There have been more great outfields than infields; that makes sense, since we're considering three players instead of four. Most of our great outfields are anchored by a superstar, and often complemented by a second Hall of Famer. An all-time great player isn't enough, however: None of the Giants' outfields that featured Barry Bonds or the recent Angels' groups that include Mike Trout came close to consideration. An outfield with a 10-WAR MVP candidate and two 5-WAR players gives us a 20-WAR outfield ... and I found eight such outfields since 1901.
In chronological order (and listed from left field to right field):
1917 Detroit Tigers (Bobby Veach, Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann): 20.6 WAR
Cobb was with the Tigers from 1905 to 1926 and Detroit almost always had great outfields during his tenure. First, he was flanked by Hall of Famer Sam Crawford; then Heilmann, another Hall of Famer, replaced Crawford. In 1917, when the offensive style of the sport was built around batting average, Cobb led the American League with a .383 mark and Veach was fourth at .319. Heilmann was just 22 and hit .281 -- he'd hit better than .390 four times in his career once offense spiked in the 1920s, winning four batting titles, and if he'd been at that level in 1917, this would have been the greatest outfield ever.
1927 New York Yankees (Bob Meusel, Earle Combs, Babe Ruth): 23.4 WAR
Is this still the most famous team of all time? Pretty amazing that -- 90 years later -- many still view the '27 Yankees as the best team ever. Ruth didn't have his best season that year, but did hit .356 with a record 60 home runs and 137 walks, giving him a 1.258 OPS and 12.4 WAR. Combs is a Hall of Famer despite a short career, but had a strong peak as a leadoff hitter and was viewed as a solid defensive center fielder. He hit .356/.414/.511 with 36 doubles and 23 triples in 1927, valued at 6.8 WAR. Meusel was a very good player with more than 1,000 career RBIs and probably the best outfield arm of his time, but some called him lazy and knocked his nonchalant style of play. He hit .337/.393/.510 in 1927, was second in the league with 24 steals, and is valued at 4.1 WAR.
1941 New York Yankees (Charlie Keller, Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich): 20.3 WAR
This was the first outfield in which all three starters hit 30 home runs, a feat unmatched until the 1980s. Ted Williams hit .406 in ’41 but DiMaggio won MVP honors with his 56-game hitting streak and final batting line of .357/.440/.643 with 30 home runs and 125 RBIs. (It helped that the Yankees won the pennant by 17 games over the Red Sox.) The other two weren't Hall of Famers, but Keller may have been if he hadn't injured his back. He hit .298/.416/.580 with 33 home runs in ’41, while Henrich hit .277/.377/.519 with 31 home runs.
1953 Brooklyn Dodgers (Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo): 21.0 WAR
This was the best Brooklyn team, winners of 105 games, although it lost the World Series to those hated Yankees. Robinson wasn't a full-time left fielder -- he started 73 games there while also starting 43 at third base and a few more at second and first -- but we're counting his full-season numbers here. Catcher Roy Campanella won MVP honors but Snider had a pretty strong case himself: He hit .336/.419/.627 with 42 home runs, 16 steals and 126 RBIs. Robinson hit .329 with a .425 OBP. Furillo had a terrific arm -- he was nicknamed the Reading Rifle -- and all he did was hit .344/.393/.580 with 21 home runs, winning the batting title. By WAR, we get Snider at 9.3, Robinson at 7.1 and Furillo at 4.7, totals that would have been higher if Robinson hadn't missed 18 games and Furillo 22.
1963 San Francisco Giants (Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Felipe Alou): 22.3 WAR
McCovey wasn't really a left fielder, but with Orlando Cepeda at first base, the Giants finally forced McCovey into the lineup after three seasons as a bench player. San Francisco’s outfielders' numbers in ‘63:
McCovey: .280/.350/.566, league-leading 44 home runs, 6.5 WAR
Mays: .314/.380/.582, 38 home runs, 10.6 WAR
Alou: .281/.319/.474, 20 home runs, 5.2 WAR
Cepeda gave the Giants a fourth 5-WAR player and Juan Marichal won 25 games -- they still finished in third place at 88-74.
1968 Boston Red Sox (Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Smith, Ken Harrelson): 20.3 WAR
The raw numbers don't look so impressive because 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher. Yaz won the batting title with a lowly .301 average. But he still posted a .426 OBP that led the league. Harrelson hit .275/.356/.518 in what was easily the best season of his career (5.0 WAR; next-best was 1.4). He hit 35 home runs, third in the AL, and led the league with 109 RBIs that year, finishing third in the MVP voting. Yaz, coming off his historic 1967 season, was worth 10.5 WAR ... and finished ninth in the MVP voting. Smith, the center fielder, is one of the more underrated players ever with a career WAR of 64.5. He hit .265/.342/.430 in 1968 and won a Gold Glove while valued at 4.8 WAR.
1980 Oakland Athletics (Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas): 21.6 WAR
This one may be the biggest surprise on the list. The 1979 A's lost 108 games. The next year, they hired Billy Martin and won 83 games behind this trio -- maybe the best defensive outfield ever assembled. Henderson and Murphy were each in their second seasons, and Armas became a full-time regular for the first time. They were 21, 25 and 26 years old, respectively. Henderson and Murphy could run, while Armas could throw. The Total Zone fielding system evaluates Armas and Murphy as worth 22 runs above average on defense and Henderson at plus-18. Murphy won the first of six consecutive Gold Gloves, Armas racked up 17 assists, and Henderson could obviously run everything down in left (he'd win his only Gold Glove the following season).
Henderson also hit .303 with a .420 OBP and 100 steals; like Henderson, Murphy also drew more than 100 walks and posted a .384 OBP; Armas hit .279/.310/.500 with 35 home runs and 109 RBIs. His free-swinging ways would eventually cut into his value, but he was a good offensive player in 1980. Their WAR totals: 8.8 (Henderson), 6.9 (Murphy) and 5.9 (Armas).
1990 Oakland Athletics (Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Jose Canseco): 20.1 WAR
A decade later, Rickey had returned to Oakland and had his best season, winning MVP honors while leading the league in OBP, OPS, steals and runs (9.9 WAR) in ‘90. Hendu -- who, sadly, passed away last month -- hit .271/.331/.467 with 20 home runs (4.8 WAR). Canseco hit .274/.371/.543 with 37 home runs (5.4 WAR). Remember, in 1990 the league was in the middle of a small downturn in offense and Oakland was a tough place to hit. Rickey and Canseco ranked first and third, respectively, in adjusted OPS, while Hendu was just outside the top 10. This trio would have ranked higher had any of the three played more than 136 games.
Have we not had a great outfield since these A's? Did I miss one, readers?
Anyway, my ranking of the eight outfields listed above:
8. 1968 Red Sox. Have to downgrade them a bit because of Harrelson's fluke season.
7. 1917 Tigers. Great outfield, but the team went 78-75.
6. 1941 Yankees. Williams still should have won the MVP Award.
5. 1953 Dodgers. Only because Robinson spent just half his time in left.
4. 1990 Athletics. Was there a more fun outfield than this group?
3. 1980 Athletics. They were pretty good the next year too.
2. 1963 Giants. How did they not win the pennant?
1. 1927 Yankees. Yep, still the best.