Tuesday, June 20, 2023

This Day in Yankee History (Bobby Murcer Retires, Just Short of Greatness)

June 20, 1983— Bobby Murcer, saddled with the burden of succeeding superstar Mickey Mantle as the great hope of the New York Yankees—and one of the few bright spots in the Bronx during the wilderness years out of the postseason from 1965 to 1974—was released by the team and took up duties in the broadcast booth.

As a youngster in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I was just a little too young to experience the Yankees in the golden era of Mantle, Maris, and Ford. I became interested in the team when a trio of young players gave them a glimmer of hope of a return to glory: Thurman Munson, Roy White, and Bobby Murcer. It was Murcer, above all, who became my childhood baseball idol.

I listened breathlessly on the radio on June 24, 1970, when he tied a major league record by clubbing four consecutive home runs in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians. I thrilled when, during his first two full seasons with the team (not shortened by injury or military service) in 1969 and 1970, he took advantage of the short rightfield fence at Yankee Stadium by swatting 49 homers.

I imitated that slight crouch at the plate that helped earn Murcer five All-Star berths. In my greatest delusions, I dreamed that, like him, I would win a Gold Glove and succeed him in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, in the same hallowed ground once also patrolled by Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Earle Combs—all Baseball Hall of Famers.

And I mourned in late October 1974, when Murcer was traded straight up for another star saddled with outsized expectations: Bobby Bonds, who had been hailed as the next Willie Mays for the San Francisco Giants.

No matter the electrifying all-around play that Bonds flashed in his single season with the Yankees, he could never replace Murcer for me. I was angry with the Yankees for exiling this leader who sparked the club on the field and won over teammates in the clubhouse with his easygoing manner.

And I was absolutely delighted 4½ years later when the Yankees arranged a trade that brought him back to the team he had dreamed of joining as a child and never wanted to leave. As much as he gave all to the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs in his time away, it was obvious he never really felt at home away from the Bronx.

The three words that may have best defined Murcer’s career were “just short of.” In the first, most substantial part of his career, he fell just short of the postseason, as the team continually lost to the more powerful Baltimore Orioles. In his return, now as a part-time role player with eroding skills, he made it only once to the World Series, recording just one hit in 11 at-bats over two postseasons.

Ultimately, missing out on the postseason in his prime may have meant Murcer fell short of overall greatness. His career statistics over 17 years—252 homeruns, 1,043 RBIs, .277 batting average, .802 OPS—could not match Mantle’s stellar 536 homeruns, 1,509 RBIs, .298 batting average, and .977 OPS. But repeated, excellent play in the postseason during his best years might have earned him more serious consideration as a Hall of Fame candidate.

Comparisons with Mantle cropped up from the moment Murcer arrived at the Yankees’ training camp in 1965, as they both:

*hailed from Oklahoma;

*were signed by the great scout Tom Greenwade;

*started as shortstops before their erratic arms convinced the team they were better suited for center field;

*earned the affection of teammates through their country-boy charm.

Yet, though these comparisons were inevitable, they were also superficial because they obscured significant differences during their careers in the game and afterward. Murcer lacked Mantle’s gasp-inducing natural skills, especially his almost unparalleled power-speed explosiveness.

On the other hand, once their playing days ended, Murcer was not dogged by Mantle’s inner demons. Wondering if he could have been even better if he’d taken care of himself, unsure what to do in retirement, Mantle took refuge in womanizing and alcoholism that depressed those who knew him, while Murcer earned three Emmy Awards as live broadcaster for the Yankees and enjoyed a stable, happy family life.

Murcer’s return to the Bronx in 1979 came during a lost season for the Bombers: not just the only time that the club would miss the playoffs from 1976 through 1981, but one darkened by the tragic death of Munson in a plane crash.

It was a season painful for the Yankees and their fans alike except for August 6, when, after delivering a stirring eulogy at Munson’s funeral, Murcer flew back to the Bronx for a nationally televised game against the Baltimore Orioles. With the Yankees down 4-0 in the seventh inning, he brought the crowd to its feet with a three-run homer, then won the game with a two-run single in the ninth. (See this YouTube clip for footage of his heroics.)

With other lefty-hitting outfielders on the squad in Reggie Jackson, Oscar Gamble, and Ruppert Jones, Murcer found his playing time limited, and after the 1980 season he never played a position again, finding himself confined to pinch hitting. The emergence of the smooth-hitting 22-year-old first baseman-outfielder Don Mattingly meant that the Yankees needed to clear space on the roster for him, and Murcer accepted George Steinbrenner’s offer to become a broadcaster.

The title of Murcer’s memoir, Yankee for Life, testified to his steadfast loyalty to the team. It also proved sadly prophetic, as he died of complications from brain cancer only two months after publication.

Former Yankee publicist Marty Appel spoke for many in explaining how gracefully Murcer adjusted to the mantle of greatness thrust upon him:

"He had an easy, Oklahoma politeness and a modesty that isn't normally associated with elite athletes. He was a fans' player and he was a players' player.

"He was just a terrific kid who was handed an oversized assignment and he handled it with grace and honesty and dignity, as he did everything until the very end....He made you a better person just to know him. No man ever wore the New York Yankee uniform better.”

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