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Looking At The Championship Center Fielders…

by Paul Semendinger, Ed.D. July 8, 2020

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The Yankees have, of course, won more World Series than any other baseball team. The one constant in their equation for greatness is having an outstanding center fielder. For a long period, the Yankees had a dynasty of outstanding center fielders with one great ballplayer seemingly replacing the great ballplayer who came before him at the same position.

For the bulk of the years from 1925 through 1935, Earle Combs, an eventual Hall-of-Famer, patrolled center field for the Yankees. In 1936, the great Joe DiMaggio took over the spot and became a legend. When DiMaggio’s career ended in 1951, he was replaced by a player who just might have been even better than he was – Mickey Mantle. Thus, from 1925 to 1968, the Yankees basically had three Hall-of-Fame players patrolling this critical position. A team is more than one player, but when the Yankees have a superstar in center field for a long period, championships seem to follow…

As Mickey Mantle’s career down, the Yankees went through a long period without any World Championship teams. Following this, the Yankees’ most recent championships also saw a consistent force in center field for the Yankees.

Let’s take a look at the players who patrolled center field on the Yankees’ championship teams (* denotes Hall-of-Famer):

Whitey Witt (1923)

Earle Combs* (1927, 1928, 1932)

Joe DiMaggio* (1936-1939, 1941, 1947, 1949-51)

Johnny Lindell/Bud Methany (1943) – this was during World War II

Mickey Mantle (1952-53, 1956, 1958, 1961-62)

Mickey Rivers (1977-78)

Bernie Williams (1996, 1998-2000)

Melky Cabrera/Brett Gardner (2009)

This quick list shows that when the Yankees were able to win multiple championships in a short period, that they had a solid player, at least an all-star caliber player, if not a future Hall-of-Famer, consistently patrolling center field.

There were only three times when the Yankees won a World Series at all without a star patrolling that important position. Those years were 1923 (although Whitey Witt was a solid player who helped the reach the World Series for three consecutive seasons from 1921-23), 1943 (the World War II season when many of baseball’s great players were serving in the armed forces), and 2009.

Looking more closely at the players who patrolled center field for multiple championships brings our attention to Mickey Rivers – possibly the least heralded player on this list. Most Yankees fans know all about Combs, DiMaggio, and Mantle. They are legendary players – especially Joe D. and the Mick. On the other end, Bernie Williams is a modern legend, and while it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll end up in Cooperstown, he was a five-time All-Star who in the seven year period from 1996 through 2002, received MVP votes in six of those years.

And then there is Mickey Rivers, the only other Yankees center fielder to play on multiple World Championship teams. Rivers was actually the center fielder on three consecutive World Series teams (1976-78) with the Yankees winning the last two he appeared in.

The following is a short history on how Mickey Rivers came to the Yankees.

After Mickey Mantle retired following the 1968 season, the Yankees hoped that the young Bobby Murcer would continue their decades-long tradition of true excellence in center field. The transition wasn’t as seamless, and it wasn’t until 1971 that Bobby Murcer became an All-Star, but once he got going, he…got going. Murcer would become an All-Star in each season through 1974. But it was in that 1974 season that things started to change.

In 1974, Bobby Murcer saw himself playing right field more and more often as the speedy and defensively gifted Elliott Maddox took over as the center fielder. Then, on October 22, the baseball world was shocked when the Yankees traded Bobby Murcer to the San Francisco Giants for their great outfielder Bobby Bonds who was one of the most talented and gifted players in the game and a multiple time All-Star himself. It’s not often that superstars are traded, but that’s exactly what happened when Bobby Murcer and Bobby Bonds were traded for each other.

Bobby Bonds had an impressive season for the Yankees in 1975. He used his power and speed to put up a 30/30 season (32 homers/30 stolen bases) while batting .270 and driving home 85 runs, playing mostly right field, but also occasionally covering center as well.

And then he too was gone.

On December 11, 1975, Bobby Bonds was dealt to the California Angels for pitcher Ed Figueroa and the fleet afoot Mickey Rivers who would be the Yankees center fielder for the next three and one half seasons.

Mickey Rivers was known as “Mick the Quick.” He was a terrific batter (in his first two years as a Yankee, he batted .312 and then .326) who played excellent defense in center field. But, his best gift was his speed. Mickey Rivers was the Yankees’ lead off hitter who became the needed spark plug at the top of the batting order. Rivers hit his fair share of doubles and triples and stole enough bases to keep the Yankees’ opponents on edge. With Rivers at the top of the lineup, the Yankees finished in first place in their division in 1976, 1977, and 1978, reaching the World Series all three years and winning the fall classic in 1977 and 1978.

Mickey Rivers was an All-Star in only one season (1976), but his presence in the lineup helped the Yankees do something they hadn’t been able to do with either Bobby Murcer of Bobby Bonds – reach the post season. His name might not be as heralded as all the others on this list, but Mickey Rivers’ star shined very brightly in his first three seasons in the Bronx. In each of those seasons, he received MVP votes, finishing third in the voting in 1976. Mickey Rivers was certainly a difference maker.

When the Yankees traded Mickey Rivers to the Texas Rangers in July 1979, they probably did not realize that they were also closing the book on a long line of quality center fielders directly contributing to multiple championship seasons. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that the Yankees would find consistency in that position again when Bernie Williams took over in center field. Williams patrolled center through the 2006 season. Along with Bernie Williams’ consistency (and All-Star play) came more pennants and championships.

Is seems clear that having a strong center fielder who patrols the position at a high level for multiple years is an important factor in the formula to build Yankees’ championship squads.

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