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center fielders

This post details the careers of a few Negro League center fielders who have not made the Hall of Fame.

A poor man’s Cool Papa Bell, Jerry Benjamin was the center fielder for the Homestead Grays from 1935 until the waning years of the Negro Leagues.  While Jerry manned the middle pasture for the Grays, they won nine consecutive pennants.  Both Benjamin and Bell played together for a time and when they did, Jerry was in center.  Exceptionally swift, Benjamin was a switch-hitter with only modest offensive skills.  When his numbers started to dip just before World War II, they skyrocketed during the war when many stars were in the service.

Referred to as “The Black Lloyd Waner” during his playing days, the Moberly, Missouri raised Jim Crutchfield was a gifted line-drive hitter with above average speed and determination.  Noted more for his hustle than off-the-charts tools, Crutchfield started in two All-Star Games.  Associated with the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the 1930s, Jim was a terrific defender and a bit of a hotdog.  He is often credited with catching balls behind his back when the game wasn’t a close affair.

One of the best Cuban players to have starred in the Negro Leagues, Critobal Torriente was the slugging star for Rube Foster’s American Giants dynasty after World War I.  Like Yogi Berra and Vladimir Guerrero, Torriente was a famous bad-ball hitter who could put his bat on any pitch, regardless where it was thrown.  Strong and compactly built, Cristobal was one of the few power threats on Foster’s club.  The Cuban star wasn’t too well-liked and his temperament forced him off the American Giants and to the Kansas City Monarchs where he lasted half a season due to his less than admirable behavior.  Torriente died in squalor, a penniless drunk, but was a member of the initial Cuban Hall of Fame class.

A fixture in the All-Star Game, Neil Robinson was a stellar power hitter in the years surrounding World War II.  Neil played everyday throughout the 1940s as the Memphis Red Sox center fielder.  Although a serviceable outfielder, Robinson earned his bread with his bat.  He could club prodigious homeruns but was a free-swinger at the plate who frequently struck out.  But his high total of whiffs came with the realization that he could break a game wide open with one swing of the bat.

One of the most complete stars of the Negro Leagues, Clint “Hawk” Thomas earned his nickname for two reasons: his exceptional ballhawking abilities and his supreme batting eye.  Sometimes listed as the “Black Joe DiMaggio,” Thomas made his debut in the Negro Leagues well before Joltin’ Joe made the Yankees.  However, while DiMaggio was establishing himself as a star with the Yankees, the veteran great Thomas was patrolling center for the Black Yankees.  Born and raised in the small town of Greenup, Kentucky, Clint is credited with 367 career homeruns.

Perhaps the best Negro League player currently left out of the Hall of Fame, Spottswood Poles was often referred to as the “Black Ty Cobb.”  Both men excelled during the Deadball Era by utilizing blazing speed and hitting for extremely lofty batting averages.  Although he was often called a “Black Cobb,” Poles resembled Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton in that both were exceptionally swift despite their compact, almost chunky builds.  Spot was an exceptional leadoffman for the Lincoln Giants during the Deadball Era who once had a three-hit game against Hall of Fame Major Leaguer Grover Alexander.  Poles had an unusual appearance in that he was bowlegged and had big arms for a small man.  But like the awkward looking Honus Wagner, Poles too was a great player.  Outside of baseball Poles was a man of character who earned the Purple Heart during the First World War.  He retired in comfort as a manager of a taxi fleet.

 image of Spottswood Poles (www.mlb.com)

Quiet and unassuming off the field, the gentlemanly Chaney White had that Jekyll and Hyde complex.  He was regarded as one of the dirtiest players in the Negro Leagues during the 1920s who wasn’t just unopposed to spiking the opposition but seemed to relish the opportunities.  A right-handed hitter and left-handed thrower, Chaney had a large, strong build but was quite swift.  White could play anywhere in the outfield and Pop Lloyd, when making out his all-time Negro League team, chose White as his left fielder.

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This list consists of HOF eligible center fielders that have not been profiled on this blog.  They are listed in order of career runs scored.

