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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #41 Bobby Murcer

Between his talent on the field and his affable manner off it and in the broadcast booth, you won’t find many more beloved Yankees than Bobby Murcer.

New York Yankees

Full Name: Bobby Ray Murcer
Position: Outfielder
Born: May 20, 1946 (Oklahoma City, OK)
Died: July 12, 2008 (Oklahoma City, OK)
Yankee Years: 1965-66, 1969-74, 1980-83
Primary Number: 1
Yankee Statistics: 1,256 G, 4,997 PA, .278/.349/.453, 1,231 H, 175 HR, 192 2B, 29 3B, 129 OPS+, 129 wRC+, 27.7 rWAR, 27.1 fWAR

Biography

The CBS ownership years are arguably the nadir of Yankees’ history. From basically the 1920s on, the Yankees were in World Series contention pretty much every year until 1964. In addition to the core of the great 1950 and early-‘60s team starting to age out, 1964 was also the year that CBS purchased the franchise from Dan Topping and Del Webb. From 1965 until George Steinbrenner bought the team from CBS in 1973, the Yankees ended up in the bottom of the American League pretty much every year, unable to overcome their poor custodianship.

However, things began to look brighter once the 1970s came around. One of the lights leading the Yankees out of that darkness and into a brighter future was an outfielder named Bobby Murcer.

Multi-Sport Star

The second of Robert and Mae Belle Murcer’s three children, Bobby Murcer was born in Oklahoma in 1946. From an early age, Murcer showed a love and aptitude at sports, playing all of baseball, football, and basketball in school. Despite his small stature, he starred at all three at Oklahoma City’s Southeast High School.

While named an All-City basketball player, baseball and football were the sports where Murcer truly stood out. In football, he was named to the All-District team after leading the way for his team as a quarterback, halfback, linebacker, and punter. He was even considered good enough to be offered a football scholarship by the University of Oklahoma. That was quite the big deal as the Sooners were one of the preeminent college football teams in the country, having won three national championships in the 1950s.

Despite all that, baseball was Murcer’s true calling and what he thought his future was in. Playing shortstop and occasionally pitching, he had helped lead his high school to a conference championship, and caught the eye of MLB teams. Several offered to sign him out of high school, and at least one — the Dodgers — offered him a larger signing bonus, but it seemed that Murcer only had eyes for one team.

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

In June 1964, Yankees scout Tom Greenwade — who had also signed fellow Oklahoma native Mickey Mantle for the franchise — landed Murcer for the Bombers for a $10,000 signing bonus. The Yankees had been Murcer’s childhood favorite team and Mantle his childhood idol, and he eagerly joined the organization.

Early Career

Murcer began his professional baseball career with the Johnson City Yankees of the Appalachian League in 1964, and he quickly impressed. In 32 games and 145 plate appearances, he hit .365/.414/.532 while manning shortstop. While a knee injury would end that campaign a bit early, he had impressed the Yankees enough for the team to add him to their 40-man roster to protect him from other teams snatching him away.

After going to big league spring training, the Yankees sent Murcer to Greensboro of the Carolina League in 1965. He continued to hit there, recording a .322 batting average while slugging 16 home runs. His season earned him the Carolina League’s MVP award and also earned him a September call-up from the big league team.

Murcer made his major league debut on September 8, 1965, starting at shortstop and hitting second for the Yankees that day, where he went 0-for-5. His second game came a couple days later on September 14th. He had a far more notable performance that day, as his first career hit came on a two-run, go-ahead home run in the seventh inning that wound up being the difference in a 3-1 Yankees’ win. It was a pretty impressive feat for someone who was still just 19 years old.

After putting up solid numbers in 11 games at the end of 1965, Murcer was in the frame for the full-time shortstop job in 1966 after the retirement of Tony Kubek.

Baseball Greats Posing in Uniform
Murcer with vet teammates Mantle and Maris

The plan had been for him to split time with Rubén Amaro Sr., but after Amaro went down with an injury early in the season. Murcer didn’t fully have the trust of manager Johnny Keane, who instead moved Clete Boyer over from third to shortstop, and after not doing much in limited playing time, Murcer was sent back to the minors. He was recalled from Triple-A Toledo in September, but again didn’t light things up in a bench role.

