Outfielders: Armed and Dangerous
The year was 1927. A novel sideshow accompanied the thunder of the New York Yankees, the legendary club that many call the greatest team ever. Right fielder Babe Ruth, who would hit 60 home runs, was competing with left fielder Bob Meusel for the best throwing arm in baseball. Ruth had been a great pitcher, now he was preoccupied with becoming a great throwing outfielder.
Witnessing the Ruth-Meusel contest was shortstop Mark Koenig, who is the last surviving member of the ’27 Yankees. Koenig, who lives near San Francisco, will be 88 July 19. His recollections are vivid, his wit sharp. “Everybody on that team is dead but me,” he said. “I guess I didn’t get on base as often as the rest of them did. Those fellas tired themselves out.”
Koenig remembers Ruth’s awesome two-way power. “Everybody talks about the bat, but what an arm! Babe was one of the best. He threw hard, he threw accurate. All his throws were so good. He hit 60 home runs and made 600 great throws. But our left fielder, Bob Meusel, had the best arm in baseball. He played the sun field in Yankee Stadium. Him and Babe went at it that whole year.”
Ruth, Koenig said, had to settle for second best to Meusel. “But,” Koenig said, “I wouldn’t want Babe to know I said that.”
Sept. 29, 1954. One of the best throws in history was obscured by one of the most memorable catches. In the deepest recesses of the Polo Grounds, Willie Mays made his back-to-the plate grab of Vic Wertz’ long drive to center in Game 1 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. It forever became known as The Catch. Far less was made of what should be remembered as The Throw, which held base-runners Larry Doby on second and Al Rosen on first.
“You know where he caught the ball,” Doby said, “nearly 500 feet away. From the position he threw the ball and the accuracy, it was a great throw.” Despite written accounts to the contrary, Doby insists he did not tag up.
Mays’ throw, not the catch, was canonized by author Arnold Hano in his book “A Day in the Bleachers.” Hano wrote: “What an astonishing throw, to make all other throws ever before it appear as flings of teen-age girls. This was the throw of a giant, the throw of a howitzer made human ... " In the ensuing years, Mays would talk more of the throw than the catch.
Baseball writer Dan Daniel, who started covering the sport in 1909, wrote that Mays had the greatest arm he ever saw. “In 1966, center fielder Mays nearly threw for the cycle, throwing runners out at home, third and first and missing at second only because Tito Fuentes missed the tag on the incoming runner.”
Aug. 27, 1951. Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca allowed what should have been his first hit of the game -- a one-hop liner to right by Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Mel Queen. But right fielder Carl Furillo charged the ball and gunned it to first in time to nail Queen. The no-hitter lasted until the ninth when Branca gave up two hits. In the next morning’s newspaper, Dick Young wrote, “The two fine Italian arms of Branca and Furillo had a no-hitter running for eight innings.”
Baseball often overlooks one of the game’s most integral weapons: the armed robbers of the outfield. They can be embodied in players such as Ruth, Mays, Furillo, Roberto Clemente and even lesser-known riflemen such as Ellis Valentine, Mike Hershberger and part-time player Bob Kennedy, whom Rosen recalled having an even stronger arm than Mays.
Few in baseball have had the ability to throw the ball with such power and accuracy that it compares to the excitement of a tape-measure homer.
Most tributes to mighty arms would list Clemente, the late Hall of Famer for the Pirates, as the top thrower. “Clemente was bigger than life as far as his arm was concerned,” said broadcaster Tim McCarver, who played against Clemente for more than a decade. “What made it unique with Roberto was his whirl and throw. He would actually field the ball off the carom in that short, but very difficult Forbes Field wall, catch it, pivot on the back foot and turn and throw almost blindly at times.”
Rusty Staub, a contemporary of Clemente and also a right fielder, said Clemente was simply the best. “He made the greatest throws I ever saw in my life,” Staub said. “He would go into that bullpen (along the right-field line in Forbes Field) where you couldn’t see home plate. One time, he went for a ball that spun into the bullpen. A guy was tagging up from third base with one out. He knew he had it made, he didn’t run hard. All of a sudden this rocket came from nowhere. It was like a strike, right across the plate. He (Clemente) couldn’t even see home plate!”
Oakland A’s Coach Gene Clines, who played with Clemente, added, “No runner, no matter who he was, could ever advance an extra base on a ball hit to right.”
If a great throwing arm was the only criteria, Rocky Colavito would have made it to the Hall of Fame. If he did not have the best arm in all of baseball, it certainly was the most thrilling. Colavito honed his throwing skill in the Bronx.
“As a kid I used to throw rocks and stones,” Colavito, the former Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers outfielder, said from his home near Reading, Pa. “I used to throw them as far as I could. There was a little park that we used to play in across the street from P.S. 4 called Crotona Park, with a little playground area. There was a fence around the area and you had to hit the ball over the second fence for a home run.”
