He wasn’t the next Mickey Mantle. He wasn’t as talented as Bobby Bonds–the man he was once traded for. And he’d be surpassed as a ballplayer by a young kid named Mattingly–whom he once made room for on the Yankees roster by graciously retiring from the game of baseball. Nope, he’ll never make the Hall of Fame or be remembered as one of the better players who’ve ever played the game. But talk to anyone who ever crossed paths with one Bobby Ray Murcer and I’m sure they’d all concur about one thing: The man’s legacy extends WAY beyond any ballpark in which he ever competed.
Murcer’s recent death at the age of 62 after battling brain cancer hit me hard. I guess I always felt a connection with Bobby Murcer due to the fact that he started playing regularly for the Yankees when yours truly first became enamored with baseball–around 1970. After he hit 26 home runs at the age of 23, I’d say the majority of my Yankee-fan friends expected him to be the next Mantle–or at least close; even as a young fan, I thought that was a bit much to ask for. The feeling here is that those hungry fans/friends of mine were simply looking for a “savior” during some very lean times in the Bronx. Yes, unfair expectations, for sure–and even the young Bobby Ray knew that players like his fellow Oklahoman didn’t come along too often. I recently talked to Connecticut Defenders GM Charlie Dowd–who commented on the pressure put on Murcer during those early days: “As I grew up in NYC, my impression was that he was put in a bad spot. He was not the next Mickey Mantle but rather a good player on some horrific teams. I’m not sure he was a guy that you could build your team around, but he certainly could make you better in his prime.”
Sure, Bobby Murcer put up some good numbers in his career, especially the three-year stretch between 1971 and 1973–when he averaged an impressive 27 homers and 95 RBI’s per season for the Yanks while hitting at a .308 clip over that span. Then came 1974 when the Yanks played at Shea–when Murcer became known to some as “Warning Track Bobby” due to his diminished production at a more expansive ballpark; short stints in San Francisco and Chicago would follow before he’d play his final four years on a part-time basis back where it all started–in the “House That Ruth Built.” Final career #’s: 252 HR, 1043 RBI’s, .277 lifetime batting average. Yes, a good major league ballplayer–who played a very respectable outfield at times, too.
Despite any presumed statistical shortcomings, Bobby Murcer remains the main reason why fans came to Yankee Stadium during a time when championships were scarce in the Bronx. Part of his greatness is tied to the fact that he was never bitter due to the Mantle comparisons; rather, he’d choose to enrich people’s lives with his “folksy charm,” great sense of humor, and a genuine care for his fellow human being–qualities that always came across over the airwaves when he graced the Yankees’ broadcast booth long after his playing days were over. “Inside Yankee Baseball” co-host Joe McCoy said recently that Murcer’s strength–both as an announcer AND human being– was his “lack of an agenda.” Newly-elected Hall of Famer Goose Gossage added the following: “He was an awesome person. His values and the way he lived his life were tremendous. He was a gentleman, a class act, and friendly to everyone. He was the model of how we should all be.” Amen, Goose. Former teammate/Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson: “If there’s a Hall of Fame for people, he’s in it. He enjoyed life, his family, and people. He was such a good person, and he was appreciative of the people who cared so much for him.” Finally, former Yankees coach Don Zimmer summed up Murcer’s legacy this way: “Bobby was a Yankee in every sense, a true Yankee. A class act. He was the type of person that was loved by everybody.”
None of us will forget the night of August 6, 1979–when Murcer had all five RBI’s during a win over Baltimore AFTER he had given the eulogy for his close friend Thurman Munson earlier that day. But when I think of Bobby Murcer to this day, I’m constantly reminded of the term “class”; he was the “quiet Yankee” who conducted himself both on AND off the field like few others who’ve donned pinstripes have (listening, AROD?). Personally, I never had the chance to meet Bobby Murcer, but remember a time a couple decades ago when a friend and I were sitting in the mezzanine at Yankee Stadium–not far from the press box. My buddy observed Murcer looking our way in the crowd and attempted to capture his attention by yelling loudly, “BOBBY!!!!” The former outfielder-turned-broadcaster gazed in our direction, broke into the warm smile he became famous for, and gave us a friendly wave. Nah, it wasn’t a handshake or conversation, but it surely sufficed for me that day.
In a recent column, New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro said simply of Murcer, “We lost a terrific Yankee. But more important, we lost a tremendous person.” Yeah, I think I’ll leave it at that. Rest in peace, Bobby Ray.