport's most beloved team, the New York Mets, Mays hit only .273 with an excellent .382 on base average and a .459 slugging mark. He hit only about 16 home runs a season, with only 55 RBI.
An old Willie Mays embarrassed himself during the 1973 World Series, after which he retired.
Finally, Duke Snider. For most of his career, Duke played in the shadows of Mantle and Mays. He was hurt when the Brooklyn Dodgers ceased to exist and the franchise moved to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Coliseum was not a baseball park. The distance to right field was 440 feet. Bothered by a bad knee and an obscene distance, Snider hit only 15 home runs in 1958.
1949 was Snider's first season as a regular. From 1949-59, he hit .306 with an on base average of .387 and a slugging average of .562. He hit about 32 home runs a season, and batted in 102 runs.
Snider's decline started in 1960. From 1960-64, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and finally the San Francisco Giants, Snider hit only .254 with a .360 on base average and a .458 slugging average. He hit only 11 home runs with 37 RBIs a season.
The similarities between and among Mantle, Mays and Snider are striking. Each player became a mere shell of what he used to be. Only Joe DiMaggio was ashamed to continue playing once he was no longer Joe DiMaggio.