Murcer was better than most realize

July, 12, 2008
07/12/08
9:06
PM ET
To some, Bobby Murcer will always be famous for not being Mickey Mantle. Both were from Oklahoma, both played for the Yankees when they were only 19 years old, both were perennial All-Stars and both played center field. But of course, Murcer never quite reached the heights that Mantle did.

To some, Murcer might have suffered from those lofty comparisons. If so, he never admitted it. As he once told The New York Times, "I was too young and too dumb to realize what they were trying to do in the first place, and by the time I realized it, I had already established myself."

It did take a few years to establish himself. After playing briefly for the Yankees in 1965 and '66, Murcer was one of the very few major leaguers drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. Inducted into the army during spring training in 1967, he missed all of that season and the next while serving as a radio operator. Murcer worried that his career was over, but would later tell author Philip Bashe, "What I thought was going to be a horrible experience was really a positive thing for me in the long run. I learned responsibility and, obviously, a little bit of discipline. When I got out I was ready to proceed with my baseball career on a much more mature level."

No kidding. Murcer, who had struggled in the majors before going into the army -- understandably, considering that he'd been a 160-pound teenager -- got off to a brilliant start in 1969. He homered on Opening Day and drove in three runs. He homered in his next game, too. When Murcer hurt his ankle in late May, he was leading the majors with 43 RBIs.

He cooled off after getting back into the lineup, but still led the club with 82 runs and 82 RBIs. Also that season, Murcer finally moved into Mantle's old spot in center field. Murcer, like Mantle, had been a shortstop in the minors, and he'd stuck there during his first stints with the Yankees. But in 1969 they moved him to third base, an experiment that lasted five weeks and included 14 errors. He spent the next months in right field, and finally moved to center in late August; the transition was complete, and in 1972 Murcer won a Gold Glove (something Mantle never did).

In 1971, Murcer's first great season (and his best), he played in his first of five straight All-Star Games. They didn't all come with the Yankees, though. In 1974, Murcer became the highest-paid Yankee ever -- his $120,000 salary topped the $100,000 earned by Joe DiMaggio and Mantle. But Murcer hit only 10 home runs in 1974, and shortly after the season the Yankees traded him to the Giants for Bobby Bonds.

Murcer played well for the Giants for two years, then not so well for the Cubs for two years. In the summer of 1979, in what now looks like a salary dump, the Cubs traded Murcer back to the Yankees for a minor leaguer. A few weeks later, Thurman Munson died while trying to land his airplane. Murcer delivered a eulogy at Munson's funeral; in the Yankees' next game, Murcer drove in all five runs in New York's 5-4 victory.

A part-timer during the next few years, Murcer was hardly playing in the summer of 1983 when George Steinbrenner invited him to join the Yankees' broadcast team. Just like Phil Rizzuto 27 years earlier, Murcer accepted the offer and made the transition immediately. And like Rizzuto, Murcer became a fixture.

As a player, Murcer has been both overappreciated and underappreciated. In the 1970s he was one of the game's more famous players, because he played for the Yankees and had plenty of flair. He was, by the common definition of the term, a superstar. However, he was a great player for only four seasons: 1970 to 1973.

On the other hand, as is often the case with very good players with a broad range of skills, history has not been kind to Murcer. Would you believe he was just as good as Andre Dawson and Tony Oliva, both of whom might one day be elected to the Hall of Fame? He was. Would you believe he was quite a bit better than Roger Maris? He was. At his best, Murcer routinely hit 25 home runs, scored 90 and knocked in 90. And in Murcer's era, those numbers meant something.

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