Before and after Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees had some incredibly talented place-holding centerfielders.
The New York Yankees know the centerfield position.
Joe DiMaggio was one of the greatest contact hitters of all time. Mickey Mantle‘s greatness exploded out of nowhere alongside his infectious charisma. Younger fans still miss watching Bernie Williams‘ elegant stride across the outfield as well as his slick switch-hitting.
But talent is generational, and though the Yankees develop centerfielders well, there is often a large gap between the ones who stay. Sure, Aaron Hicks is currently on a long-term contract, but the Yankees acquired him in a trade. It just isn’t the same.
Even still, the centerfielders who haven’t stuck around for long deserve credit too. Some provided energy in the lineup when the team was otherwise bad. Others were versatile and contributed in their own small way. One was practically a star, yet never fully appreciated.
It’s that time again, folks. Here are five Yankees centerfielders, fresh out of the time capsule.
No. 5: Gerald Williams (Yankees tenure: 1992-96, 2001-02)
Over two stints with the Yankees, Gerald Williams was never more than a righty platoon option. He could play all three outfield positions and had underrated legs, having stolen home in a game in 1993. Across those two stints, Williams hit an average of .241 and was an overall average fielder.
But Williams was the epitome of becoming a star in his role and was a reliable Yankee for years. He wasn’t a true center fielder, having moved all around the outfield, but his contributions to the team are too much to overlook. In the above video, his running catch and the subsequent double play in the first inning proved important as Dwight Gooden no-hit the Seattle Mariners in 1996.
Unfortunately for Williams, he never was able to experience a World Series victory in his career. He and pitcher Bob Wickman were traded from New York to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1996, with the Yankees receiving lefty Graeme Lloyd. By the time he returned in 2001, the World Series magic had expired.
Still, Williams was a reliable outfielder who never complained about playing time. Aside from the Yankees, he also enjoyed a lengthy career with five other teams over 14 years.
No. 4: Claudell Washington (Yankees tenure: 1986-88, 1990)
Claudell Washington passed away this month and will best be remembered as one of those forgotten ballplayers who people look back on and go, “Oh, that guy was good!”
He was a two-time All-Star who made his bones as a speedy contact hitter. His prime years came with the Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves. Washington also played for the Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, California Angels, and New York Mets.
In 1986, the Yankees sent outfielder Ken Griffey and Andre Robertson to Atlanta for Washington and infielder Paul Zuvella. Washington then re-signed in free agency and returned a second time to finish his career in 1990. Even though he was past his prime in pinstripes, he still proved reliable.
Washington wound up batting .277 during his time with the Yanks and his lefty bat showed occasional pop on some mediocre 1980s teams. In 1988, he hit a home run in Minnesota to make the Yankees the first team to reach 10,000 home runs. His left-handed batting in Yankee Stadium, albeit with not much power, compensated for his subpar fielding.
All in all, Washington didn’t do much in the Bronx. Nonetheless, his .278 average in a 17-year career is respectable on the whole.
No. 3: Ben Chapman (Yankees tenure: 1930-36)
Ben Chapman’s legacy is complicated. He was a talented and speedy outfielder, but his playing days were overshadowed by his time managing the Philadelphia Phillies. In 1947, Chapman and his players hurled horrific racial abuse at Jackie Robinson in a series with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson had just recently become the first African-American major leaguer. Chapman, an Alabama native, lost the PR war, was forced to apologize, and was fired by the Phillies a year later. He never managed after that.
And before Chapman forever tarnished his reputation, he was a fantastic major-league centerfielder. He debuted with the Yankees as an infielder in 1930 before switching to the outfield full-time the following year. Chapman would then lead the majors in stolen bases each of the next three seasons (1931-33), winning his only World Series ring in 1932.
On the whole, Chapman was a three-time All-Star with the Yankees and hit .305 with 184 stolen bases. He never played centerfield until 1934, but could also play all three outfield positions despite not fielding well at all. In 1936, he was traded to the Washington Senators and bounced around before retiring in 1946.
Were it not for one terrible decision in 1947, perhaps we would remember Chapman more for his on-field accomplishments.
No. 2: Roberto Kelly (Yankees tenure: 1987-1992, 2000)
After bouncing between the minors and majors for two years, Roberto Kelly became a regular in 1989. The 24-year-old Panamanian turned heads when he hit .302 with 35 stolen bases. Kelly then developed power and made his first All-Star team in 1992. At long last, it looked like the Yankees possessed a significant homegrown talent.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon was short. Kelly was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Paul O’Neill prior to the 1993 campaign, and the rest is history. He was an All-Star that season, but injuries robbed him of his effectiveness. Kelly would play for six other teams before a forgettable ten-game stint with the Yankees in 2000.
Regardless, Kelly was effective for the Yankees over a four-year stretch (1989-92). He posted a line of .281/.334/.415 with 244 RBIs and 137 stolen bases. He was a streaky fielder but was effective more often than not before injuries took over.
The good news is Kelly earned his happy ending. He later became a coach with the San Francisco Giants and took home three World Series rings. Currently, he manages in the Mexican Baseball League.
No. 1: Bobby Murcer (Yankees tenure: 1965-66, 1969-1974, 1979-1983)
Bobby Murcer experienced an interesting journey to the major leagues. He had cups of coffee with the Yankees in 1965 and 1966, but then served two years in the military. Murcer then became a regular in 1969, the first season following the beloved Mantle’s retirement.
Though Murcer didn’t wind up in centerfield until later in the season, he had Incredible Hulk-sized shoes to fill following his fellow Oklahoman. Yes, I know Hulk doesn’t wear shoes, but you get my point.
And although Murcer is not a Hall of Famer, never matched Mantle’s career numbers, and never won a World Series, he was still a fan favorite. He posted a line of .285/.357/.464 with 139 home runs and 533 RBIs in his first major stint with the Bronx Bombers. Murcer was also a four-time All-Star and led the majors in on-base-percentage and the American League in both OPS and OPS+ in 1971. He was additionally a fine defensive outfielder, taking home a Gold Glove in 1972.
Sadly, Murcer’s price tag was going up and the Yankees traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds after the 1974 season. In 1979, the Yankees reacquired him from the Chicago Cubs. Less than two months later, team captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash and Murcer gave a eulogy at his funeral. On the same day, Aug. 6, Murcer drove in all five runs in a 5-4 win over Baltimore, mere hours after the team flew back from the service in Ohio.
Murcer retired in 1983 and later became a Yankees broadcaster before dying of cancer in 2008. Still to this day, he is one of the most beloved players in team history.