On September 29, 1954, in Game 1 of that year’s World Series, New York Giants centerfielder Willie Mays sprinted back on a deep fly ball by Cleveland Indians hitter Vic Wertz and made a blind, over-the-shoulder basket catch. In one motion, he wheeled and threw the ball back in the infield to prevent any of the runners on base from advancing. It’s widely regarded as being among the greatest defensive plays in baseball history and the essence of what makes the center field position such a special one in the sport.
John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” can be considered the aural equivalent of Mays’ catch, as it captures the same sense of drama and wonder found in that play, in that position, and in the sport of baseball as a whole. Released in 1985 as the title track to Fogerty’s most successful solo album, the song has transcended its status as a minor hit single (reaching only #44) to become part of the firmament of the game it celebrated.
Interestingly enough, Fogerty already had Centerfield in mind as an album title before he wrote the song, as he felt the position represented his intent to return to the music spotlight after nearly a decade away. But then he decided a song with that title would be apropos as well. He came up with a guitar riff that evokes the exuberance of a mad dash around third through the coach’s stop sign to beat the throw home. Adding some rally-inspiring handclaps to the mix was just the right touch.
When it came to the lyrics, Fogerty’s status as a longtime baseball fan helped him deliver authenticity. “It was this mythical place,” he told ESPN in 2010. “Centerfield was the place where all the greats played. I had long decided that the right fielder, which was probably me growing up— if they had nine kids and No. 1 was the best player, then-No. 9 was in right field. But the centerfielder was always the best fielder on the team. He was the power hitter and fast and could handle everything. If you think about all the center fielders who’ve played the game, they’ve normally been the best players, too. DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays.”
Since “Centerfield” definitely possesses a Chuck Berry rhythmic flair, it made sense that Fogerty would reference Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” in the first verse. Meanwhile, baseball fans quickly picked up his other lyrical references: The “Mudville Nine” nods to the famous poem “Casey At The Bat”; “Don’t say it ain’t so” calls to mind the Shoeless Joe Jackson legend; “It’s a gone/And you can tell that one goodbye” suggests home run calls from announcers throughout the years.
But while “Centerfield” is clearly an ode to the national pastime, Fogerty also managed to touch on his own situation at the time as well. The refrain’s exhortation of “Put me in, Coach/I’m ready to play” sounds like the plea of every benchwarmer in the game’s history, from Little to Big Leagues. But it also captured Fogerty’s own desire to once again take up the mantle as one of rock and roll’s leading creative lights after shunning it for such a long time previous to the record.
In 2010, the Baseball Hall of Fame gave “Centerfield” the ultimate stamp of approval by enshrining the song, and its creator, in the Cooperstown, New York institution. Just like one of the legends he name-drops in the song would do after a big hit or great defensive play, John Fogerty had the chance to tip his figurative cap to the crowd. What better reward for writing and performing the song that effortlessly sums up the charms of the national pastime with such grace and affection.