Cesar Cedeno (1,084), Paul Hines (1,073), Ray Lankford (986), Otis Nixon (878), Lloyd Moseby (869), Chick Stahl (856), Curt Flood (851), Lenny Dykstra (802), Stan Javier (781), Jimmy Slagle (779), Paul Blair (776), Cy Seymour (738), Brian McRae (734), Mookie Wilson (731), Dave Henderson (710), Darryl Hamilton (707), Mule Haas (706)

Omar Moreno (699), Johnny Hopp (698), Tony Gonzalez (690), Roberto Kelly (687), Fred Schulte (686), Mike Kreevich (676), Taylor Douthit (665), Rick Manning (664), Jerry Mumphrey (660), Larry Hisle (652), Dwayne Murphy (648), Chad Curtis (648), Ira Flagstead (644), Ruppert Jones (643), Mickey Stanley (641), Billy North (640), Tom Goodwin (636), Whitey Witt (632), Jim Landis (625), Ethan Allen (623), Harry Rice (620), Johnny Mostil (618), Del Unser (617), Rube Oldring (616), Jimmy McAleer (614), Juan Beniquez (610), Darren Lewis (607)

Ken Henderson (595), Charlie Hemphill (581), Jimmy Barrett (581), Frank Demaree (578), Bill Tuttle (578), Bobby Tolan (572), Lee Mazzilli (571), Gary Pettis (568), Tommie Agee (558), Hoot Evers (556), Hy Myers (555), Solly Hofman (554), Johnny Grubb (553), Rick Miller (552), Jim Busby (541), Stan Spence (541), Jackie Brandt (540), Ken Landreaux (522), Vic Davalillo (509), Mitch Webster (504), Brian L. Hunter (500)

Milt Thompson (491), Vince DiMaggio (491), Mike Devereaux (491), Mack Jones (485), Johnny Groth (480), Catfish Metkovich (476), Wally Westlake (474), Pistol Pete Resier (473), Don Demeter (467), Dave May (462), Lenny Green (461), Cesar Geronimo (460), Walt Judnich (424), Ken Berry (422), Roy Weatherly (415), Hank Leiber (410), Johnny Cooney (408), Johnny Lindell (401), John Shelby (389), Gary Geiger (388), Harry Walker (385), Darul Boston (378), Bob Dernier (374), Jerry Martin (337), Tony Scott (331), John Cangelosi (328), Darrin Jackson (311), Henry Cotto (296), Tuck Stainback (284), Marty Keough (256) and John Moses (247)

One of the top flychasers of his time, Virdon had a lengthy career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The bespectacled center fielder was known for his ballhawking abilities and triples hitting.  He was a member of the famous 1960 World Champion Pirates and after his playing days he coached and later managed with the Pirates.  However, as a manager, Virdon is best associated with the Houston Astros.  He was the first skipper to lead Houston to the postseason.

Virdon was originally signed by the New York Yankees but before he was called up he was traded to the Cardinals for Hall of Fame veteran Enos Slaughter.  Bill, who grew up in southern Missouri, was affectionately referred to as “Quail,” had a terrific freshman season with the Redbirds in 1955.  He hit .281 and clubbed 17 homeruns on his way to the Rookie of the Year Award.  But St. Louis made a rash trade early in 1956 and sent their reigning ROTY champ to the Pirates for Bobby Del Greco and Dick Littlefield.  Bill only hit .211 in 24 early season games for the Cardinals but after the deal he hit .334 for the Bucs.  He led the NL in games played, finished fifth in triples and had the second best fielding percentage among center fielders.

Although Virdon hit 17 homeruns as a rookie and ten in 1956, he never again reached double-digits in long balls.  He instead became a triples hitter and posted three straight seasons of double-digit three baggers.  From 1957 to 1959, Quail finished in the Top Three among outfielders in putouts.  He helped lead the Pirates to an NL pennant in 1960 and they stunned the Yankees with an improbable World Series victory.  Bill smacked three doubles and drove in five runs for the Pirates in the World Series.  The Pirates fell back to their usual ways in 1961 and in ’62 Bill led the National League in triples and won a Gold Glove Award. 

