When I was young and Mickey Mantle was getting older, the expectations were large that the Yankees would find a replacement for the Mick. Guys like Jack Reed, who became known as his caddy, taking his spot in late innings in centerfield was one. Tommy Tresh was another. But perhaps Yankee fans had the highest hopes when Bobby Murcer came on the scene.
In September 1965 Murcer arrived. A teenage shortstop, like the Mick. He was from Oklahoma like Mantle and both were signed by Yankee scout Tom Greenwade. They both had speed and they both had power. But only one was Mickey Mantle.
The New York Times wrote about Murcer’s induction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, in August of 1993. Mantle was still around then and said, “The first time I ever heard of Bobby Murcer, they said a kid from Oklahoma was gonna be the next Mickey Mantle. They were right. Sure enough, he couldn’t play shortstop either.”
Murcer was a solid ballplayer in his 17 year career, primarily with the Yanks, he had a .277 career batting average and 1,862 hits which included 252 home runs. He was named to five All-Star teams and on June 24, 1970, he hit four consecutive home runs in a doubleheader against the Indians. His skills and popularity led him to became the third Yankee to receive a $100,000 salary, joining DiMaggio and Mantle (not a bad outfield there).
By 1979, he had been to the Cubs and the Giants and had returned to the Yankees. He would soon establish himself forever in Yankee lore.
On August 1, 1979, in Chicago, Yankee captain Thurman Munson was playing first and walked his first time up, scoring on Reggie Jackson’s homer. Lou Piniella then went back-to-back. After Munson struck out against the White Sox’ Ken Kravec in the top of the 3rd, he was given the rest of the afternoon off.
After the game, Murcer, Munson’s close friend, drove him to a small Chicago-area airport. He was flying home for the off-day. Murcer recalled for ESPN.com, "He revved the engines up and took off, and actually just took off above me where I was sitting in my car. It was night time, I could not believe that Thurman was actually in that powerful machine all by himself, you know. And the darkness of the night."
The next afternoon Munson went back to Akron-Canton Regional Airport, to practice takeoffs and landings in his new Cessna Citation 501. He had bought this blue and white seven-seat, twin-engine, million-dollar jet on July 6. It was inscribed with his Yankee number, "N15NY."
In a year and a half of flying, Munson bought four planes, but this one was big and powerful "Too powerful. I mean, it scared me," Lou Piniella, perhaps his closest friend, told ESPN.com.
The plane went down and Munson did not survive. He was 32.
The next day, on August 3, the bereft Yankees hosted the Baltimore Orioles. As the Yankees took the field, they all ran to their positions, but the catcher’s box remained vacant. Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard called for a moment of silence. It lasted only a moment because the Yankee Stadium fans clapped for 10 minutes to show their love and respect.
On August 6, the Yankees were hosting ABC Monday Night Baseball against the Orioles, but that was secondary to Munson’s Ohio funeral. More than 500 people came to support his wife Diana, his childhood sweetheart and their three children, including all the Yankees, as well as numerous other baseball luminaries and former teammates. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was there and Mets manager Joe Torre was there as well. So were AL umpires Rich Garcia and Bill Haller They knew they might not get back in time for the game and that would mean a forfeit, but they also knew their priorities. Lou Piniella read from Ecclesiastics and Bobby Murcer quoted Angelo Patri, “The life of a soul on earth lasts beyond departure. You will always feel that life touching yours, that voice speaking to you. He lives on in your life and in the lives of all others that knew him."
The Yankees got back in time to play the game. Ron Guidry told the New York Times, “The first time I got to the mound, and I looked around, there was something missing.” The Yanks fell behind 4-0, but in the 7th inning Murcer hit a three-run homer off Dennis Martinez. In the 9th, his two-run single, won it 5-4 for the Yankees and Munson. Murcer said he never used the bat again. He gave it to Diana Munson.
Murcer did what he needed to do for his friend.
It was the kind of thing he apparently did for so many of his friends. “Bobby Murcer was a born Yankee, a great guy, very well-liked and a true friend of mine,” George Steinbrenner said. “I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife Kay, their children and grandchildren. I will really miss the guy.”
Joe Girardi said, “He was a great Yankee, but more importantly, he was a great friend to all of us. He always put others first, he cared about the game, and he cared whether we won or lost every day. He wore his emotions on his sleeve whether he was in the booth or as a player, and he played the game the right way. Bobby was the type of man that, I believe, got what life was about—trying to make life better for people around him. As a kid, I used to watch Bobby Murcer, and he was one of my heroes.”
Bud Selig said, “All of Major League Baseball is saddened today by the passing of Bobby Murcer, particularly on the eve of this historic All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, a place he called home for so many years. Bobby was a gentleman, a great ambassador for baseball, and a true leader both on and off the field. He was a man of great heart and compassion.”
“The way he handled himself,” Mariano Rivera said, “he was the best example we could have.”
But the great Reggie Jackson summed it up, “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.”
Bill Chuck is the creator of Billy-Ball.com (www.Billy-Ball.com) and, with Jim Kaplan, is the author of the book, “Walk-Offs, Last Licks, and Final Outs – Baseball’s Grand (and not so Grand) Finales,” with a Foreword by Jon Miller, published by ACTA Sports, and available worldwide. Autographed first editions are available by contacting, Bill@billy-ball.com or order directly from Acta Sports or from your favorite bookstore.