Good But, Not Great- Part Eleven
Good But, Not Great- Part Eleven
By Tim Kabel
April 4, 2022
Good But, Not Great- Part Eleven.
So far, I have written ten articles about Yankees’ players who were good but, not great. These players were not Hall of Famers. However, they were key components of their teams. In many cases, they were the backbone of World Series Championship teams. My last article in the series was about Roy White. I have stated that the Yankees’ Championship teams of the late ’70s, had more good but, not great players than teams from any other era. Today’s subject narrowly missed being on those championship teams.
Being called the next Mickey Mantle must be a very difficult thing, particularly when you come from the same state that he did. It would be even harder if you were actually playing with him on the Yankees. Calling someone the next Mickey Mantle would be comparable to me labeling a new SSTN reader, “The next ProfRobert”. It would be a lot to live up to. Well, that was the hand dealt to Bobby Murcer.
Bobby Ray Murcer was born on May 20th, 1946. As a high school senior, he was All-State in both football and baseball. As a senior, Murcer batted .458 and struck out only once all season. In the winter of 1964, he signed a letter of intent to play for the Oklahoma Sooners. But, in the spring of 1965, he signed a $20,000 contract to play with the Yankees.
In 1965, Murcer played for the Greensboro, NC, Yankees and was the Carolina League MVP. He batted .322 with 16 home runs and 90 RBI. He also stole 18 bases. In 1969, when Major League Baseball expanded from 20 to 24 teams, the Yankees allegedly protected Murcer and Jerry Kenney from the 1968 MLB expansion draft by making a last-minute appeal to other owners to allow players who were fulfilling their military obligation to be exempt from the draft. This allowed the Yankees to protect 17 players instead of 15. The Yankees devised this strategy specifically to protect Murcer, who spent 1967 and 1968 in the Army.
Murcer’s first hit in the major leagues, in 1965, was a game-winning home run. He also played on “Mickey Mantle Day” on September 18th of that year. Murcer said playing alongside Mantle in that game was the “greatest thrill of his career”. Murcer spent 1966 in the minors, and the next two years in the military. His Major League career began permanently in 1969 and he got off to a hot start, batting .321 with 11 homers and a league leading 43 RBI when he jammed his heel in Kansas City. He was out for seven days, and he said he lost his groove and momentum. He ended up the season batting .259 with 26 homers. He began the season playing third base and then switched to right field, before winding up in centerfield. On August 10th, 1969, he was part of a feat that was the highlight of the 1969 season for the Yankees. Murcer, Thurman Munson, and Gene Michael hit consecutive home runs in the sixth inning against Oakland. When it happened, it was only the third time it had been accomplished in Yankees’ history.
In 1970, Murcer tied for the American League lead in outfield assists with 15, while committing only three errors in centerfield. In June, he hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, tying an American League record and joining Lou Gehrig, Johnny Blanchard, and Mickey Mantle as the only Yankees to do it. In 1971, Murcer batted a career high .331, which was second in the American League. He was second in slugging percentage, .543, and runs, with 94. He also had 25 home runs and 94 RBI. He was seventh in MVP voting. In 1972, Murcer hit a career high 30 doubles and had 33 home runs with 96 RBI. He also led the American League in runs scored with 102, extra base hits with 70, and total bases with 314. He came in fifth in the AL MVP voting and won a Gold Glove. On August 29th, Murcer hit for the cycle. Murcer’s 33 home runs were the most by a Yankees’ centerfielder until 2011, when Curtis Granderson hit 41.
In 1973, Murcer asked for and received a $100,000 salary, making him only the third Yankee to make six figures. He batted .301 with 95 RBI and 22 home runs had 17 game winning hits that season, second only to AL MVP Reggie Jackson, who had 18. On June 30th, 1973., baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined Murcer, $250 for saying that Kuhn didn’t have the “guts” to stop Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry from throwing the spitball. That night, Murcer hit a two-run homer off Perry that put the Yankees ahead in a 7-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians. Murcer said after the game, “I hit a hanging spitter.” Murcer maintained a somewhat friendly feud with Perry during his career. He once caught a flyball for the last out of an inning and spit on the ball before tossing it to Perry. Another time, he sent Perry a gallon of lard. Perry retaliated by having a mutual acquaintance cover his hand with grease before shaking hands with Murcer and saying, “Gaylord says hello.”
Up until 1974, Murcer had hit 25 home runs with regularity but, he found it difficult to hit home runs at Shea Stadium, where the Yankees played in 1974 and 1975 while Yankee Stadium was renovated. In 1974, Murcer hit only two home runs at Shea Stadium, which came on consecutive days, September 21st and September 22nd.