In 1963 he posted his third consecutive season with 200 or more total bases.  After a down year in 1964 in which he hit just .247, Virdon redeemed himself by raising his batting average back up to .279 in 1965.  Although he wasn’t of the same ilk as Mantle, Mays and Snider, Quail was a solid player who possessed far superior leadership skills.  After a fairly productive ’65 season, Bill took to managing in the minors.  He was later summoned by the Pirates to serve as a coach in 1968 and the veteran even had a few pinch hit appearances that year.  However, after that season, he focused primarily on coaching.

Virdon succeeded Pirates legend Danny Murtaugh as skipper in 1972 and won the NL East flag his first year as skipper.  His Bucs went 96-59 as they were clearly the best offensive team in all of baseball.  The ’72 Pirates were the only team in the Majors to eclipse 1,400 combined base hits–they finished with 1,505 and a Majors best team batting average of .274.  However, during the off-season, tragedy struck the team as their star right fielder Roberto Clemente was killed in a plane accident.  Bill tried to rally his troops but to no avail and he was replaced by Murtaugh near the end of the 1973 season.

Not unemployed long, George Steinbrenner hired Bill as skipper for the Yankees in 1974.  He improved the Yankees from fourth place to second place but that wasn’t good enough for the cantankerous Big Stein who canned Bil in 1975 and replaced him with Billy Martin.  He didn’t have to look long for work as the Astros fired Preston Gomez in order to open up their managerial post for Quail.  He would have a long association with the Houston Astros and managed the club for the better part of a decade.  The Astros finished dead last in 1975 as Bill managed the last 34 games of the season.  They only had one way to go in ’76 and Virdon took them there, finishing third in the NL West.  The team ERA in ’75 had been 4.04 but Virdon helped trim it to 3.56 in 1976.

The Astros finished at .500 in 1977 and in 1978 they owned the National League’s top strikeout staff, thanks largely to J.R. Richard.  Big Richard served as the staff ace as Astros pitchers led the National League in combined shutouts in 1979.  Offensively, Virdon had to be more creative.  He didn’t have too much power so he employed the hit-and-run and his club responded in kind.  His 1979 Astros led the National League in combined stolen bases as Bill had four men who posted over 30 steals: Enos Cabell, Cesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz and Terry Puhl.  The Astros finally had an identity and they finished second in the NL West that year.

The Astros copped their first division title behind the leadership of Virdon in 1980.  The team scored 583 runs in their second place finish of ’79 and raised that total to 637 in 1980.  Thanks to pitchers Richard, Nolan Ryan and Joe Niekro, Houston led the NL in combined strikeouts but Richard suffered a stroke during the season and was lost for the postseason.  Had the imposing right-hander been able to take his turn in the rotation, it is likely that Houston would have beat the Phillies in the NLCS.  But the Phillies won and were the eventual World Champs.  Undeterred, Houston made the Playoffs again in 1981 with the National League’s best staff ERA.  But they couldn’t get passed the Division Series and would have to wait until 1986 for another shot at postseason play.  Virdon, however, was fired after a rough start in 1982.  His last managerial stint came with the Montreal Expos.  In 1983 he replaced Jim Fanning as Expos skipper but when he was canned in ’84, Montreal gave the job back to Fanning.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,583/R 735/H 1,596/2B 237/3B 81/HR 91/RBI 502/SB 47/BB 442/SO 647/BA .267/OBP .316/SA .379

AS MANAGER

W 995/L 921/PCT .519: Three divisional titles

Few players filled out their batting helmets better than Cardenal.  The Cuban born outfielder sported one of the wildest, fullest afros atop his head as his hat looked like someone tried to stick a thimble on top of a stick of cotton candy.  Hairstyle aside, Jose was a fine ballplayer with good speed and surprise power.  One of the better speed/power combo guys of his time, Cardenal once stole 40 bases in a season and hit as many as 17 homeruns in a single season.  A journeyman at the end of his career, Jose signed with the Royals his last season in the Majors and made his only World Series appearance that year.

