We have reached the final selection for the lineup of our team of all-time complementary greats. Before moving ahead to the pitching staff, this team still needs a center fielder, and it is not short on candidates. There were multiple interesting choices to take this final spot, and before discussing my pick, I’d like to take the time to acknowledge some of the other names that narrowly missed out, but still deserve some form of recognition.
Beyond the household names like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Bernie Williams, and Rickey Henderson, the Yankees also have incredible amount of depth throughout their history in center field. Curtis Granderson had a great and likely overlooked short stint with the Yankees that included him being the last AL hitter before Shohei Ohtani in 2021 to hit for 40 or more bombs and steal at least 25 bases. Bobby Murcer had an outstanding run as the center fielder between 1971 and 1973.
Jerry Mumphrey was significantly above average as a hitter in center between 1981 and 1983 and was a part of the ‘81 World Series team, but ultimately also fell short. Lastly we have the speedy Mickey Rivers, who received mentions in the comment section at the beginning of this series.
Ultimately, our selection today is Earle Combs. Interestingly enough, this selection is also a Hall of Famer along with the likes of Mantle and DiMaggio and Henderson, but by a multitude of factors, he better fits the complementary role.
You could make a case for anyone mentioned above. What the inclusion of Combs does is highlight the quality that surrounded Babe Ruth in the outfield throughout the entirety of his career with the Yankees. Combs was the center fielder, and Bob Meusel moved between left and right to shield Babe from the sun depending on which ballpark they were playing in, giving the Yankees an excellent outfield no matter their configuration.
Career NYY stats: .325/.397/.462, 1,455 Games, 670 BB, 278 K, 125 OPS+, 44.8 rWAR
Combs was born in Pebworth, Kentucky in 1899, and for a very long time didn’t have a baseball career in his sights. After graduating from Eastern Kentucky, his goal was to become a schoolteacher, but he soon realized that there was more money in professional baseball.
Combs overcame a rough start to his career and found success from 1921 through 1923 with the Louisville Colonels, until the Yankees bought his rights for two players and $50,000. Known throughout his career for his great character and mild demeanor, Combs wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, and it took a while for him to get to New York because the Colonels had promised him a percentage of his rights that he had yet to receive. Louisville eventually paid him.
Combs became a successful leadoff hitter, combining a high average with a solid walk rate for that era. He led the league in triples in three out of four seasons from 1927-30 while winning a pair of World Series titles (he also won a third in 1932). Combs was also always a favorite of the sportswriters due to his personality. After being inducted to Cooperstown in 1970 he gave the following quote that summed up a lot of what he was and stood for:
“I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like me.”
Despite his self-deprecation, as a key member of those 1920’s Yankees, Combs helped the team win three World Series, and retired at the age of 36 following a rough period with injuries. He even spent two months in a hospital in 1934 after fracturing his skull crashing into a wall. Combs returned from the injury, but quickly injured himself again and ultimately called it quits. He finished with nearly 45 WAR across 12 seasons all played with the Yankees, a wonderful pinstriped career.
Thanks to SABR for research assistance.