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Outfielders: Armed and Dangerous

July 03, 1990|STEVE MARCUS | NEWSDAY

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."

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