Povich Rewind: Who Was the Greatest?

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Povich Rewind: Who Was the Greatest?
Apr 30, 2020

In this time of Covid-19, with games at a standstill, a rewind of Shirley Povich’s past columns seems in order, with his November 1964 look at the greatest baseball players of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

The picture of the three of them in the newspapers said were, left to right, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Although it was DiMaggio’s 50th birthday party, it was an unspoken invitation to pick your own hero. Mays, DiMaggio or Mantle? It was almost a blunder-proof situation. Any choice could be an excellent one.

The fact they they all are, or were, center fielders does not negate the fact that this was the dream outfield of the major leagues, or at least the best since the legendary composite of Ruth-Speaker-Cobb. The group picture (Mays, DiMaggio and Mantle) also offered a new game at which any number can play, separating the skills of Mays, DiMaggio and Mantle, and who was the greatest.

Mays has been the most exciting. Mantle hit the most home runs. DiMaggio, it occurs, was probably the best ballplayer. But this is a debate that will belong to the ages. Each had their own fan-cults, Mays admirers may be the loudest. Mantle, and the other things he can do, won the pragmatists. The student of the game can mostly favor DiMaggio.

There is little dispute that Mays does things more flamboyantly and wins ball games in more different ways. He excelled on the base lines , made catches that only DiMaggio could have made, and made them more sensationally. He had the special virtue of both of the others that he could carry a whole team.

Mays may have had the best arm. In any event, he exploited it more than DiMaggio or Mantle by the fast-charging ground balls hit to the outfield. On the bases, he was the biggest threat, could discombobulate the pitcher and a whole infield. Mays has been the very model of a winning ball player, and he, too, can hit home runs. A bat in his hands was a reversible rapier or bludgeon.

Yet the greatest of them all could have been Mantle. His home runs were not only the more frequent, but the longest. None since Ruth could match Mantle’s power, and there has been debate about that. The tragedy of Mantle has been his one frailty, his legs. What heights he may have achieved could have been limitless had he been unplagued by those dratted and recurrent leg injuries.

Mantle has been the paradox, the longest hitter and best bunter in the majors. His arm may not have compared too favorably with Mays’s and DiMag’s but it was strong and good. And he, too, could go and get a fly ball, perhaps as far as they, if it called for sheer speed. When his legs permitted, Mantle has been the fast man in the majors.

For those who like the quiet hero, DiMaggio is their man. A tribute to DiMaggio is that his greatest admirers were the players on those Yankee teams he led. With them, there was always the silent understanding that DiMaggio would get the big hit or make the big play when the Yankees needed it most.

For the scholars of the game, DiMaggio was the picture ballplayer. He had the grace that escaped both Mays and Mantle. What Mays achieved was usually in some kind of sprawl. Whether he was making a tough catch, or winging into a base or plate, he gave the impression of being a walking power plant.

But DiMaggio at the plate looked like the sculptured ballplayer, his bat held high and rigid, his stride only infinitesimal as he laid into a pitch, and his whole presence in the batter’s box was a kind of dare to the pitcher to throw one past him. The DiMaggio base hit was, typically, a thing of beauty.

DiMaggio could catch anything Mays ever caught, but the illusion was different. DiMag made few catches the hard way. He surrounded the ball, thanks to his own speed, which was deceptive. And until his arm went bad, it struck as much terror at Mays’s and was fully as strong and accurate. It was his mere reputation for a good arm that kept base runners honest in his later years.

DiMaggio didn’t bunt, but his manager, Bucky Harris, explained that when he said simply, “DiMag is too valuable a hitter to bunt.” It is true that DiMaggio rarely stole a base but he was advised against this injury risk. The fact that he was the best base runners on the Yankees, exploiting to the hilt not only his own hits but those of his mates when he was one base.

More than any other ball player, DiMaggio probably exemplified the pride of the Yankees. His own was wounded on that latter day when a Yankee batting order posted by Casey Stengel said DiMaggio was hitting in the fifth place instead of the fourth. With three hits that day, he batted his way back to cleanup. Somehow, the feeling is they don’t make ballplayers like DiMaggio anymore.

- Nov. 20, 1964

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