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I got a text the other day from my friend, Bryant McCarthy, who spends his life living in some kind of fantasy land that includes the Red Sox, Tom Brady, and Ken Griffey Jr. He questioned whether Griffey Jr. was the greatest defensive center fielder of all time. Putting the generational gap aside, with young Mr. McCarthy actually believing that I reported on Tris Speaker, it made for an interesting internal discussion, for surely Griffey would rank among the legends, but whether he was the best of all-time is certainly debatable.

In talking about the greatest to ever patrol the outfield's middle pasture, you must not only discuss range and arm and baseball smarts, but also the mind's TiVo that runs those players' greatest moments. In this SportsCenter, TiVo, and YouTube age, Griffey and Jim Edmonds dominated the mental landscape because their top plays are captured on video, whereas those of Speaker, Dom DiMaggio, Paul Blair, Jimmy Piersall, and Willie Mays went unrecorded.

Griffey’s “Spiderman” catch definitely ranks among the greatest anyone has seen, as does the back-to-the-plate, diving-on-the-warning-track grab Edmonds made, but when it comes to the baseball's elite center fielders, if anyone can take the honor away from Mays, they’d have to come up with a whole lot more tape.

Mays' infamous catch during the 1954 World Series was not his greatest catch, even according to Mays himself. I saw two of his better plays live, the other was seen on a 10-inch, black-and-white TV from the Korean War era. All three were so spectacular that I have often felt my mind was playing tricks and exaggerating what I had seen years ago, but Google it and you find others talking about the same plays.

One came in Candlestick Park in 1970, the latter days of Mays’ career, against the Reds team that I was covering. Mays was in center field and Bobby Bonds in right when Bobby Tolan hit a drive to the chain-link fence in right-center, so perfectly placed that neither Mays nor Bonds could be sure he could catch the ball. The two arrived at the same moment, leaping into the air and colliding, falling onto the warning track in a tangled mass, the ball somewhere among them. You could not tell who had caught the ball or if it had been caught at all.

Bonds rose to his feet, reached down into the unconscious Mays' glove, and pulled out the baseball. It is a catch Ron Firmite wrote about in Sports Illustrated a number of years back to illustrate how Bonds always seemed to wind up in the shadows of someone else, not knowing that he would be overshadowed by his own son in later years.

The next great play on my Mays list was more flair than substance. Mays would occasionally run so fast his cap would fly off while chasing fly balls. On this day in the Polo Grounds, a Dodgers hitter who I believe was Billy Cox, sent a drive into deep right-center. Mays was off and running at the crack of the bat, racing across the spacious outfield and simply outrunning the ball. He got there and reached out to make the spectacular running catch, but as he did his hat blew off. Instinctively, Mays made the catch with his outstretched glove while, at the same time, reaching back and snatching his hat from the air. James Hirsch, the author of “Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend,” called it “the double catch.”

There was another catch during Mays’ 1951 rookie season that victimized Rocky Nelson, a left-handed hitting first baseman with the Pirates. Nelson hit a screaming line drive to left-center that, try as he might, Mays could not catch up with. Not that it mattered, for while he could not reach it with his gloved hand stretched across his body, he could reach it with his bare hand, which he did. Announcer Ernie Harwell, who called the Giants games in those days, recalled that the play was so good that Mays was given the cold shoulder by the veterans in the dugout, and the exuberant Mays was so taken aback by that that he went to manager Leo Durocher.

“Mr. Leo,” Harwell quoted Mays as saying, “didn’t you see me make that catch?"

“Nah,” Durocher was supposed to have retorted. “Go out and do it against next inning.”

But the play that stands out the most is one Mays made in the Polo Grounds on August 15, 1951, the Giants just beginning their miracle run to the National League pennant against the Dodgers. It was the second game of a three-game series, tied 1-1, Carl Furillo hitting, Cox at third base, and pitcher Ralph Branca at first. Furillo sent a fly ball to right-center, placed where it would be a tough catch for Mays, but surely in spot that would drive home the lead run even if it was caught. Mays made the catch on the run in right-center, heading away from the plate, but he conceded nothing. Mays did a 180-degree pivot and spin and let loose a throw unlike any other, reaching catcher Wes Westrum on the fly and belt-high.

“It wasn’t a throw, it was a pitch,” Whitey Lockman, the Giants first baseman, said.

Furillo was quoted as saying “He’ll never make another throw like that one, the lucky slob.”

And Cox, who thought there would be no throw and arrived at the plate standing up, only to have Westrum apply the tag, had only one comment: "Oh, shit no."

 But then again, if a man like that could hit four home runs in his 1,234th career game, he could do anything.  

