Welcome to another installation in the top five Yankees by position series. Today we’ll be covering the greatest center fielders. Center field has produced some of the icons of the sport, with two Yankee giants belonging to that hallowed company. These two men transcend baseball, and have entered American mythology. But don’t sleep on the other three, who were fan favorites, clubhouse leaders, and champions in their own right.
As with the other entries in the top five series, the rankings rely on FanGraphs WAR, which uses UZR in its formula, instead of Baseball-Reference WAR, which uses DRS. And now to the list:
Mickey Mantle: 112.3 fWAR
The Commerce Comet was Mike Trout before there was Mike Trout. It is no coincidence that Trout’s nickname, the Millville Meteor, so closely resembles Mantle’s. Mantle was the greatest switch-hitter in the history of baseball, leading that category with 536 home runs. He was also probably the fastest player of his generation and among the fastest to ever play the game.
Mantle’s prodigious power is the stuff of legends. The term “tape-measure home run” was coined by a commentator in reference to one of his blasts in 1953. There are tales of him hitting balls over the roof of the old Tigers Stadium, or clearing the batter’s eye in straightaway center in Yankee Stadium I, whose center field wall stood 461 feet away from home plate.
The Mick was truly a complete player, winning the Triple Crown in 1956 in the first of his three MVP campaigns. He is the all-time World Series record holder in home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits, runs, walks and total bases, accumulated in 12 World Series appearances, of which he won seven. His Hall of Fame election and number 7 retirement were among the easiest decisions in that regard.
Mantle’s legendary career might have rivaled Ruth’s if not for chronic injuries. It has been speculated that he tore his ACL in his rookie campaign when he stepped on a drain cover in the outfield during the 1951 World Series, and that he never fully recovered from this injury. It is astounding to think of his achievements over the next 16 years if this story is true.
Joe DiMaggio: 83.1 fWAR
Joltin’ Joe continued the legacy of Yankees winning and greatness after the Ruth and Gehrig years, and paved the way for the aforementioned Mantle. DiMaggio is best known for his record-56 game hitting streak in 1941, perhaps the single most unbreakable record in baseball if not all of professional American sports.
DiMaggio was a less-heralded power hitter in the mold of his predecessors, who was punished as a right-hander batting in the old Yankee Stadium. Bill James hypothesized that the 457 foot left-center field robbed DiMaggio of more home runs than any other player in history. If not for this, as well as the three year hiatus during World War II, DiMaggio would have easily eclipsed the 400 home run mark, and may have threatened 500.
The Yankee Clipper is maybe even more famous in the American public for his ill-fated marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Baseball fans remember him as a Yankee legend and cultural icon of the era. His nine World Series rings trails only Yogi Berra in team history, and his number 5 is immortalized in the Hall of Fame and Monument Park.
Bernie Williams: 43.9 fWAR
Williams followed the tradition of elite switch-hitting center fielders set by the Mick. Although not conventionally considered a member of the Core Four, he was just as important as any of them to the Yankees’ dominance, and arguably their most consistent postseason contributor during that run. His greatest playoff contributions came during the ALCS, in which he holds a .321/.413/.549 slash line, as well as an MVP award for the 1996 edition.
Bernie was a model of consistency for the majority of his Yankees tenure, with five All-Star appearances and four Gold Glove awards. His best season in 1998 saw him win the American League batting crown with a .339 average, accompanied by 160 OPS+ and 158 wRC+. What is amazing is that his Yankee career was almost grounded by George Steinbrenner before it could get off the ground.
The Boss tried multiple times to trade Williams early in his career, and required the intervention of Buck Showalter and Joe Torre. If George Steinbrenner had his way and been successful in shipping Williams to another team, who knows how many championships, if any, they would have won in the Core Four years.
Because of his postseason heroics and ever-smiling personality, Williams is certainly a fan favorite. In recognition of his achievements with the team, the Yankees retired his number 51 and enshrined him in Monument Park.
Earle Combs: 41.3 fWAR
The Kentucky Colonel was the leadoff batter of the Murderer’s Row dynasty. He won three World Series as a player and an additional six as a coach with the team. His best ever year came in the 1927 championship season, when he led the league in at-bats, plate appearances, hits, and triples, slashing .356/.414/.511 with an OPS+ and wRC+ of 141.
Combs’ career was seriously threatened in 1934 in a game against St. Louis. He crashed into the center field wall suffering a fractured skull, shoulder and knee. It is reported that he almost died from his injuries and stayed in the hospital for two months. The lingering effects of this injury, in addition to the looming presence of rookie Joe DiMaggio, convinced Combs to retire in 1935, but he would stay on with the club to mentor his legendary replacement. He was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1970.
Brett Gardner: 37.0 fWAR
I was delighted to discover that Brett Gardener has accrued the fifth-most WAR in Yankees center field history. He has long been an unsung stalwart of the team, and is the sole remaining veteran with championship-winning experience. Gardner is still an elite outfield defender, and by some metrics the fastest player on the Yankees squad.
His outlier season in 2019, during which he smacked 28 home runs, was surprisingly not his best from a value standpoint. That distinction belongs to his 2010 campaign, during which he slashed .277/.383/.379 while adding 47 stolen bases. Just as important as his production on the field, his feisty persona and never-say-die attitude make him a clear clubhouse leader.
Gardner may have his detractors for his anemic postseason performances, however he has nonetheless been an invaluable member of the Yankees organization for more than the last decade. Should he stick around for another couple of seasons, and maybe add another ring to his collection, he could be a strong candidate to be honored in Monument Park.
Honorable Mention: Rickey Henderson (29.7 fWAR) and Bobby Murcer (27.1 fWAR)
The Yankees have a rich history of impactful center fielders. That three of the first four names on this list are members of the Hall of Fame speaks to this tradition of excellence. Every member on this had a hand in growing the Bombers championship legacy, playing major parts in making the Yankees the greatest sports franchise in American history.