With all the talk over the All-Star break from guys like Joe Morgan and Dusty Baker about how Willie Mays is the best player ever (or at least the best living player), it begs the question, is he even the best CF ever? He was great, but it's not like he's without competition here.
The way I see it, there are 3 candidates for the title of the best CF ever: Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Mickey Mantle. In a perfect world, Negro Leaguer Oscar Charleston would deserve a mention as well, but it's just impossible to compare.
So it's between Mays, Mantle, and Cobb. First, a look at Willie Mays, perhaps the premier defensive player ever. The "Say Hey Kid" was also very consistent at the plate, and stayed consistent for a long time, which is how he wound up with 660 HR. His OPS+ is 156, though that was hampered a bit by the last couple of seasons in his career, when he was over 40 and not quite the player he once was. But he did lead the NL in OPS 5 times during his career, during which he won 12 straight gold gloves. So it's safe to say that he was a premier defensive player while being one of the biggest offensive threats of his generation.
Next is Mickey Mantle, who played around the same era as Willie Mays. His career counting numbers don't look as good, but that's mostly because he did not play as long as Mays. In his prime, he might have been the best hitter of his generation not named Ted Williams. He had great patience at the plate (career .421 OBP) while hitting for a lot of power (he was in the top 3 in the AL in SLG for 11 of 13 straight years). His OPS+ of 172 places him 6th all-time.
Last, there's Ty Cobb, who is a bit harder to compare because he played a good portion of his career in the Deadball Era. But he was an incredible pure hitter with lots of speed. While he didn't hit a lot of HR, nobody did, and he still lead the AL in SLG for 6 straight years (and 8 times overall in his career). His .366 career AVG is best ever, and his .433 OBP is 9th all-time. He also stole almost 900 bases in his career. The Georgia Peach's OPS+ of 167 is 10th all-time.
So what does this all mean? First, these were all exceptional players... when I made my list of the 10 best MLB players ever, they were all ranked in the top 10. No one is really a bad choice.
I will say this, I think Mantle had the best peak of any of them, but he just didn't have the longevity that Cobb or Mays did. So I would probably put him 3rd there. After that, it's almost a pick'em. You could probably make convincing arguments in favor of Willie Mays or Ty Cobb being the best player ever, let alone best CF ever. But if I had to choose, I think I would go with Willie Mays. Best defensive CF ever, and he wasn't too shabby as a hitter either.
Who would you choose? Why?