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zzbillfitz
11/29
Say Hey, Willie was the greatest. I was (pleasantly) surprised to see Jimmy Piersall's name up there with the best, although I really don't think he belongs on the same pedestal. Perhaps a rung lower.
zzbillfitz
11/29
PS Mays might have hit 4 HRs in his 1234th game, but Piersall ran the bases backwards when he hit his 100th!
jwferg
11/29
Willie Mays was the reason I became a Giants fan growing up in a sea of Cubs & Cardinals supporters. I watched the Mays/Bonds collision-catch live on the Game of the Week. Nice grab for a 39-year-old. Griffey--a CF who could 'finish' catches with the flair of the best of them, but by most measures (and scouts) just didn't get to as many balls as Mays, Dom DiMaggio, Speaker, or others like Richie Ashburn.
formersd
11/29
One guy who never seems to come up in these discussion is Devon White. I'm 45, so I didn't see Mays, but the greatest CF I ever saw was Devon.
hotstatrat
11/29
Enjoyable read, thanks. As I Torontonian the latter half of my life, I enthusiasctically second my all-time favorite player to watch: Devon White. Let's nominate Gary Maddox, too. And, to be thorough, we should compare them all to Cool Papa Bell.
hotstatrat
11/29
P.S. Why Dom and not Joe?
flyingdutchman
11/29
Why Dom or Joe and not Vince? Andruw Jones at his peak is the best I've ever seen. Check the stats, too. Seems like that could be the best CF ever played.
alexpatton
11/29
Why does Hertzel call Willie's Vic Wetz catch infamous?
npb7768
11/29
The Mays catch on Tolan in 1970 was on 11-April 1970 (Tolan's second at bat, in the third inning). http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1970/B04110SFN1970.htm It was actually the NBC Baseball Game of the Week (the first GOTW telecast of the season), so it was watched by a national-television audience...It was 1-1 in the last of the ninth, bases loaded and one out. Clyde King let Gaylord Perry bat and hit hit a grounder to Concepcion, who booted it...The next week, the same two teams were the NBC GOTW, this time in Crosley Field...What a game...The Reds led 8-3 in the 6th, and then Sf scored 7 in the 6th and 4 in the 7th and won 16-9...
npb7768
11/29
Actually, the next week's GOTW was the third great one in a row -- Atlanta at Pittsburgh (25-April-1970)...what action from the last of the 6th through the last of the 8th, ending w/ Stargell's HR over the roof in RF... http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1970/B04180CIN1970.htm
6manfan
11/29
Richie Ashburn was probably the best defensive center fielder of all time, but Mays was excellent, and more spectacular. I saw the 1954 WS catch and the collision catch with Bonds. I will never forget either play. Players who have flair (Clemente, Edmonds, Mays, Ozzie Smith) increase the entertainment value of baseball. I saw Clemente dive for a sinking liner in Forbes Field. The ball hit in front of his glove but he got his left foot in front of it. The ball bounced off his shoe and went about 15 feet past him, but Clemente hustled after it and threw the runner out at second base.
georgeforeman03
11/29
Andruw Jones deserves to be in any conversation for modern-day defensive genius in CF. For about 4-8 years, he was an incredible asset. More than speed, he had amazing jumps and instincts, rarely taking a bad route. He seemed to be jogging to get to balls other fielders would be in a dead run for. It's really a shame he got fat and slow. :-/
kgoldstein
11/29
Best two defensive CFers I saw in person were Devon White and Gary Pettis.
Bob78164
11/29
When I saw a game at Candlestick (yes, Candlestick) back in the '90s, they showed the "collision catch" as part of the highlight reel either before or during the game. I also remember watching it as a kid on the Game of the Week (though I incorrectly remembered the collision as occurring with both men reaching over the fence to rob the hitter of a home run). I think Tony Kubek said during the replay that Bonds was searching for the ball trying to claim the catch, only to find it in Willie Mays's glove. If memory serves, the other two catches both are reported in a Scholastic Books publication I read as a kid, The Baseball Life of Willie Mays. I was fortunate because that book was my introduction to baseball of the '50s, so when I read about the '51 pennant chase and The Shot Heard Round the World, I had no idea what was coming.
smallflowers
11/30
Devon White gets my vote as well in the last 30 years. Andruw was a definite mechanic out there, but for OF's, I prefer flash in the package. I'll take your no-frills Belanger-types on the middle-IF and C all day long, but in the OF Mays, Devon, and Clemente rule. And I assume there is no controversy at 3B. A guy named Doug Mwoeriwoerutewoiervoweuroweuriwkervitch is the best 1B I have ever seen. What's wrong with MLB that they don't put these plays on youtube or other websites? Do they really think it's better for the game that the 5-6 catches mentioned here aren't available at our fingertips?
sam19041
11/30
Agree with your take, and like your spelling of Mientkiewicz.