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Bobby Murcer leads off a new series of Yankee greats

Stars with short-lived peaks like the beloved Murcer deserve our recognition.

Portrait of Bobby Murcer

When I first started the Yankees’ complementary greats series, I didn’t expect such positive feedback. The way that some of those players brought back wonderful memories surprised me. It is easy for any single one of those players to get a little lost in the vast history of baseball, but it is important to take the time and look back at those marvelous careers.

That specific series with those standards gave me a lot of room to highlight all sorts of players in all sorts of generations, from Frank “Home Run” Baker’s early days before the Yankees became the Yankees, to the days of Didi Gregorius replacing Derek Jeter in 2015. The Yankees have had great players on somewhat mediocre teams and really good contributors of great ones, but they were all, in the truest sense of the word, complementary.

Keeping all of this in mind as I researched individuals for each position, I often came across players who piqued my interest, but couldn’t be chosen for the list of complementary greats, simply because, at their peak, they represented more than that for any Yankees team.

These are not players in the upper echelon of icons — Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, and others. I want to focus on historic greats that for one reason or another failed to reach Cooperstown, often due to physical ailments or any number of specific scenarios.

This will be a list of Yankee leaders whose stars shined for too brief of a time. They’re players who under different circumstances could’ve been among the all-time greats, but didn’t manage the longevity to do so. Some of their pinstriped careers ended in trade; others in injury.

Credit to our managing editor, Andrew Mearns for coming up with the idea. This is the Yankees’ All-Supernova team: our newest series to get us through these trying times in baseball. Our introduction to the list will be a familiar face, someone who passed away too young and is still missed by multiple generations of fans: Bobby Murcer.

Career NYY stats: 1,256 G, .278/.349/.453, 192 2B, 175 HR, 862 BB, 129 OPS+, 27.7 rWAR

No player better represented the magnitude of the Yankees more than Murcer. The Oklahoma native grew up rooting for the Yankees and even let that desire drive his decision to sign with them in 1964 for $10,000, when the Dodgers were offering him a larger bonus.

Murcer was an outstanding athlete, excelling at baseball, football, and basketball in high school, he earned a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma to play football after receiving All-State honors. But of course, his focus was on the sport of baseball and primarily the New York Yankees.

The young left-handed hitter came up with great success through the Yankees minor league system as a shortstop. His charisma and skill beyond his years really built up hype for him to take over in the bigs as a 19-year-old following the retirement of Tony Kubek, but he couldn’t run away with the job and ultimately Clete Boyer took over and Murcer was sent back to the minors.

The Yankees always worried about his defense and after missing the 1967-68 season due to service in the U.S. Army, Murcer came back with an extra 15 pounds and a more bulky build, and a regular spot in right field. It took him a while to get acclimated to the outfield, but he quickly did so and in a year took over as the center fielder. Given Murcer’s Oklahoma roots and the fact that the same man who signed him (Tom Greenwade) also signed the “Commerce Comet,” the Mantle comparisons were immediate, especially since he had just retired.

Murcer wouldn’t hit 536 homers, but he had a career that wouldn’t bring shame to anyone whatsoever. He had a couple productive seasons in 1969-70, a stretch that included a Gehrig-like career highlight with homers in four consecutive at-bats during a doubleheader against Cleveland on June 24, 1970. Following that campaign though, he took things to another level in 1971-72 with some of the best seasons by any center fielder since integration in 1947.

If you search the top 10 seasons by OPS+ since 1947 with players who had at least 75 percent of their games in center, you’ll find the following names:

  • Mickey Mantle (five separate occasions)
  • Mike Trout (twice)
  • Willie Mays (once)

Sitting there at No. 10 with his 181 mark in 1971 is Bobby Murcer.

New York Yankees Bobby Murcer... Set Number: X16863 TK1

This list starts after the end of Joe DiMaggio’s career, but even the Yankee Clipper only had one season with an OPS+ above 181. Far be it from me to compare the two, but it offers a glimpse at the magnitude of what Murcer was able to accomplish at his very best.

From 1971-1973, in what came to be the prime of Murcer’s career, he established himself as head and shoulders, the best player on the Yankees. He was also the best center fielder in all of baseball (winning a Gold Glove in ‘72 along the way), leading the majors in every major category throughout that period:

HR (80)
RBI (285)
AVG (.308)
OBP (.381)
SLG (.518)

The Yankees didn’t make a lot of noise throughout that period with mediocre campaigns in each season, but Murcer was the man responsible for keeping the ballclub afloat and his contributions shouldn’t be lost in history.

The comparisons at the time were natural with the great history of center fielders in the Yankee organization and Murcer handled them well, with the production on the field that prolonged said comparisons. For a significant period, he was not only the best Yankee, but also one of the best players in the game. In fact, throughout that three-year span, Murcer’s 160 OPS+ was fourth in all of baseball behind only Willie Stargell, Dick Allen, and Henry Aaron. Murcer even sat comfortably ahead of the ascendant Reggie Jackson (160 to 152).

Something strange happened to Murcer in the second half of 1973 that stalled the remainder of his career. After a 3-homer game against the Royals on July 13th, he hit just 4 long balls the rest of the season in 68 games. With a .762 OPS in that stretch, Murcer was still productive, but without the power, he wasn’t as much of a threat. The Yankees’ move to spacious Shea Stadium in 1974 during Yankee Stadium renovations only discouraged him further. He was popular enough to be voted to his fourth straight All-Star Game, but on the campaign, he belted just 10 homers (just a pair at home) in 156 games, falling to a 106 OPS+.

Less than a month after the season ended, Murcer was crushed to learn that he had been traded to the Giants for Bobby Bonds. He played better than he had in ‘74, but fell short of the heights he had reached earlier in the ‘70s. After another year in San Francisco and two and a half with the Cubs, Murcer returned to the Bronx via trade in June of ‘79. He had missed the Yankees’ back-to-back championship window, but was still delighted to be reunited with old friend Thurman Munson.

Tragically, their time together again was short-lived, as Munson died in a plane crash on August 2nd. Four days later, the Yankees played in memory of their fallen captain after his funeral, and Murcer got to be the hero against the eventual pennant-winning Orioles:

Murcer remained with the Yankees in a mostly part-time role for the final four years of his career, even getting to at last play in a Fall Classic during New York’s run to the pennant in 1981. The Yankees offered him a spot in the broadcast booth in June 1983, and Murcer accepted, retiring as a player and beginning a career as an analyst that continued for over two decades, up until shortly before he passed away from cancer in 2008. He was only 62.

His peak was short-lived and his overall numbers may not jump out, but who Bobby Murcer was at the height of his powers should not be forgotten. He was the best center fielder in baseball and one of the sport’s top players.

As always, credit to SABR for help with the research.