I’ve always prided myself on being an expert on Bobby Murcer, primarily because he and Thurman Munson remain two of my favorite Yankees of all time. After attending last week’s Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, I realize I don’t know as much as I think. Or perhaps I just don’t remember as well as I should. An informative presentation by Willie Steele of Cascade College, titled "America’s Yankee: Bobby Murcer’s Life In and Out of Baseball," provided me with several new nuggets of information relating to the former Yankee center fielder and all-around good guy.
*While I was certainly aware of Murcer’s connection to Mickey Mantle—with both being from Oklahoma, leading to inevitable and grossly unfair expectations for the young Murcer—I didn’t know that the Yankees staged three different "Mickey Mantle Days."
The first one occurred on September 18, 1965, a Saturday afternoon at the Stadium, with both Murcer and Mantle in the lineup that day. In fact, they batted back-to-back, with the 19-year-old Murcer sitting in the two-hole and Mantle hitting third. Both players played positions with which we no longer associate them, Mantle in left field and Murcer at shortstop. (Bobby played shortstop about as well as I figure skate.) Each man went 0-for-3 against Tigers pitching, which included a relief stint by Denny McLain. And neither man finished the game, a 4-3 loss to the Tigers; Murcer was lifted for a pinch-hitter (Tony Kubek), while Mantle gave way to a pinch-runner (the immortal Ross Mosschito).
*Though he’s remembered for his eloquent eulogy at Munson’s funeral, Murcer was not the only Yankee to speak at the service. Lou Piniella, who was friends with both players, also eulogized Munson. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the closeness between "Sweet Lou" and Thurman. I still remember the scene from last summer’s The Bronx is Burning, when Munson and Piniella tried to hide from Billy Martin after secretly meeting with George Steinbrenner in an effort to save the manager’s job. Martin found the two players in the bathroom.
*Murcer was the Yankee teammate who gave Munson the nickname "Tugboat." Most of the Yankees called Munson "Squatty Body," which was both an endearing and derisive reference to Munson’s flabby build. "Tugboat" sounds just a bit more flattering. Once again, Murcer tried to be the nice guy in the Yankee clubhouse.
*In 1983, unusual roster circumstances led the Yankees to ask Murcer to retire. Somehow I must have forgotten the details to this story. An injury to Ken Griffey left him unavailable to play the outfield for a few days, but wasn’t considered serious enough to merit placement on the 15-day disabled list. In need of another outfielder, the Yankees wanted to recall a young prospect from Triple-A Columbus. Needing to clear out a roster spot, the Yankees asked Murcer, who was strictly a DH by then, to step aside. With no interest in attempting to play for any other team, Murcer agreed to retired gracefully. And, in the process, he just so happened to make room for another future Yankee great. The young outfielder waiting in the wings? Why, it was none other than Don Mattingly.
*Both Murcer’s mother and brother died of cancer. That’s partially why he remains so regretful over having recorded the country song, "Skoal Dippin’ Man," in the mid-1980s. Murcer has hosted an American Cancer Society golf tournament for years and remains committed to establishing a tobacco-free environment. He continues to do this while battling his own cancer, which arrived in the form of a brain tumor in December of 2006.
During his talk at the Hall of Fame, Steele also delivered a rousing endorsement for Murcer’s new book, Yankee For Life: My 40-Year Journey in Pinstripes. I haven’t read the book yet, but just about every review I’ve seen has sung its praises. It remains on my must-read list for the summer of ’08.