Colavito’s brothers made little Rocky throw the ball over that fence. “I couldn’t go home at night until I threw the ball over that second fence,” he said. “Whenever I needed a little extra money, my friends would bet me. You know where the Third Avenue el is? I’d go halfway up the block, maybe three quarters up the block and I would throw the ball over the elevator and it would come down on the other side. It was like taking candy from a baby it was so funny. I never lost one bet in my life.”
Later, in the majors, teammates would bet Colavito he could not throw the ball over the roofs of stadiums. It was more pocket change for him. “From home plate it would have been nothing to throw it up on the roof in Yankee Stadium,” Colavito said. Once, in a publicity stunt for a Triple-A team in San Diego that was run by Ralph Kiner, Colavito said he threw a ball 440 feet. Kiner confirmed it and added the other participants in the throwing contest were using jai-alai cestas.
Colavito was sometimes known as a loose cannon for his wild throws and he proved it one day in the late 1950s in a comical incident involving Mickey Mantle. “It was a Sunday doubleheader in Cleveland,” Colavito said. “Mickey’s on third base, and they hit a ball to medium right field to me. I would get back on a ball like that, and then I’d come in and take it on the run and I really put everything I had behind it. I caught the ball on the run and Mickey faked me. I see him tagging up, and I wasn’t taking any chances. The way he ran you couldn’t afford to. So I reach back and let it go as hard as I could. It was like a line drive, but it was a little too high. It took off. (Catcher) Russ Nixon jumped for the ball, but it just carried right over his glove. Mickey saw that and ran home.
“The ball hit the brick wall -- they didn’t have cushions around the walls in those days -- and bounced -- can you believe this -- right back to Russ at home plate. Mickey was out at home. Mickey was so embarrassed, but it wasn’t his fault. I had to laugh.”
Dave Winfield, the former Yankee now with the California Angels, said he made his arm a defensive weapon. He refers to the foul line as a “gun sight” for setting up throws. “It’s almost like being a gun-slinger,” he said about throwing. “You get yourself a little reputation and you want to keep it up.”
The ‘90s will see a farewell to the great arms of Winfield, the Boston Red Sox’s Dwight Evans and Andre Dawson of the Cubs. Among the few others who stand out are Snyder, Jesse Barfield of the Yankees, rookie Dante Bichette of the Angels and the Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. According to Dawson, none has a better arm than Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston, who does not like the outfield. “I don’t know how far I could throw a ball,” he said, “but I’m not going to find out. The outfield is boring.”
Snyder, Cleveland’s right fielder, is generally regarded as the best, but Bichette may be the brashest. “Cory Snyder has a pretty strong arm, but I haven’t seen anybody that can throw harder or more accurately than myself,” Bichette said. “I’ve never measured how far I can throw a baseball. I remember one time they challenged me to throw it out of Anaheim Stadium, and I’ve done that a few times. I played a lot of shortstop when I was younger and I can throw off-balance. I don’t have to set my feet, my feet are quick. The runners are starting to respect me a little bit more.”
Snyder started his career as an infielder, and was not sure if the switch to the outfield would be to his liking. “For a little while I was feeling very different because I was used to fielding more balls and getting more action,” Snyder said. “You have to adapt. I think the most important thing is first-step quickness. Being able to read the pitcher, maybe look in and see where the catcher’s moving to see where the ball’s going. I am able to pick up the ball pretty quick, get that jump. I take a lot of pride in my throwing. Sometimes I can throw behind runners because I know I have a chance. I go through a series of questions before the ball’s ever hit to me. Two or three steps to my left or my right, or if it’s right at me, whatever it is, I know where I am going with it.”
Not too many runners dare to test Snyder’s arm. “They respect me and still want to take a shot at me, but they haven’t been running on me as much this year,” he said. “I only have a few assists. Everybody kind of goes to second base or third base and stops, which is the ultimate respect. I do look for a challenge with a Rickey Henderson, for example.”
The Athletics’ Henderson, said he has not encountered the arm that could consistently hold him back. “Nobody’s tough for me. Snyder’s got a great arm and Barfield, too. That rookie (Bichette) they got now might have the best arm in the game. I ran on all of them many times. I’ve been thrown out twice going from second to home -- Barfield did throw me out one time and Jose Canseco one time, both in Yankee Stadium.”
While many of the great outfield arms have gone unrecognized, there is at least one that has not. Colavito’s baseball legacy is his great gun. In a 14-year career, he hit 374 home runs and drove in 1,159 runs but few recall that, not even Colavito himself.
“In batting practice they stopped everything to watch Ted Williams hit,” Colavito said. “They stopped to watch me throw. Today, when I meet somebody, they remember the arm.”