After playing briefly for the Yankees in 1965 and '66, Murcer was one of the very few major leaguers drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. Inducted into the army during spring training in 1967, he missed all of that season and the next while serving as a radio operator. Murcer worried that his career was over, but would later tell author Philip Bashe, "What I thought was going to be a horrible experience was really a positive thing for me in the long run. I learned responsibility and, obviously, a little bit of discipline. When I got out I was ready to proceed with my baseball career on a much more mature level."
No kidding. Murcer, who had struggled in the majors before going into the army -- understandably, considering that he'd been a 160-pound teenager -- got off to a brilliant start in 1969. He homered on Opening Day and drove in three runs. He homered in his next game, too. When Murcer hurt his ankle in late May, he was leading the majors with 43 RBIs.
He cooled off after getting back into the lineup, but still led the club with 82 runs and 82 RBIs. Also that season, Murcer finally moved into Mantle's old spot in center field. Murcer, like Mantle, had been a shortstop in the minors, and he'd stuck there during his first stints with the Yankees. But in 1969 they moved him to third base, an experiment that lasted five weeks and included 14 errors. He spent the next months in right field, and finally moved to center in late August; the transition was complete, and in 1972 Murcer won a Gold Glove (something Mantle never did).
In 1971, Murcer's first great season (and his best), he played in his first of five straight All-Star Games. They didn't all come with the Yankees, though. In 1974, Murcer became the highest-paid Yankee ever -- his $120,000 salary topped the $100,000 earned by Joe DiMaggio and Mantle. But Murcer hit only 10 home runs in 1974, and shortly after the season the Yankees traded him to the Giants for Bobby Bonds.
Shea Stadium is what really did-in the first leg of Murcer's career with the Yanks. Not only did his power vanish but he was unceremoniously replaced in center field in the middle of the season. Murcer missed the Yankees three straight pennants in the late '70s but returned as a bench player in '79 and was around in the '81 Serious. Neyer continues:
As a player, Murcer has been both overappreciated and underappreciated. In the 1970s he was one of the game's more famous players, because he played for the Yankees and had plenty of flair. He was, by the common definition of the term, a superstar. However, he was a great player for only four seasons: 1970 to 1973.
On the other hand, as is often the case with very good players with a broad range of skills, history has not been kind to Murcer. Would you believe he was just as good as Andre Dawson and Tony Oliva, both of whom might one day be elected to the Hall of Fame? He was. Would you believe he was quite a bit better than Roger Maris? He was. At his best, Murcer routinely hit 25 home runs, scored 90 and knocked in 90. And in Murcer's era, those numbers meant something.