Keeping Things Centered
A swift center fielder can make any pitcher better. A center fielder who can make runs as well as take them away has a good chance of being his team’s MVP … and the best friend of every pitcher on the staff. All 10 of the center fielders listed below were 2-way contributors who consistently made a difference for their teams.
Here’s my rundown of the top 10 center fielders of the 1960s, based on a combination of their offensive prowess and their stellar defense.
1. Willie Mays – The best all-around player of the 1950s became one of the most dangerous power hitters of the 1960s. From 1961 through 1965, Willie Mays belted 226 home runs, more than a third of his 660 career total. His most productive season was 1965, when he led the majors in home runs (52), total bases (360), slugging average (.645) and on-base percentage (.399). That performance earned him his second Most Valuable Player Award. He also won 8 Gold Gloves during the 1960s.
2. Mickey Mantle – Okay, so the Mick didn’t have the speed that made him the “Commerce Comet” a decade earlier. Mickey Mantle still played a heck of a center field, and for the first half of the 1960s, he was a monster with a bat, leading the American League with 40 home runs in 1960, and swatting 54 home runs (with 128 RBIs) to finish second to Roger Maris in 1961. Injuries limited his playing time and home run output in the years that followed. However, his 30 home runs with 89 RBIs and a .321 batting average in 1962 (in only 123 games and 377 official at-bats) were good enough to earn Mantle his third Most Valuable Player award. How can anybody be oh so good on wheels oh so bad?
3. Curt Flood – While better known today as the player who challenged baseball’s reserve clause and opened the door to unrestricted free agency, Curt Flood’s bat, glove and speed made him one of the premier center fielder during the 1960s. He played for the Cardinals throughout the 1960s, hitting .300 or better 6 times and winning a Gold Glove 7 times.
4. Vada Pinson – Vada Pinson was a flawless center fielder who could flat out hit … and who hit consistently for more than a decade with the Cincinnati Reds. He led the major leagues in doubles his first 2 seasons, and hit a career-high .343 to help the Reds win the National League pennant in 1961. Pinson drove in 100 or more runs in each of the next two years, leading the majors in hits (204) and triples (14) in 1963 while batting .313. He would lead the majors in triples one more time, with 13 in 1967. For the 1960s, Pinson hit a combined .292.
5. Jim Wynn – He was nicknamed “The Toy Cannon” because he was only 5-foot-9 but packed quite a pop in his bat … and pop was what he needed to hit home runs in the spacious Astrodome. As Houston’s center fielder, Jimmy Wynn led the team in home runs for 6 straight seasons (1965 to 1970). His best season was 1967, when he finished second in the league in home runs (37) and fourth in RBIs (107), both career highs. He hit more than 30 home runs in a season 2 more times, and remains third all-time in home runs (223) and RBIs (719) among Astro hitters.
6. Matty Alou - Matty Alou played for the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1960s. As a Pirate, he led the National League in hitting in 1966 with a .342 average. Starting in 1966, Alou hit .300 or better 6 out of the next 7 seasons. With outstanding speed and bat control, he hit .307 over the course of his 15-year career.
7. Willie Davis – Willie Davis patrolled center field for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1961 to 1973, hitting .300 or better 3 times and twice leading the National League in triples. Blessed with a sprinter’s speed, Davis won 3 Gold Gloves with the Dodgers, and teamed with Maury Wills as a formidable base-stealing duo in the early 1960s.
8. Vic Davalillo – A native of Venezuela, Vic Davalillo debuted in center field for Cleveland in 1963. He was a contact hitter with a great glove and great speed, both in the field and on the base paths. Davalillo hit .292 as a rookie and won a Gold Glove in his second season. His best year with the Indians came in 1965, when he hit .301 (third best in the American League) and finished fourth in the league in stolen bases with 26. He also made his only All-Star appearance that season.
9. Albie Pearson – The Los Angeles Angels’ first real “star,” Albie Pearson led the American League by scoring 115 runs in 1962. He hit .275 in 6 years with the Angels, with a personal best of .304 in 1963.
10. Jimmie Hall – Jimmie Hall’s career started fast and faded fast. The Minnesota Twins center fielder from 1963 to 1966, he hit 33 home runs (fourth in the American League) with 80 RBIs, yet finished third in the Rookie-of-the-Year voting. Hall was an All-Star the next 2 years, though his home run totals slipped to 25 and 20, respectively. He had a career-high 86 RBIs in 1965, the year the Twins were AL champions, but was traded to the California Angels after hitting only 20 home runs again in 1966. Over the next 4 years, Hall hit only 23 home runs while playing for 5 different teams, and was out of baseball at the end of the 1970 season.