Murcer would then have to wait a bit for his next chance at the majors, as he was drafted into the Army after reporting to spring training in 1967. After missing all of the next two MLB seasons while away, he returned for 1969. Murcer initially won the third base job out of spring training. After a few weeks there, Ralph Houk asked him to get some practice reps in right field to test him out there. Murcer did, an felt comfortable at the position, and his MLB career would soon truly be off and running.

Big League Breakout

Murcer took to the outfield pretty quickly, and became good enough that the majority of his appearances out there soon came in center field. He also showed up promise at the plate, putting up a 119 OPS+ with 26 bombs in 1969 and a 116 mark with 23 in 1970 (four over the course of a single doubleheader), as he established himself as a regular for the Yankees’ big league roster. As a team, the Yankees also began to show some promise. Led by the likes of Murcer and fellow youngsters Thurman Munson and Roy White, they went 93-69 in 1970 to finish in second place in the AL East.

Going into the 1971 campaign, Murcer had been somewhat dismayed that his batting average — which had always been fairly high in his minor league years — had fallen below .300 in both of his two full MLB seasons. As he worked that offseason, he decided to focus less on power, believing that his small frame wasn’t enough to enough to be a true great in that aspect. The change in approach would pay dividends, as Murcer would promptly post the two best years of his career.

In 1971, Murcer hit .331/.427/.543, leading the league in on-base percentage and OPS. His 181 OPS+ was also the best in the league, and he made his first of five consecutive All-Star teams.

Even beyond all that, Murcer didn’t even see much of a dip in power, despite decided to focus less on it. His 25 home runs was just one fewer than his career high to that point. While the Yankees fell back a bit in the standings, Murcer gained admirers and plaudits. He finished seventh in AL MVP voting — and probably should’ve finished a couple spots higher — and was also noted by none other than Ted Williams as one of the best young players in baseball.

Despite getting off to a slow start in 1972, Murcer would again put up some impressive numbers. Through May, he was hitting just .206/.296/.317, but went off to the tune of .316/.397/.597 from June on. He finished ‘72 with a career-best 33 home runs, a 169 OPS+, and a career-high 7.4 fWAR. Murcer also hit for the cycle on August 29th and took home his first and only Gold Glove for his work in center field. Murcer again picked up another decently high MVP finish, coming in fifth in AL voting. (Once again, there’s a couple players he arguably should’ve been over, even if him not winning was probably the correct call.)

New York Yankees Bobby Murcer... SetNumber: X16863 TK1 R3 F24

Murcer’s performances the previous two seasons helped him earn a $100,000 contract. At 26, he was the second youngest player ever to crack a six-figure salary. On the field, he got off to another slow start in 1973, although this one was due in part to suffering a broken hand after tripping over his luggage while on a trip. His numbers in ‘73 wouldn’t quite be as good as the previous two seasons, but his 135 OPS+ saw him named an All-Star for the third time and he again finished top ten in the MVP race, although as a team, the Yankees finished below .500.

Another big event in Yankee-land in 1973 was George Steinbrenner’s purchase of the Yankees from CBS. One of the first pieces of business for Steinbrenner was repairing the crumbling Yankee Stadium. In order to do so, the Yankees would spend the 1974 and ‘75 seasons playing across town at Shea Stadium. That wound up having a massive impact on Murcer and his Yankee tenure.

Departure and Non-Yankee Career

Murcer didn’t adapt well to moving over to Queens, as the different dimensions seemed to have a pretty big impact on his offensive game. While he had cracked the 20-home run mark in every full season of his career to that point, Murcer managed just 10 in 1974, and none at the Yankees’ temporary home until September. Beyond that, manager Bill Virdon, with whom Murcer clashed a bit, decided to move the All-Star back to right field. While the Yankees battled the Orioles right down to the wire for the AL East title only to come up short, Murcer had a disappointing season and was unhappy in general.

Despite assurances from Steinbrenner that the Yankees wouldn’t move Murcer, the down year apparently impacted the team’s belief in him as a player. After the season, they traded him to the Giants in a high-profile swap for Bobby Bonds.

Leaving his childhood team devastated Murcer, who also found it difficult to adjust to San Francisco. Despite bouncing back with good seasons in 1975 and ‘76, Murcer did not enjoy playing in the terribly windy Candlestick Park, which also suppressed his power. To make matters worse, his former Yankee teammates had broken through and made the World Series in ‘76.

