The Greatest Yankees Outfield Ever
Over the last century, the some of the greatest outfielders in baseball history have played with the Yankees. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle played the bulk of their career with the Yankees. Others, like Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Roger Maris and Dave Winfield had some of their best years with the Yankees while still others who are less remembered today like Bob Meusel, Charlie Keller, Hank Bauer, Roy White and Bernie Williams were very good outfielders for many years while wearing the pinstripes.
Because of this, the question of what was the greatest Yankees outfield ever is a difficult one, but I tried to answer it anyway. First, I created some ground rules. The three outfielders had to have played together for three or more years. Surprisingly, this criteria limited the candidates very quickly. Since the 1950s, the Yankees have not had the same starting outfield for three years. The Piniella-Rivers-Jackson sometime outfield of the late 1970s was broken up after about two and a half years after Rivers was traded to Texas. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris never played along several different leftfielders, but none of them started at that position for three years Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill were two thirds of the Yankees outfield for almost a decade, but again there was no leftfielder who started alongside of them for three years. Since Williams retirement there has been a fair amount of instability in the Yankees outfield.
Surprisingly, only three Yankees outfields met this criteria. Each was anchored by an all time Yankees great and each won at least one World Series. The first outfield consisted of Meusel, Ruth and Earle Combs. The most frequent configuration of this outfield that played together from 1925-1929. was Combs in Center, Ruth in right and Meusel in left. The second outfield was DiMaggio in center, flanked usually by Charlie “King Kong” Keller in right and Tommy “Old Reliable Henrich in left. This outfield was together from 1941-1942 and again in 1946. A few years later, from the Yankees outfield of Mantle in center flanked Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling was together from 1952-1954.
The Ruth era outfield played together for five years, the longest in Yankees history.Ruth had a little bit of an off-year in 1925, the first year they were together, but was at the height of his talents from 1926-1929. Combs was an elite leadoff hitter who had a .396 OBP over this period. Meusel was a solid all around player remembered for his great arm in the outfield. However, in 1925 Meusel led the Yankees and the league in home runs with 33 as Ruth slumped to 25. Combs and Ruth played together for 11 years from 1924-1934, but Combs only became a regular in 1925, while Meusel was sold to the Reds after the 1929 season.
The Keller, Henrich, DiMaggio outfield only played together for three years because all three spent time serving in the military in the World War II. Henrich and DiMaggio from 1943-1945 and Keller during 1944. DiMaggio was in his prime during the years the three played together and Henrich was a solidly dependable hitter, but Keller was one of the most overlooked great hitters in Yankees history. He had an OPS+ of 150 or better every year from 1941-1947 while hitting 25 or more home runs four times in those years.
Mickey Mantle was the Yankees starting centerfielder from 1952-1964, but the only time he was part of the same starting outfield from three years was with Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer from 1952-1964. Bauer and Woodling were very valuable players on the dominant Yankees team from the late 1940s through 1950s, but they were often overshadowed by Mantle, DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto and sometimes other players as well. Woodling slumped badly in 1954 hitting .250/.358/.352 after averaging .308/.414/.471 the previous two years.
All three of these starting outfields were excellent, winning at least one World Series and two pennants, so it is not easy determining which one was best. There are many possible ways to answer this question and a good argument could be made for each of these three outfields. Nonetheless, some numbers shed a little light on this. The Meusel-Combs-Ruth outfield won three pennants and two World Series. During the five years they were together they accumulated a total of 80.5 WAR. The Heinrich-DiMaggio-Keller combination won two pennants and one World Series and combined for 50 WAR during the three years they were together. The Woodling-Mantle-Bauer trio won two pennants and two World Series and combined for 41.3 WAR.
The numbers suggest that the outfield anchored by Mantle was not quite as strong as the other two. This accords with other impressions because Mantle was not yet at his peak when this group was together and neither Bauer nor Woodling was as valuable as Keller or probably Combs in the earlier outfields. This leaves two contenders. At first cut, it looks like the first group was the best. After all, if you start with the Babe in his prime it is tough to go wrong. Moreover, they were together longer than the other outfield-and that 80.5 WAR is very impressive. However, on a per year basis the DiMaggio group was slightly better averaging, s a group, 16.7 WAR as opposed to 16 for the Babe’s outfield. That difference is too small to have any real meaning, so advanced metrics suggest it is a draw.
I ended up casting my imaginary vote to Henrich-Keller and DiMaggio for two reasons. First, if I had to craft an outfield out of these six players, I would go with Ruth, DiMaggio and Keller, so two of the starters would be from the 1940s group. Additionally, DiMaggio and his cohorts lost some of their best years playing together when they were in their late 20s, or in Henrich’s case early 30s, due not to injury or trade, but to military service during World War II. Had they stayed together, they would have had several more excellent years and probably a few more pennants.