The San Francisco Giants signed Jose in 1960 and called him up a few years later to make his debut as a 19-year-old.  After going a combined 1-for-20 with the Giants in 1963 and 1964, San Francisco didn’t hesitate to send him to the Angels for Jack Hiatt.  The trade worked well for California as Jose became an everyday player and stole 37 bases while clubbing 11 homeruns in what was his rookie season.  Jose only got better as a sophomore.  He raised his homerun output to 16 and hit .276.  But after a rough 1967 season he was traded for the second time despite just reaching his twenty-fourth birthday.  Sent by the Angels to the Indians for Chuck Hinton, Jose enjoyed his finest year for swiping bases in 1968 when he pilfered 40 bags for the Tribe. 

Cardenal hit .257 in 1968 and followed that up with an identical mark in 1969.  The Indians wanted more production out of the position so they swapped Jose to the Cardinals for aging superstar Vada Pinson.  He had one of his finest seasons with the Redbirds in 1970.  He hit .293 and drove in 74 runs, but when his batting average and other peripheral stats dropped off in 1971 the Cardinals traded him to the Brewers for Ted Kubiak.  By 1972 Jose had proven himself a maddening talent at the Major League level.  He was too inconsistent to play everyday but had the tools to be a regular.  After he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs in 1972, Jose finally put it all together and gained a level of consistency.

With the Cubs, beginning in 1972, Jose fashioned five straight seasons of 150 or more base hits.  Chicago often flip-flopped Jose from right field to left field, but it didn’t make much difference to him where he played so long as he was in the Wrigley Field pasture.  A noted eccentric, Jose was known to have chewed the Wrigley Field ivy while in the outfield.  All grazing aside, Cardenal set a career high with 17 homeruns his first year with the Cubs.  He became a reliable player at Wrigley Field.  In the three years from 1972 to 1974, Jose would hit anywhere from .291 to .303 and drive in 68 to 72 runs each season. 

Jose’s power fell off in 1975 but he made up for it with his best single season batting average.  The Cuban outfielder hit a robust .317 and also set a personal high with a lofty .397 on-base percentage (sixth in the NL).  Cardenal still had his wheels as he swiped 34 bases which placed him fifth in the league.  He hit .299 in 1976, which gave him five years with a batting average of at least .290 with the Cubs.  However, Jose’s numbers fell off drastically in 1977 and he was never again an everyday player.  Traded to the Phillies in 1978, Jose saw his first postseason action but Philadelphia lost to the Dodgers in the NLCS.  Sold to the Mets in 1979, Jose was a reserve outfielder in New York but was released in 1980.  He caught on with the Royals who captured the AL flag and he went 2-for-10 in his only World Series action, which was also his last Major League action as well.

THE NUMBERS

G 2,017/R 936/H 1,913/2B 333/3B 46/HR 138/RBI 775/SB 329/BB 608/SO 807/BA .275/OBP .333/SA .395

When most baseball analysts discuss players who missed out on better careers thanks to wars, names like Williams, Feller and DiMaggio come to mind–very few think of Bumbry.  Al “The Bumblebee” Bumbry was one of the most decorated Vietnam veterans to play in the Majors.  As a platoon leader in foreign land, Al led soldiers through battle and came out able-bodied and ready to resume his baseball career.  Despite his stint in Vietnam, Al still posted over 1,400 career hits and swiped over 250 bases.

Bumbry was originally drafted by the Orioles in 1968 out of Virgina State University.  He was assigned to the minors but shortly into his pro career his Guard unit was activated and he was shipped to the jungles of Vietnam.  After spending time fighting overseas, Al’s unit was deactivated and he was sent back to America and returned to the minors to further his baseball seasoning.  Baltimore called The Bumblebee up for a look at the end of the 1972 season.  In 1973, Al played regularly for Earl Weaver’s Orioles and he hit .337, led the American League in triples and was awarded the Rookie of the Year trophy.  Bumbry survived the war and made his dreams of baseball stardom come true.

But his career wasn’t all rosy at the beginning as he suffered from the infamous Sophomore Jinx in 1974.  He got back on track in 1975 and in ’76 he swiped 42 bases for the Orioles.  Bumbry rotated between left field and center field in 1976 and played more center field in ’77.  That year he led center fielders in fielding percentage and hit a robust .317.  After an injury-plagued ’78 season, Baltimore made it to the postseason in 1979 as Al hit .285 with 37 steals.  In the ALCS he hit .250 but the Pirates’ “We Are Family” pitching staff stymied him in the World Series and Pittsburgh won the title.

