The Greatest (Yankees?) Outfield Ever

Buster Olney has been doing a series of Top 10 lists on his blog at ESPN this week. He even solicited suggestions from Twitter. It has been a fun exercise, I am not here to nitpick the method. One that was particularly enjoyable to think about was Olney’s list of the top ten outfields in MLB history. It is on Insider, but I do not think I am ruining anything by telling you that he rates the 1961 Yankees outfield of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra as the best outfield ever. It is not a terrible choice or anything, although there are arguments to be make for others, which is the fun part of this sort of thing. I wonder, however, was whether the 1961 Yankees outfield is even the best Yankees outfield of all time. What about 1941? (No, not the star-studded Spielberg/Belushi movie.)

Historical comparisons of this sort run into a number of difficulties. Sure, statistics can help by making adjustments to establish excellence relative to era (e.g. using league average as a baseline). However, while that is necessary for something like this, it is not necessarily sufficient, and the adjustments are difficult to make. The issue of league difficulty over time is a difficult one to make adjustments for — integration and the internationalization of the game is just one example, the “professionalization” of the game is another, as even during Honus Wagner‘s time spectators came out of the stands to join the game when not enough players showed up. Another issue for those of us using linear weight-based metrics like wRC+ and wRAA is that those metrics currently are optimized for the late 1950s forward. Due to a lack of play-by-play information (although that is slowly being corrected), we really do not have great weights for earlier eras, thus offensive metrics used for those need to be taken with a multiple grains of salt (although this is true of all metrics, even the “basic” ones like average, on-base percentage, and slugging).

Despite these issues, if we acknowledge them openly we can still do our best given what we have while having fun trying to make these comparisons. I could try to make some adjustments (trying to use different weights and whatnot), but getting caught up in that would distract from my real intention in writing this piece — to draw attention to some outstanding-but-somewhat forgotten Yankees outfielders.

It is easy to see why one would pick the 1961 Yankees. Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest players of all-time, had one of his best seasons ever. For most of the season, Mantle was in a home run race with fellow Yankee outfielder Roger Maris, who, of course, set of the the most-discussed records of modern times with 61 home runs, a record which stood for almost 40 years. In left field, the Yankees had another all-time great in former catcher Yogi Berra, who could still hit pretty well. That team won the World Series in five games over the Reds. It was an easy choice: two universally-acknowledged all-time greats and another guy having a massive, record-setting season on a famous team.

But the 1941 Yankees outfield of Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, and Tommy Henrich was pretty awesome, as we will see. That team also won the World Series in five games (over the Dodgers). They were the first outfield in which all three outfielders hit at least 30 home runs in a season, which did not happen again until the 1980s. I do not know whether they are necessarily the best outfield of ever (and maybe a different year from them would be a better choice, but I liked the 20-year symmetry), but I would argue that they were better, relative to their era, than the 1961 group was.

Rather than going position-by-position to compare these outfield, I will compare them by rank within their own group (i.e., best player compared to best player, worst player compared to worst), as it makes the differences easier to see in this particular case. Note that we are primarily comparing them in just the years involved, not by career.

Each outfield had an all-time, all-world center fielder having one of his best seasons: Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. As great as DiMaggio was for his career, Mickey Mantle’s career was better. However, in this season, it is pretty close. Yeah, Mantle out-hit DiMaggio, 197 wRC+ to 181 wRC+, but was only slightly better overall at 11.1 WAR to 10.6 WAR. We should not pretend that WAR components are so precise that that is a significant difference. Still, while defensive metrics in particular are problematic, I do not imagine there are too many people who doubt that DiMaggio in 1941 was substantially better in the field than Mantle in 1961. For practical purposes, I would call it equal, although if someone wants to give Mantle, that would be fine.

The more interesting contrast, to me, is between 1961 Roger Maris and 1941 Charlie Keller. Maris is much more well-known these days. They are practically the same according to both WAR (7.9 for Maris, 8.2 for Keller) and wRC+ (163 for Maris, 161 for Keller). We can stipulate that they were basically equal this season.

However, I do want to take a minute to dwell on Charlie Keller. Check out his career numbers. From 1939 to 1943 he was one of the best players in baseball. He missed all of 1944 and most of 1945 serving in the merchant marines, and then put together another great season in 1946. In 1947, he hurt his back, which pretty much ended his career as an everyday player. Keller did not have a Hall of Fame career, but only because his career was cut short. If he had just been healthy enough to put in a few above-average and average seasons, he would be a Hall of Famer. Between his rookie 1939 season and 1943 (the year before he left for the merchant marines) he was right there with the best position players in baseball: Ted Williams, Joe Gordon, and Joe DiMaggio (hmm… I wonder how the Yankees won so much back then. Must have been great managing and grit.). Here is a great quote from The New Bill James Historical Abstract (page 662) on Keller:

Keller was a 5-foot-11 farm boy with huge muscles and dark black hair growing all over his body like kudzu vines. They called him “King Kong,” a nickname which he detested, but it stuck because it worked. “He wasn’t scouted,” said Lefty Gomez. “He was trapped.” When Yogi Berra joined the Yankees in 1946 he was introduced to Spud Chandler, who reportedly remarked afterward, “My God, they found one uglier than Keller.”

That is a nice segue into our final comparison of the “weak links” of the two outfields: Yogi Berra and Tommy Henrich. Really, this is the crux of the whole thing, since we had 1961 Mantle and 1941 DiMaggio as well as 1961 Maris and 1941 Keller pretty much even.

No one doubts, of course, that Yogi Berra had the far superior career. Berra is one of the greatest catchers in MLB history, while Henrich, while good, is more of a very-good-but-not-Hall-worthy player, sort of like Roy White or Jim Rice. However, we are not comparing careers, but specific seasons. Much of Berra’s career greatness was based on being a great catcher, but by 1961, he was hardly ever catching, and was mostly playing in the outfield, which is why he is included in this outfield list. It is tough to compare them defensively, as usual. The stats do not tell us much. Henrich at least had the reputation for being a good outfielder, while Berra was a former catcher put in left field because his body could no longer handle the grind of catching every day (he caught at least 120 games a season from 1950 to 1956, so who could blame him?), so I do not think it would be a stretch to give Henrich the edge here.

Defense it probably does not matter in this case, anyway. Berra could still hit decently in ’61: .271/.330/.466 (114 wRC+), but he was clearly near the end, and only played in 119 games. Henrich, on the other hand, had a monster year at the plate (although it was not his best): .277/.377/.519 (137 wRC+) with 41 home runs over 144 games. Henrich was probably worth three wins more than Berra based simply on wins. Even if one gives a slight edge to the 1961 groups in the DiMaggio/Mantle and Keller/Maris match ups, Henrich’s superiority to Berra in their respective seasons still pushes the less-heralded 1941 group ahead.

While I have not forgotten my qualifications about advanced statistic comparisons across era, it might be helpful to take a look at where these players ranked in WAR among their position-player peers in the years under consideration. In 1961, Mickey Mantle was the most valuable position player in baseball according to WAR, Maris was eighth, and Berra would have ranked in the mid-50s if he had qualified. In 1941, DiMaggio was only second (darn you, Ted Williams!), but Keller was third, and Henrich was ninth. An outfield with three top-ten players is pretty nice, and I think nicely adds to the case for the 1941 Yankees outfield being superior to the 1961 group. I can only hope that my words about Mantle having a superior career to DiMaggio will keep Bob Costas from setting me up for a tongue-lashing ambush.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Don’t you diss 1941. Toshiro Mifune was in 1941.