Having earlier requested a trade, Murcer’s wish was granted before the 1977 season when he was sent to the Cubs, with whom he signed a five-year deal with $1.6 million. While his overall numbers were down from his Giants years, Murcer was more comfortable in Chicago, and slugged 27 home runs in ‘77, his most in years.

However over the next two seasons, his hitting still was only about average, and he also came under criticism from fans and the front office.

Chicago Cubs Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

While his Chicago teammates respected him and voted him team captain, Cubs general manager Bob Kennedy at one point called Murcer’s fielding “minor league quality.” There were trade rumors around Murcer throughout the 1979 season, but his salary and a no-trade clause somewhat limited the options. There was one option that would become favorable for all parties.

Yankee Return

On June 26, 1979, Kennedy went to Murcer asking if he would be willing to waive his no-trade for a deal that would send him to the Yankees. Murcer happily agreed to it, and he was sent back to New York in exchange for a minor league pitcher Paul Semall.

While clearly over the moon that he was back, Murcer didn’t quite light things on fire at the plate, and still wasn’t at his best in the field. However, the 1979 season produced arguably the most famous moment of his career, under tragic circumstances.

On August 2nd, Murcer’s longtime friend and teammate Munson tragically died in a plane crash that devastated the Yankees’ team and fans. At his funeral a couple days later, Murcer was in attendance with the rest of the team and gave one of the eulogies. The team returned to New York that night to play a game against the Orioles. Famously, Murcer helped them rally from 4-0 down, hitting a three-run homer in the seventh inning, and then hitting a walk-off single in the ninth.

Murcer hit well for the Yankees in 1980, albeit in a more part-time role thanks to a crowded outfield. He also got to taste postseason baseball for the first time, appearing once in the ALCS loss to the Royals.

Going into 1981, there was speculation that Murcer wouldn’t make the roster, but an injury to Reggie Jackson allowed him to make it. He would stay with the Yankees all year, in part after an Opening Day pinch-hit grand slam.

While Murcer only appeared in 50 games in 1981, his 131 OPS+ was his best since 1973. He would also finally get to appear in the Fall Classic, as the Yankees advanced through the expanded bracket thanks to the strike. They beat Milwaukee and Oakland in the playoffs before eventually falling to the Dodgers in the World Series.

After his productive ‘81, Murcer turned down contracts elsewhere and opted for just an invite to Yankees’ spring training, not looking to change teams again. The Yankees eventually rewarded him with a three-year contract.

Murcer would play in just 65 games in 1982, as he put up a below average OPS+ (94) for the first time since his major league brief stint in 1966. The next year, he got off to a 4-for-22 start when Steinbrenner told Murcer that were going to release him, as they needed a roster spot. The team needed the spot for some guy named Don Mattingly.

Remaining a Beloved Yankee

After releasing him as a player, the Yankees immediately brought Murcer into the fold as an announcer for the team. That would begin a run of him worked in various non-playing roles with the team. He had a tenure as an assistant general manager. He had a stint as a hitting coach with the team, working with left-handed hitters.

However, broadcasting would be Murcer’s primary role with the team. He worked on the team’s coverage on WPIX, before later moving to WNYW, and then to YES when the network was founded. He was beloved in the role teaching the game to the next generation of young fans, and was even honored with three Emmy Awards for his Yankees’ broadcasts.

Murcer remained a regular in that role until 2006, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He underwent that surgery and was eventually well enough to return to the broadcast booth during the 2007 season, including an emotional return to Yankee Stadium on Opening Day, where he got a standing ovation from the crowd.

In 2008, Murcer’s cancer returned, and he passed away from the disease on July 12th at just 62-years old. He was survived by Kay, his wife of nearly 50 years, two children, and several grandchildren. Until then, Murcer was a regular participant at Old-Timers’ Day, and to this day, Kay Murcer still regularly attends in his place.

Being a young Yankee from Oklahoma, Murcer was tagged as “the Next Mickey Mantle.” Let’s face it: He wasn’t quite that. However, Murcer was still an incredible player, and did more than enough off the field to rightly be considered one of the most beloved players and figures in Yankees history.

Former New York Yankee Bobby Murcer waves as he walks onto t Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Staff Rank: 40
Community Rank: 45
Stats Rank: 46
2013 Rank: 44

References

Baseball Reference

Blau, Clifford. SABR bio

BR Bullpen

ESPN

FanGraphs

NCAA

New York Times

Sports Business Journal

Previously on the Top 100

42. Brett Gardner
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