It’s the most romantic, glorified position in our most romantic, glorified sport.
Even when baseball was played with mushy balls by men wearing baggy uniforms and pillbox hats, when you traveled to the ballpark by horse and buggy or traipsed there by foot, centerfield was the glamour position.
Ty Cobb started it, pretty much.
Cobb used his freakish speed and sheer determination to patrol center, in between slapping base hits all over the field at a robust .370+ clip every season.
Then there was Tris Speaker, the Texan who splashed onto the scene with the Boston Red Sox before being shipped mysteriously to the Cleveland Indians in a trade that doesn’t get panned as badly as the sale of Babe Ruth, but was almost as bad for the Bosox.
Centerfield’s standing in baseball as the Rolls Royce of positions grew as time marched on.
Joe DiMaggio, a skinny Italian kid from California’s Bay Area, turned centerfield into Beverly Hills. Left and right fields were Fresno.
Then came the 1950s.
Baseball’s epicenter was New York. The Dodger Bums from Brooklyn, the Giants from northern Manhattan, the Yankees from the Bronx—it was the most storied time for baseball in and around Gotham. Every team was competitive; one of the three was always in the World Series.
Centerfield was lockstep with all that team glory in New York.
Duke Snider with the Dodgers. Willie Mays with the Giants. Mickey Mantle with the Yankees. The debate about who was the best centerfielder among the three raged throughout the five boroughs. No player from any other team was even in the discussion.
The Tigers’ Al Kaline started as a centerfielder. And he was every bit as good as Snider, Mays, and Mantle, but someone realized that to waste a howitzer of an arm like Kaline’s in center, when it could be better put to use in right field, would be an egregious mistake.
It’s the pulse of the diamond. It’s where the fastest, best, most sure-handed players are assigned. The greatest outfield plays in baseball history have been made by centerfielders.
The great centerfield debate in New York was fueled by the fact that the three ballparks involved—Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and Yankee Stadium—each had vast outfield acreage to cover. If you wanted to play some good centerfield in those stadiums, you had to be part gazelle, part park ranger.
The centerfielders also usually batted in the glamour spots of the order—leadoff or No. 3 or cleanup. They were the defensive wizards and the offensive spark plugs.
The comedian/actor/director Billy Crystal said he used to dream of playing centerfield for the Yankees. He and millions of other little boys.
Tiger Stadium was another of those vast ballparks in centerfield. It was 440 feet to dead center, with power alleys that could cause lesser outfielders to want to phone a cab if a gapper got slapped into left or right center.
Mickey Stanley played it as well as anyone. Mickey was a Grand Rapids kid and after playing center for a few years, he was all of Michigan’s. With Stanley in center, you could relax when the ball left the infield.
Ronnie LeFlore, practically straight from Jackson State Prison and into a Tigers uniform, had a devil of a time with centerfield in the late-1970s. LeFlore was signed from prison because of his speed and his bat. When it came to his defense, everyone politely looked the other way.
Chester Lemon was brought over from the White Sox for Steve Kemp in 1982, and manager Sparky Anderson took leave of his senses and made Lemon a rightfielder for a season, before re-depositing him in center, where he played with brilliance before the trade—and where he wowed us for the Tigers for eight seasons.
Others have come and gone since then: Gary Pettis and Brian Hunter, who each had blazing speed but cooked noodles for arms; Milt Cuyler, who also had the required speed but who lacked the anticipation and proper routing needed to chase down baseballs driven to his right or left; and a host of others who leased time in center, and whose names wouldn’t be worth the time for me to write nor for you to read.
Today, all of Tigers fandom is still in mourning over the trade of good guy Curtis Granderson. Four years ago, in Granderson’s first full season as the Tigers’ everyday centerfielder, I wrote that he’d turn the town on with his splendidness, both on and off the field. It was one of the few times when I was spot on.
Granderson’s play in center took me back to the days of Mickey Stanley and, really, to even those big boys of the 1950s from the three New York boroughs.
He’s gone now—so fitting that he’s with the Yankees—and centerfield in Detroit will now be entrusted to a raw rookie.
Austin Jackson hasn’t played an inning in the big leagues. But he’s supposed to be quite a player—the best prospect in the Yankees’ organization before being traded to the Tigers in the Granderson deal.
Reggie Jackson, no less, has raved about him. Tigers manager Jim Leyland’s eyes light up when he talks about Austin Jackson’s play this spring training.
In one fell swoop, the Tigers are asking the kid to: a) replace Granderson in centerfield; b) take over the leadoff spot in the batting order; and c) get on base and steal bases.
And oh, by the way, if you don’t do those things too well, Austin, our chances to win decrease exponentially.
It’s a glamour profession, centerfield is. It’s bright lights, big city out there. No one hides an iron glove in center. You can’t be inconspicuous batting leadoff.
“Leading off, playing centerfield…”
It rolls off the tongue. And millions of boys have inserted their own names into that fictitious P.A. announcement. Billy Crystal is hardly alone.
We’re about to find out if this kid Jackson has the goods to not be dwarfed by the specter of playing centerfield in the big leagues. He’s not following Cobb or DiMaggio or Mantle or Mays, but you’d think so, gauging by the fans’ take in post-Granderson Detroit.