The Yankees have added a number of plaques and retired numbers recently to commemorate some of the baseball greats that have graced the Yankees’ uniform. Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams have been among those that have received one or both honors since 2013. Derek Jeter will join that group in the not-too-distant future and – who knows – maybe one day Dellin Betances or Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka will do the same. But before going forward, it’s time the Yankees looked back to select who their next honoree should be.
Bobby Murcer’s smiling face should be the next to grace a plaque out in Monument Park, and not just for his contributions on the field…but for what he did for the sport, other players, and for humanity; He also was an outstanding broadcaster, and chaired the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.). When he battled the cancer that ultimately took his life, he showed great courage from which family, friends, and fans drew great inspiration.
Based on reports by scout Tom Greenwade, the same scout that recommended Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankees signed amateur free agent Bobby Murcer to a deal on June 2, 1964. Murcer had turned 18 less than two weeks earlier. It was the beginning of a long-term relationship between Murcer, a native Oklahoman like his boyhood idol Mantle, and the Yankees.
But, the old guard was gone and the future looked bleak. The team had hit rock bottom in 1966 when it finished in last place in the 10-team American League. At the start of the 1970s, the Yankees had Murcer, Thurman Munson, Roy White, and Mel Stottlemyre, who was a 22-year old rookie when the Yankees last reached in the World Series in 1964, and not much else.
Murcer was the big name in the lineup and because he was a fellow Oklahoman and played shortstop, he was dubbed the next Mickey Mantle. (Of course, it was a ridiculous and unfair comparison. Mantle was larger than life and his tape-measure home runs were that of legend.) The two were briefly teammates in 1965-1966 when Murcer got the call to the Major Leagues at the age of 19, but requisite military duty the two next years caused Murcer to missed out on Mantle’s final two seasons in baseball.
When Murcer returned for the 1969 season, he was the clear star and had the number “1” on his back to prove it. He played in 152 of the 162 scheduled games. He played third base, then right field and then center field. Like Mantle, he went from shaky infielder to a power hitting, smooth-fielding center fielder, but that’s where the comparison ended. He occupied center field for the next four seasons, before manager Bill Virdon moved him to right field in favor of Elliott Maddox.
The Yankees started to become relevant again in the early-to-mid 1970s led by Murcer and Munson. Murcer perfected his left-handed swing for Yankee Stadium’s “short porch” in right field and averaged 25 home runs and 89 RBI for his first five years in the Bronx. Unfortunately, Yankee Stadium underwent a two-year renovation from 1974-1975, and the team went into exile at the Met’s Shea Stadium home.
The transition for a left-handed hitter meant a huge difference in hitting a ball 296′ for a home run in right field in Yankee Stadium, to 338′ to accomplish the same feat in Shea Stadium. Though he still drove in 88 runs, Murcer’s home run total dipped to 11 in his only season at Shea Stadium. That winter, the team made a “Bobby for Bobby’ trade; Murcer was dealt to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds. Murcer fans were crushed. He took with him five All-Star appearances, a Gold Glove Award, and three top-10 AL MVP finishes.
The next four-plus seasons saw Murcer play for the Giants and the Chicago Cubs, before a trade back to the Yankees occurred on June 26, 1979. Murcer joined the team in Toronto and was immediately in the lineup. Murcer was home again, the place that he never wanted to leave. Though he cherished his time back in the Big Apple, he also had to deal with tragedy.
Munson had been one of his closest friends in his original stint with the Yankees, and now the duo and their third amigo, Lou Piniella, were back together again. But sadly, it was short lived. A little more than a month after the Yankees reacquired Murcer, Munson was killed when he crashed his private plane. Murcer delivered one of the eulogies at Munson’s funeral, then was the hero of that night’s game at home against the Baltimore Orioles. Down 4-0, he smacked a three-run home run and a 9th inning, game winning two-run single. The Yankees won and Murcer and Piniella hugged in the dugout afterward, but the rest of the season was meaningless.
As for the team’s success upon his return, Murcer got back a year too late. The team had won three straight AL pennants and back-to-back World Series. The team returned to the playoffs in 1980, but lost to Kansas City in the ALCS. A year later, in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, they lost the World Series to the LA Dodgers in six games after winning the first two. It was Murcer’s only two trips to the post-season in a career that spanned parts of 17 seasons. He retired in June of 1983 (replaced on the roster by rookie Don Mattingly), and was immediately bumped up to the broadcast booth.
With his wit, baseball knowledge, and friendly delivery, Murcer was a natural as a broadcaster. Whether the Yankees were on the Yes Network, WPIX, WWOR-TV, Fox-5 (WNYW), or Sportschannel, Murcer was there. He spent 22 seasons working with the likes of Phil Rizzuto, Tom Seaver, Tim McCarver, Bill White, Michael Kay, Ken Singleton, and so many more. He also spent parts of three seasons on the Yankees’ radio broadcast.
The highlights of his television career included a 2007 nomination for the Ford C. Frick Award for “major contributions to baseball”, and three Emmy Awards.
It was always a treat on Old Timers’ Day when the network mic’d Murcer as he interacted with his fellow retirees on the field. One year, he got then-Yankee Jason Giambi to serve as his hitting coach and even sported a fake tattoo on his arm to emulate Giambi.
Not all baseball players had the good fortune to play in the multi-year, multi-million-dollar era. In fact, many of the greatest stars were lucky if they could crack six figures, and many more than that didn’t make more than a fast food worker does today. That is why the Baseball Assistance Team was formed in 1986 by former players, not just for their fellow players, but umpires, front office personnel and others employed by baseball. From their own mission statement – : “If a member of the Baseball Family is in need of medical, financial or psychological assistance B.A.T. will do all it can to help”.
In his role as Chairman of the organization, Murcer visited with teams during Spring Training to remind them how important it is to take care of those baseball alumni that are less fortunate than others. The Bobby Murcer Award is given to the AL and NL team that donate the most money to B.A.T. each year.
Additional Contributions to baseball
In addition to roles as a player, broadcaster, and player advocate, Murcer also contributed to the game as a member of the front office. Though it was only for a brief time, he spent part of the 1985 season as an assistant to Yankees’ General Manager Clyde King, and was also the President of the Triple-A Oklahoma City 89ers for a couple of seasons.
From Skoal Dippin’ Man to Anti-Tobacco
Chewing tobacco has been a huge part of American culture, and baseball culture as well. In the past, it was not an unfamiliar sight to see a player with a huge wad of “dip” in their cheek. Bobby Murcer was no exception. He even recorded a song, “Skoal Dippin’ Man”, in 1982 that was dedicated to the love of chewing tobacco. But as people became more aware of the dangers of smoking, they also discovered more about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Murcer became an anti-tobacco advocate in the early 1990s.
After seeing a family member suffer with cancer, Murcer was instrumental in getting the Oklahoma Senate to create and pass a bill that helped to make it harder for minors to obtain tobacco. The bill was later signed into law.
Courage Under Fire
In December, 2006, Murcer was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent surgery. He made it to Yankee Stadium on Opening Day and was greeted with a huge standing ovation as his image was shown on the Stadium’s video board. On May 1, he returned to a semi-regular broadcasting schedule on the YES Network.
His mere appearance encouraged others to fight, just as he did, until his passing on July 12, 2008. In November of that year, the love of Bobby’s life, his wife Kay, came to New York City to help launch the Murcer Mobile MRI Unit. It was part of an effort for early detection by The Brain Tumor Foundation.
For all that Bobby Murcer did for the game of baseball and for the New York Yankees in particular, it’s time for the organization to recognize those efforts with a plaque in Monument Park.