Whenever baseball comes up in conversation with my mom and I complain about something the New York Yankees are doing that irritates me, she is always quick to remind me, "Hey, at least you didn't have to deal with the Horace Clarke years." Oh, how thankful modern fans should be that they got to avoid that disaster.
After the Yankees' late-season run to the 1964 American League pennant and subsequent World Series loss, owners Dan Topping and Del Webb sold the team to CBS. The transition to apathetic owners came at a horrible time when the organization needed guidance; veterans like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were getting older, and not many viable replacements emerged from the depleted farm system. The Yankees' talent rapidly declined, and from '65-'69, the team played their worst period of baseball since its pre-Ruthian days under "Wild Bill" Donovan. The Yankees went 382-424, a disappointing .474 winning percentage for the once-proud franchise and its manager, Ralph Houk.
In the final year of this stretch though, an Oklahoma outfielder who shared many similarities with the legendary Mantle returned to the team after two years in the military. Bobby Murcer played just 31 games in New York in '65-'66 before his U.S. Army stint, but most fans remembered the incredible hype surrounding him, one of the few "viable replacements" produced by the farm system. In his return to the majors, the 23-year-old lefthanded hitter proved his worth by slugging 26 homers, good for a 118 wRC+.
The team drastically improved in '70 to 93 wins, but still finished a distant 15 games behind the incredible Baltimore Orioles in the AL East standings. Regardless, the team was on the rise thanks to the contributions of Murcer, Rookie of the Year catcher Thurman Munson, and ace Mel Stottlemyre. The Yankees dipped to 82-80 in '71, but Murcer had his career year and made the All-Star team for the first time. He hit .331/.427/.543 with a 177 wRC+, leading the league in on-base percentage and finishing seventh in AL MVP voting. Murcer was now an established superstar and he mashed 33 homers into the right field seats in '72 while the Yankees chased a playoff berth for the first time in eight years. Their winning percentage was not as good as the '70 team, but they stood only 3.5 games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers at 63-58 entering a doubleheader on August 29th against the Texas Rangers.
Managed by Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams, the Rangers were in their first year at Arlington following the franchise's move from Washington, where they were the second incarnation of the Washington Senators. Fortunately for the Yankees, who were trying to gain ground on the Tigers, the Rangers were awful and would lose 100 games. No one knew at the start of doubleheader though that Murcer was about to enter the record books.
Texas started lefty Mike Paul against righthander Steve Kline. Curiously, Paul was a vital part of another of Murcer's most famous games--on June 24, 1970, he gave up two homers in a game to Murcer, part of a streak of four consecutive homers for Murcer in successive at bats during the doubleheader. Paul posted a career-high 2.17 ERA and 139 ERA+ in '72 splitting time between the rotation and the bullpen, but he was clearly not a lefty that could completely neutralize Bobby Ray. He did strike Murcer out in his first at bat though, and both pitchers threw two scoreless innings. Kline was in his career year as well, and he pitched to an impressive 2.40 ERA (123 ERA+) in 32 starts. The Rangers scored first against him though when shortstop and future scout Gene "Stick" Michael threw away an Elliott Maddox double play ball, which allowed Jim Mason to single Maddox in.
The Yankees countered in the bottom of the fourth when Murcer smashed a Paul pitch toward the center field wall, the deepest part of old Yankee Stadium at 461 feet away. It fell for a triple, and Murcer was later glad that he got the triple out of the way early, saying "A lot of guys when they hit for the cycle, normally they don't go single, double, home run, and then triple. They usually get the triple first or second. The triple is the hardest part." Left fielder Roy White, enjoying a fine year himself with a team-leading .384 OBP, singled to center and brought Murcer home to tie the game. Two more singles courtesy of forgotten third baseman Celerino Sanchez and Mets cult hero Ron Swoboda followed, scoring White to give the Yankees the lead. White had another chance to bring Murcer home in the fifth inning when Murcer grounded a double down the right field line with two outs, but he harmlessly bounced out to third base.