The Bumblebee enjoyed his best year in 1980.  That season he set personal highs in runs scored with 118 (3rd in the AL), 205 hits (5th in the AL) and 44 stolen bases (also 5th in the AL).  Named to the All-Star Team, Al hit .318 with a terrific .392 on-base percentage.  The Bumblebee patrolled center field with the best of them, finishing second in putouts and third in fielding percentage among center fielders.  During the strike shortened ’81 season, Bumbry scored 61 runs.  But by 1982 the veteran’s speed was beginning to wane as he pilfered just ten bases that season.  The Orioles captured the AL East flag in 1983 as Al hit .275, but he only went 2-for-19 in the postseason.  After one final year with the Orioles AL signed a free agent deal with the defending NL champion Padres in 1985 and finished his career on the west coast.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,496/R 778/H 1,422/2B 220/3B 52/HR 54/RBI 402/SB 254/BB 471/SO 709/BA .281/OBP .343/SA .378

Although Big Gorm didn’t hit for the lofty averages of guys like Gwynn, Boggs and Carew, he put on power displays that left the aforementioned Judy-hitters in awe.  A burly looking, stout man from South Carolina, Thomas didn’t look the part of a center fielder but he was better than serviceable.  Thomas could hawk balls quite well and unlike swift center fielders of his day, he offered big-time power.  Gorman led the American League in homeruns twice and was denied a third title in 1981 courtesy the player’s strike–he finished fifth that year but Gorm could have made a run and ended atop the leader board had it been a usual 162 game season.

Originally a first round draft choice by the one-year-in-existence Seattle Pilots, Thomas spent his amateur days as an infielder but was converted to the outfield in the minors.  The Pilots relocated to Milwaukee and became the Brewers and Gorman would eventually become the franchise’s best slugger.  Gorman received his first trial in the Majors in 1973 but he failed to impress with 61 strikeouts in just 155 at-bats.  High strikeout totals were always a concern with Thomas but his occasional moon-tower blasts were a decent enough tradeoff.

After hitting .261 in a late season look in 1974, Gorman became a regular in 1975.  That year he reached double-digits in homeruns for the first time but his batting average of .179 made Brewers brass feel he’d never hit well enough at the Major League level.  He didn’t dispel their concerns in ’76 when his slugging average fell off and he again failed to hit .200.  But the Brewers were patient and Gorman rewarded them with a breakout season in 1978.  That season Gorman ripped 32 homeruns and led the American League in at-bats per homerun with 14.1.  Although he fanned 133 times, he offset that total with 73 walks which bumped his on-base percentage up to the respectable mark of .351.

In 1979, Gorman led the American League with 45 homeruns.  This output established a Brewers record that held until Prince Fielder recently broke it.  The big basher had his most productive season that year as he drove in 123 runs and scored 97 more.  He may have led the league with 175 strikeouts, but with an at-bats per homerun output of 12.4 (a league leading stat) every whiff came with the realization that Big Gorm would soon rip one.  In the outfield, Thomas finished second among center fielders in fielding percentage and had the third highest total of putouts among outfielders.

With the new decade came more production from Thomas.  He set a personal high with 150 base hits in 1980 while clubbing 38 homeruns with 105 RBI.  The following year Gorman was named to his only All-Star team as he finished fifth in homeruns in the strike shortened ’81 season.  The Brew Crew nevertheless made the postseason, and true to form, Gorman clobbered a homerun in the Division Series against the Yankees, but the Bronx Bombers prevailed and ventured to the ALCS.  Thanks to the strike, Big Gorm was denied a chance to string together four straight 100 RBI campaigns.  He drove in 123 in 1979, 105 in 1980 and in ’82, the year after the strike, Gorman chased 112 mates across the dish.