In 1975, Murcer was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds, in baseball’s first, even swap of $100,000 superstar players. Murcer said the trade came just after he had been assured by General Manager Gabe Paul that the Yankees would not trade him. Murcer had a strong offensive season in his first year as a Giant. He batted .298 and had 91 RBI. He led the Giants in game winning hits with 13. However, he only hit eleven home runs, eliciting this quote from Murcer. “Patty Hearst could be hiding in Candlestick’s, upper deck and nobody would ever find her”, referring to how tough it was to hit home runs at that stadium. In 1976, Murcer regained his power swing and hit 23 home runs, with 90 RBI. His two consecutive seasons with 90 or more RBI was not duplicated by a San Francisco Giant until Will Clark did it in 1987 and 1988.
On February 12th, 1977, Murcer was traded to the Chicago Cubs. On March 6th, he signed his first ever multi-year deal, calling for $1.6 million over five seasons. At the time, he was the highest paid player in Cubs’ history. In the span of four years, Murcer held that distinction for three teams, the Yankees, the Giants, and the Cubs. Murcer wore number 7 with the Cubs as a tribute to Mickey Mantle. Murcer hit 27 home runs and drove in 89 runs, which led the team. He also walked 80 times and stole 16 bases. On August 8th, 1977, Murcer promised to try to hit a home run and a double for terminally ill fan Scott Crull, whom he had spoken to by phone. That night, against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Murcer hit two home runs. The game was broadcast nationally on ABC. Announcer Keith Jackson told the country how Murcer had fulfilled the dying boy’s last wish. However, no one had told the young man he was dying, and he was watching the broadcast. Murcer denied making an outright promise to the lad but, only that he would try. The boy’s mother and uncle lauded Murcer for what he did, saying it was the highlight of the youth’s life. They were less than effusive in their praise for Keith Jackson. In 1978, Murcer had a stretch of eight straight hits, a feat which was not duplicated by a Cub until Andre Dawson did it in 1989. Previously, only Billy Williams, in 1972, had done it for the Cubs.
On. June 26th, 1979, Murcer was traded back to the Yankees. In his first go-around with the Yankees, Murcer had worn uniform number 1. But that was now occupied by Billy Martin. Consequently, Murcer wore number 2. Who can forget Murcer’s game on August 6th, 1979? He had delivered the eulogy for Thurman Munson earlier that day, in which he quoted the poet and philosopher Angelo Patri.: “the life of a soul on Earth lasts longer than his departure. He lives on in your life and the lives of all others who knew him.” Afterward, the team flew home to play the first-place Baltimore Orioles in a nationally broadcast game on ABC. Yankees’ manager Billy Martin wanted to give Murcer the day off but, Murcer insisted on playing. The Yankees were trailing 4-0 when Murcer hit a three-run home run in the seventh inning and then a walk-off 2-run single down the left field line in the bottom of the ninth. Murcer never used the bat from the game again and gave it to Thurman Munson’s widow.
For the remainder of Murcer’s career, he was a part time player. In 1981, he led American League pinch-hitters with three home runs and twelve RBI. He also led the team in slugging percentage, .470. He finished the season as the designated hitter in the World Series. In 1983, Murcer retired after hitting his 100th home run at Yankee Stadium a few weeks earlier. It was the 252nd and final home run of his career. Mercer’s retirement was hastened by the Yankees desire to bring up rookie first baseman/outfielder Don Mattingly. Murcer was the only Yankee to be teammates with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Thurman Munson, Elston Howard, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, and Ron Guidry.
After his playing career, Murcer became a broadcaster for the Yankees on broadcast TV, radio, and the Yes network. Among other games, he broadcast the infamous Pine Tar game in 1983, and David Cone’s perfect game in 1999. Murcer won three Emmy Awards for live sports coverage as the voice of the Yankees. Murcer began suffering from headaches and a lack of energy, and on Christmas Eve, 2006, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He underwent surgery four days later. On January 10th, 2007, it was announced that the tumor was malignant. Murcer was able to return to Yankee Stadium for opening day of the 2007 season; he called one inning on the Yes Network. He received a standing ovation from the crowd, and the Yankees came out of the dugout to applaud him. He returned to work as an announcer on May 1st, 2007. He planned to continue broadcasting but, he died from complications of brain cancer in July of 2008. The memorial service for Murcer was held on August 6, 2008, 29 years to the day Murcer delivered the eulogy for Thurman Munson and had his tremendous game to honor his friend.
Bobby Murcer batted .277 with 252 home runs and 1043 RBI in his career. He lost two years of his career to military service, and for some reason, had a tremendous power drought playing in Shea Stadium in 1974. He was traded away from the Yankees right before they returned to their Championship ways. When he returned in 1979, they were beginning a Championship drought that would last until 1996. Murcer was only able to play in one World Series. Murcer was a very good player, who, if he had played his entire career with the Yankees, and had not lost two years to the military, at the very least, would have had his number retired and been inducted to Monument Park. He is often overlooked as a player, because he was not part of the Championship teams and because he was overshadowed by some of his teammates, particularly, Mantle and Munson. Yet, when you look at what he did as a player, he was yet another of the good but, not great Yankees’ players, who is an important part of their history.
Previous Articles in this Series: