Those who play a mean center field and know how to use the lumber may be the most romanticized players in baseball. Just look at the top of this chart:
Willie, Mickey and The Duke. Willie Mays owned the NL between 1954 and 1970. Duke Snider only beat him out once, and it isn't until Mays started aging that you saw blips from guys like Adolfo Phillips and Jimmy Wynn. Al Kaline only barely beat out Mickey Mantle in 1959. Jimmie Hall had a good run from 1963 to 1965, topping the AL in the bookend seasons and barely finishing behind Mantle in the middle (books?) season.
Tommie Agee earned every bit of that 1966 American League Rookie of the Year Award by being the best center fielder in the Junior Circuit. Paul Blair and Reggie Smith alternated the next four seasons before Bobby Murcer had his two years of domination. The "other" center field Willie in the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, Willie Davis, finally got to top the league in 1971. Cesar Cedeno took it three times between 1972 and 1975.
Billy North was a solid player on a great team, and Elliott Maddox was the first guy so surnamed to top the league in center. The better-known and more famously-gloved Garry Maddox did it twice over in the National League. Like Agee before him, Fred Lynn was a league-topping super rookie in 1975.
The late '70s didn't seem to have any consensus best center fielder in either league. George Hendrick, Lee Mazzilli, Mickey Rivers, Lyman Bostock and Amos Otis all show up. Bostock's death a year after topping the league is especially tragic. Who knows what might have been?
Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson have their Hall of Fame proponents, but their peaks overlapped and neither one was a topper more than twice. 1984 to 1986 was a good period for National League center fielders. Kevin McReynolds, Willie McGee and Lenny Dykstra's teams all won the pennant in their topping years. Eric Davis breaks the streak. Even today many Red fans lament the fact that he never reached his full potential. Speaking of Dykstra, I wouldn't have pegged him as a three-time topper. Too bad he was injured all the time.
Dwayne Murphy and Chet Lemon are two three-time toppers who seem to be mostly forgotten today. Criminal. It's no surprise that Rickey Henderson became an AL topper when he was moved to center field. Brett Butler did it three times, once in the AL, twice in the NL, as did Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (minus the league change). Andy Van Slyke did it twice. Robin Yount won the MVP in 1989, but his per-game value at his position was shared by a barely-qualifying Ellis Burks.
Most people would tell you without a second thought that Ken Griffey Jr. was the best center fielder of the '90s. As a four-time league-topper he probably was, but he didn't own the position the way I would've expected him to. In that same era Kenny Lofton topped the AL twice and the NL once. Bernie Williams did it three times, even though no one seems to consider him truly great. Jim Edmonds didn't just become a star once he moved to the National League, he co-topped the AL in 1995.
The second half of the '90s was as volatile as the latter portion of the '70s in the NL. Marquis Grissom, Ray Lankford, Lance Johnson, Lofton, Andruw Jones, Carl Everett and Brian Giles all spent time at the top. Of that group only Jones would rise again. From 2000 to 2005 Jones and Edmonds battled for the title of best National League center fielder each year.
Carlos Beltran emerged atop the AL in 2002, and Milton Bradley, who saw far less playing time, barely beat him out in 2003. Beltran topped the NL twice more after going to the Mets. Aaron Rowand, despite his famous overratedness, topped each league once. Now there's one I didn't see coming. The Royals probably weren't too disappointed after losing Beltran, since his replacement, David DeJesus, turned in a fluke topping year where he barely beat out Grady Sizemore, the man with the reputation. Sizemore was no match for Curtis Granderson's great 2007 season either.
The two NL teams with the most leaders are the Mets and Dodgers, with four each. The AL leader is (hey, I called it!) the Yankees with six.
Next time we'll conclude this series with a look at the right fielders. Hope you have a good arm!