Texas mounted a rally against Kline in the sixth. Left fielder Larry Biittner led off with a single to center field, then moved to second with one out on a single to left by third baseman Dalton Jones. Former first round pick Ted Ford came to the plate. The 25-year-old righthanded hitter had not lived up to his promise, but against Kline, he crushed a three-run homer to give the Rangers a 4-2 lead (one of only 17 he hit in his career). In the next inning, the Rangers expanded their lead with four consecutive hits--a double and three singles. One runner was cut down at the plate, but Paul and Maddox crossed home to make the score 6-2, Texas. The Yankees would need a rally to bring the game closer, and they got one in the bottom of the frame.
Hal Lanier pinch-hit for Kline and led off the seventh with a double to left-center. As he did so many time in '72, Williams removed his starter in favor of lefty reliever Paul Lindblad, who pitched to a 2.62 ERA that year but led the league in games pitched with 66. "Lindy" wore down as the season dragged on, and he did not have his good stuff for this game. The infamous Clarke grounded a double to left field, bringing Lanier home, and Munson scored Clarke with an RBI single to center. Unfazed about facing a second southpaw, Murcer lined a single of his own to left field, moving Munson to second base. He now stood just a home run away from the Yankees' first cycle in 15 years. Coincidentally, the last two Yankees to accomplish the rare feat were acclaimed center fielders themselves: Mantle on July 23, 1957, and Joe DiMaggio on May 20, 1948.
White walked against new reliever Casey Cox to load the bases with no one out. The Yankees had a golden chance to tie the game and maybe more, but they got just one more run out of the inning thanks to a foul out, an RBI fielder's choice, and a fly out. Reliever Ron Klimkowski retired the Rangers in order in the top of the eighth, and though Michael led off the eighth with a single against Cox and moved to third with two outs, Munson grounded out to end the inning. Curiously, Williams let Cox hit in the top of the ninth, then pinch-ran for him with Dave Nelson when Cox walked. Cox was pitching well enough, why not let him run the bases if Williams was willing to let him hit? The New York Times rued this move the next day, stating, "Ted Williams, the Texas manager... appears to maneuver his pitchers with less success than he hit them."
The Rangers did nothing more against Klimkowski anyway as Maddox struck out attempting to bunt the pinch-runner over, and Mason grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. Williams's curious move forced him to pitch a rookie, Steve Lawson, in the ninth inning with a one-run lead against Murcer. Though facing another lefthander with the game on the line, Murcer was not intimidated by the rookie, even though Lawson struck him out once earlier in the year. He "electrified the incredulous crowd of 15,987" by blasting his 23rd homer of the season to tie the game and clinch the cycle with an important drive that helped not only himself, but the team as well. The Yankees put the winning run on second with one out, but Lawson stayed strong and escaped the inning with a strikeout and fly out. The game continued to extra innings
Klimkowski threw a perfect tenth inning, and the Yankees again threatened against Lawson with successive one-out walks. Williams replaced him with Horacio Pina, who got Munson to hit into a force, intentionally walked the hot-hitting Murcer, and induced a harmless groundout to second from White. Having pinch-hit for Klimkowski, Houk brought his best reliever, closer Sparky Lyle, into the game. Lyle worked around an error by third baseman Bernie Allen and threw a scoreless inning with two strikeouts. Finally, in the bottom of the eleventh, the Yankees won the game when Bloomberg and Allen walked to lead off the frame and former Phillies great Johnny Callison lined a base hit to left field to score "Boomer."
Although the Yankees won the game, they were unable to catch the Tigers in the standings, and they finished 6.5 games behind the Tigers in the AL East standings. It would be four more years until they returned to the playoffs and Murcer was traded from the team by then, but the great center fielder played a big role in turning the team's fortunes around earlier in the decade.
Further sources: Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.