The death of Duke Snider, one of the greatest Brooklyn Dodgers and center fielders ever, has once again drawn attention to the golden era of New York baseball when Willie, Mickey and the Duke were all starring in center field and playing most of their games in New York. Several people in eulogizing the Duke have pointed out that while Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle ended up with clearly better careers than Snider, Snider was the first of the three to establish himself as a player and a star, and that during the five years they all played together in New York, 1951 and 1954-57, Snider was perceived as being almost as good as the other two. This is an interesting perspective particularly because most of today’s fans know these players more for their entire careers than for how they might have looked in 1957 or, in Snider’s case, October of 1955 when his hitting helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series.
The era of Willie, Mickey and the Duke was surprisingly brief, not because the Dodgers and Giants moved to California, but because Snider was a bit older, Mays lost two years, 1952 and 1953 to military service, Mantle did not establish himself as the Yankees centerfielder until Joe DiMaggio retired after the 1951 season, and because after 1958 Snider was no longer primarily a center fielder. Thus, there were only five years, 1954-1958, when all three were primarily center fielders. During those five years, Willie, Mickey and the Duke ran up some extraordinary numbers combining for six pennants, three MVP awards and OPS+ of 155 for Snider, 167 for Mays and 191 Mantle.
The three New York center fielders include two who are among the five greatest ever at that position and one, Snider, who is still probably among the top ten. Although no three players at any position who all played in the same city were ever that good, the question of how unusual it is for talent at one position to be concentrated in one era is interesting. If, for example, Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx had played for Dodgers and Giants, while Lou Gehrig was with the Yankees, the 1930s would have been the golden era for New York first baseman. There is another more recent example that gets overlooked a great deal.
The tail end of the period when Mays, Mantle and Snider dominated baseball and center field, saw the rise of another four players who would all play the same position for over a decade and all rank among the greatest ever at that position. Between 1956 and 1970, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Frank Robinson all starred in right field and were among the best players in the game. Aaraon and Robinson are among the five greatest right fielders ever, while Clemente and Kaline are probably still among the top ten.
These four players are rarely thought of together because rather than playing in New York, the played in far smaller media markets like Milwaukee, Atlanta, Pittsburg, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. They also were not the constant October presence that the center fielders from a slightly earlier era were. Mays, Mantle and Snider won six pennants in the five year period when they were playing together, while Aaron, Clemente, Kaline and Robinson combined for eight pennants over a fifteen year period.
During this fifteen year period, however, these four players won four MVP awards and posted OPS+ of 161 for Aaron, 132 for Clemente, 138 for Kaline and 156 for Robinson. Willie, Mickey and the Duke posted much better rate numbers, but the right fielders sustained these numbers over a period of more than twice as many seasons. If, however, only the seven year peak for these four players, 1961-1967, is considered the numbers are a lot more comparable 162 for Aaron, 142 for Clemente 149 for Kaline and 167 for Robinson. None of these players were as good as Mantle at his peak, but Mantle in the late 1950s was one of the most dominant players in the history of the game. While the center fielders still had a better peak the right fielders played together for a far longer period of time and posted career statistics that were at least as impressive.
Nobody is going to write any songs about Hank, Frank, Al and Roberto, nor will they ever be viewed as symbolizing a time and place the way Willie, Mickey and the Duke did, but they were probably more dominant for a longer period of time than any other group of players at the same position in the history of the game.