Now I know how fans who idolized Mickey Mantle felt on the summer day of August 13, 1995, when "The Mick" succumbed after a graceful and courageous battle with liver cancer. I experienced those feelings last Saturday afternoon, when I clicked onto MLB.com and saw that Bobby Murcer had passed away.
Murcer’s death didn’t come as a complete shock. After hearing him on a Yankee broadcast earlier this season, I came away feeling discouraged. He didn’t sound right; his voice was weak and distant, and he lacked his usual positive bundle of energy. I came away from that broadcast feeling that he might not announce another Yankee game. Then came reports that Murcer’s health was sagging, that he wasn’t doing as well as he appeared to be last summer. But even with all of those warning signs, I wasn’t completely prepared. I thought we’d see him attend at least one more Old-Timers’ Game, maybe even make a studio appearance on the YES Network during the postseason (another case of wishful thinking, but on a far less important scale). So then, when I heard the news of Murcer’s death, I still took a hit to the stomach. No matter how much we try to prepare or assume, it’s just unavoidable.
Why did I like Murcer so much? After all, he didn’t play for either of the world championship teams in 1977 or ’78, and he failed to live up to the expectations—however unfair—of being the next Mantle. Well, neither of those realities mattered to me. In my mind, Murcer was plenty good; he was a little 180-pound guy who showed surprising power from the left side of the plate, ran faster than most white guys were supposed to run, and played a very good center field. He also seemed to be an easy-going, down-home, pleasant and kind gentleman, and all of that added up to him being one of my favorite ballplayers.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Murcer’s service to his country provided another exemplary characteristic to his persona. He sacrificed two of his prime developmental years to the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. As much as we talk about ballplayers who served in World War II and the Korean War, we tend to ignore Vietnam and the players who were drafted, like Murcer, Ed Figueroa, and Carlos May. Employed as a radio operator (the same work done by fellow big leaguer Bill Campbell), Murcer missed out completely on the 1967 and ’68 seasons. Although he was terrified at first, Murcer learned about discipline and responsibility during his military tenure. Emerging stronger and more self-reliant, Murcer became a better ballplayer after he returned to baseball.
At times when being a Yankee fan produced mostly dark moments, Murcer provided some necessary lighting. In the early 1970s, the Yankees found themselves weighed down in a muddle of mediocrity. They had middle infielders who couldn’t hit, a parade of feeble third basemen (at least until Graig Nettles arrived in 1973), no real right fielder, and a troublesome back end of the starting rotation. There was too much Horace "Hoss" Clarke, Jerry Kenney, and Mike Kekich, and no more Mantle, Elston Howard, and Whitey Ford. Yet, the Yankees were still worth watching. They had Munson. They had Roy White and Mel Stottlemyre, and Sparky Lyle, beginning in ‘72. And they had Murcer.
Some of Murcer’s finest accomplishments have become forgotten over time. In June of 1970, Murcer hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats of a doubleheader against the Indians. Murcer’s feat, which tied a major league record, quickly became obscured because of something else that happened during that doubleheader. Indians first baseman Tony Horton caused a stir when he crawled back to the Cleveland dugout after striking out against the "Folly Floater" thrown by Yankee left-hander Steve Hamilton.
In 1971 and ’72, Murcer was far and away the Yankees’ best player—and likely one of the top half-dozen players in either league. He slugged .543 and .537, at a time when a .500 slugging percentage put you in elite company. He reached base nearly 43 per cent of the time in 1971. He totaled 58 home runs and 190 RBIs in those two seasons, despite playing in a skeletal lineup that featured Hoss Clarke leading off and past-their-prime veterans like Felipe Alou and Johnny Callison batting behind him.
After watching him endure two subpar seasons at Shea Stadium, the Yankees decided it wasn’t worth the wait for the opening of the renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976, when Murcer might be able to revive his game and reacquaint himself with the short porch in right field. I lost track of Murcer as he played those in-between years in San Francisco and Chicago. He hated Candlestick Park, didn’t like Wrigley Field much better, and longed for a return to the American League—and to the Yankees.
So let’s fast forward to 1979. That season remains one of the most miserable in Yankee franchise history. Expected to win the American League East after their second consecutive world championship, the Yankees endured a miserable first half of the season. Cliff Johnson tore a ligament in Goose Gossage’s thumb, wrecking the Yankee bullpen for three months and bringing Heathcliff’s Yankee career to a premature end. Then there were the circumstances of August 2, which took another Yankee hero, Thurman Munson, away from us forever. In the midst of all that tragedy and turmoil, Murcer provided Yankee fans with two of the few highlights of a lost summer. The first occurred on June 26, when the Yankees brought Bobby back to the Bronx in exchange for an obscure right-hander named Paul Semall. The second came in early August, when only hours after delivering an eloquent eulogy to Munson, Murcer drove in all of the Yankees’ runs in a dramatic 5-4 comeback win on Monday Night Baseball. I watched that game from start to finish; it was our little World Series in a year that would conclude far short of the actual postseason.
Murcer remained with the Yankees through 1983. No longer a star center fielder or right fielder, Murcer emerged as a useful role player, filling in mostly in left and center, as a DH, and as a pinch-hitter. He became an important part of the underrated 1980 Yankees, hitting 13 home runs in under 300 at-bats as part of the deep and versatile bench managed by Dick Howser. In 1981, Murcer narrowly missed hitting a home run in the World Series against the Dodgers, then closed out his career with three seasons as a DH. When Murcer retired in the middle of the 1983 season, he fittingly gave way to another Yankee who would become beloved, a young first baseman-outfielder named Don Mattingly.
Thankfully, Murcer’s second career in baseball gave us a deeper glimpse into his personality. He moved into the Yankee broadcast booth, where his laid-back Southern style became a foil to Phil Rizzuto’s comic genius. What Murcer lacked in providing in-depth analysis, he made up for with a calm, easygoing manner, a flair for storytelling, and a willingness to be the punch line to his partners’ jokes. I received a first-hand taste of Murcer’s good-natured manner a few years back, when I interviewed him for a show that Billy Sample and I hosted on MLB Radio. Murcer didn’t disappoint; he was just as friendly and folksy with me as he always sounded in the Yankee booth.
Although Murcer has rightfully been portrayed as one of baseball’s true "good guys," one who seemingly had no enemies within the game, no one should come away thinking that Bobby was perfect. He sulked over a switch from center field to right field, held a grudge for too long against Yankee general manager Gabe Paul for trading him to the Giants in the winter of 1974, and whined far too much about the unpleasant winds of Candlestick Park. In the early 1980s, after he retired and moved up to the broadcast booth, he recorded a song, "Skoal Dippin’ Man," that glorified the use of smokeless tobacco. Until his dying day, Murcer severely regretted the last infraction, especially after his mother and brother both died from cancer. None of this made Murcer any less a gentleman or a good soul; it just made him more human.
As humans go, Murcer was clearly above average. Well above average. His family and friends know that very well. So do his many fans. More than anything, Murcer gave a fan like me a connection from today’s Yankees to the Yankees of the sixties, seventies, and eighties, when I grew up with baseball. Not all of my Yankee memories involve Murcer, but many of them do. And they’re all good ones.
The folks in heaven have been enjoying Bobby Murcer’s presence for about a week now. We should feel lucky that we here on earth got him for 62 years.
Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLBlogs at MLB.com. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.