The 1982 season was a magical one for the Brewers.  They made their first World Series that season and Thomas played an integral part in the team’s success.  The club, nicknamed Harvey’s Wallbangers, after skipper Harvey Kuenn, romped to the World Series with Gorman leading the American League with 39 dingers.  The powerful center fielder slugged over .500 for the third time in his career and also crossed the plate 96 times.  Gorman smashed a homerun in the ALCS against the Angels but failed to take St. Louis pitchers deep in a World Series loss to the Cardinals.  The next year the Brewers would send their prolific power hitter packing.

After a rough start to the 1983 season, Gorman was sent to the Indians for southpaw Rick Waits and his center field successor Rick Manning.  Manning, a swift, slap-hitter, was more the prototypical center fielder than Gorman was but not half the run producer Big Gorm had been.  After the season he was sent to the Mariners with speedy second baseman Jack Perconte for Tony Bernazard and he missed most of the ’84 season to injury.  Healthy again in 1985, Gorman won Comeback Player of the Year honors by socking 32 homeruns for the Mariners.  He played one final year, split between Seattle and the Brewers before ending his Major League playing days.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,435/R 681/H 1,051/2B 212/3B 13/HR 268/RBI 782/SB 50/BB 697/SO 1,339/BA .225/OBP .324/SA .448

When Rivers was a young man he gave draft gurus headaches.  The fleet-footed prospect was drafted  four times–he failed to sign the first three times his name was called.  But Mickey eventually relented and took to baseball where he became one of the top center fielders of the 1970s.  He led the American League in triples twice and stolen bases once during his career.  Best known for his days with the Yankees of Reggie Jackson, Rivers actually spent more time with the Angels and Rangers.

Drafted by the Braves in 1969 after refusing to sign in three previous drafts, Mickey placed his name on the dotted line with Atlanta.  But Mickey would never make the Majors with the Braves.  While still a farmhand in the Atlanta chain, Rivers was dealt to the Angels for Hall of Fame closer Hoyt Wilhelm.  The Angels gave Mickey his first look in 1970 and he impressed with a lusty .414 on-base percentage in 17 games.  With an increased workload in ’71, his Eddie Yost like OBP dropped 98 points.  California used Rivers only sparingly the next two seasons but in a 30-game trial in 1973, he hit .349 to ensure more playing time for the 1974 season.

The 1974 campaign was a breakout year for Mickey who led the AL with eleven triples.  Nicknamed “Mick the Quick” for obvious reasons, Rivers ratcheted up his stolen base total by 40 bags when he pilfered a league best 70 bases in 1975.  The Angels then made a trade with the Yankees, sending Rivers and pitcher Ed Figueroa for aging five-tool sensation Bobby Bonds.  With New York, Mickey made his only All-Star appearance in 1976 when he scored 95 runs on a .312 batting average.  But Mickey was a swing-happy guy in pinstripes.  In his last year with the Angels he drew 43 walks, with the Yankees, the best he ever mustered was 29, which kept his OBP down.

Thanks to the trade to the Yankees Mickey saw plenty of postseason action.  In ’76 he hit .348 against the Royals in the ALCS but the Big Red Machine embarrassed Rivers and his mates in the World Series.  Mickey was a constant headache for the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS during the late 1970s.  He would hit .391 against them in 1977 and .455 in ’78.  Mickey’s regular season batting average was a robust .326 in 1977 but when it plummeted to .265 in 1978, the Yankees looked to deal their swift center fielder.  Midway through the 1979 season he was engaged in a trade that sent him to the Texas Rangers for Oscar Gamble and young pitchers Ray Fontenot and Gene Nelson.  The trade lit a fire under Mickey who would enjoy his best year in 1980.

Mickey finished third in the AL with a career best 210 base hits in ’80.  Although he was with a weaker Texas team that had the likes of Pat Putnam and Doc Medich rather than Reggie and Guidry, Mick nevertheless set a career high in runs scored as well as doubles, batting average (.333) and total bases.  Rivers was unable to build off that great season thanks to the player’s strike and when the issues were resolved, his career was near its close.  He missed almost all of the 1982 season and only appeared in 96 games in ’83.  1984 was his last year in the Majors and Mick the Quick hit an even .300.

THE NUMBERS

G 1,468/R 785/H 1,660/2B 247/3B 71/HR 61/RBI 499/SB 267/BB 266/SO 471/BA .295/OBP .327/SA .397