When I sat down to conduct research for this post, I was surprised to find only 18 center fielders in the Hall of Fame with just two spending time in the majors during the 1980's or later--Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson. Puckett was forced to retire due to health issues after the 1995 campaign while Dawson logged his last major league at-bat the following year. Of the remaining 16 inductees, 9 enjoyed their peak seasons in the 1940's or earlier. I admit there are a few I have scarcely even heard of, namely Hugh Duffy and Billy Hamilton, both of whom played during the nineteenth century. I was relieved to find some familiar faces in the group such as Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays--three of the greatest players at ANY position.
In the next several years, a slew of able-bodied center fielders will become eligible for induction. Most of them fall into the category of the "nearly great," such as Carlos Beltran and Torii Hunter, who are both currently active. Beltran is an 8-time All-Star with 3 Gold Gloves to his credit. Hunter, who enjoyed another productive regular season with the Tigers in 2013, has appeared on numerous highlight reels making gravity-defying catches. He's a 9-time Gold Glove recipient. Other players who will undoubtedly get some Hall of Fame consideration include Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds and Johnny Damon. Damon collected over 2,700 hits and 400 stolen bases during his 18 years in the majors. Jones was a stellar defensive player and a powerful slugger in his prime. Edmonds cracked 393 homers and wasn't afraid to crash into walls or tumble head over heels while chasing fly balls.
In my opinion, there is only one sure candidate for Cooperstown and that is Ken Griffey Jr.. From 1989-1999, Griffey was the premier defensive center fielder in the majors, winning 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards. He led the league in homers 4 times in that span, including a pair of back-to-back 56-homer efforts in '97/'98. The 56 dingers are a record for center fielders (tied with Hack Wilson). Griffey finished his career with 630 long balls--sixth on the all-time list. After a nagging series of injuries from 2002-2004, he won Comeback Player of the Year honors in '05, when he hit 35 bombs, drove-in 92 runs and hit .301 in 128 games with the Reds. Had he stayed healthy throughout his career, there is no telling what his numbers would look like. In all, he had 9 seasons with at least 30 homers and 8 with 100 RBI's. He was named to 13 All-Star teams and won an MVP award in 1997. If those aren't first-ballot credentials then there is something wrong with the system!
None of the center fielders currently eligible for the Hall are in the same class as Griffey, but there are several excellent ones. In a 17-year career, Kenny Lofton stole 622 bases and hit .297 in a leadoff role while helping six different clubs find their way to the postseason. Bernie Williams was a quiet, consistent performer for the Yankees over 16 seasons, winning 4 World Series rings and a batting title in 1998. Ellis Burks was a top run producer for 5 different clubs, finishing his career with more than 400 doubles, 300 homers and 1,200 ribbies. Using sabermetric methods, Lofton has the best chance of the three at finding his way to Cooperstown. Burks and Williams are slightly below average as compared to Hall of Fame center fielders.
Players from the distant past who deserve mention:
Willie Davis: Nicknamed "3-Dog" for is ability to stretch doubles into triples, Davis finished among the top 5 in stolen bases 6 times. A fixture in the LA outfield from '61-'73, he played in 3 World Series with the Dodgers, winning two. He is considered by many to be the best center fielder in Los Angeles history.
Vada Pinson: Pinson was among the top hitters in the NL from 1959-1967 with the Reds. He led the league twice in hits and doubles during that span. He collected more than 2,700 career safeties and received consistent support from Hall of Fame voters over a 15-year period, peaking at 15% of the vote in 1988.
Jim Wynn: Wynn had 8 seasons with 20 or more homers back when that still meant something (he played from 1963-'77). He struck out a lot, but also had a good batting eye, leading the league twice in walks. Defensively, he was superb, pacing the loop in putouts and assists twice apiece. He finished among the top 5 in fielding percentage four times.