By Glen Sparks
Someone, in a fit of enthusiasm but with no mind for giving a young ballplayer the proper break, stuck the “next Mickey Mantle” sign onto Bobby Murcer’s back. It never quite fit.
Yes, both Mickey and Bobby were native born to Oklahoma, Mickey from Commerce and Bobby from Oklahoma City. Yes, they were both christened with little boy names, ones to convey perpetual youth even in middle age. (Murcer’s given name was “Bobby Ray Murcer.” He was never “Bob Murcer,” let alone “Robert Murcer.”)
And, yes, they were both Yankees, outfielders on America’s most popular, most successful sports franchise. But voters elected Mantle to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot with 88.2 percent of the vote. The Mick hit 536 home runs over 18 seasons, led the American League in homers four times and made 20 All-Star teams. He won three Most Valuable Player honors and the Triple Crown in 1956. Mantle retired with an oWAR of 116.0 ponts.
Murcer stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for one year, getting 0.7 percent of the vote in 1989. He hit 252 home runs over 17 seasons, finishing runner-up in that category in 1972. He made five All-Star teams and finished in the top 10 in the MVP balloting three times. Murcer retired with an oWAR of 42.7 points.
So, no, Murcer didn’t quite turn out to be the next Mickey Mantle. He still put together a long, solid career. Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract, selected Murcer as the centerfielder on his All-1970s All-Star team. (Murcer played centerfield for the Yankees, mostly right-field for other teams.)
The Yankees called up a 19-year-old Murcer in 1965 and gave him 37 at-bats (.243 batting average). He came to the plate 73 times (.174 average) the following season before losing two years to Army service. Murcer hit 26 home runs in 1969, his first full season in the Bronx.
A lefty batter, he took advantage of the short porch in right-field at Yankee Stadium. Murcer hit 23 homers in 1970 and 25 in ’71. He also drove in 94 runs in 1971 and led the league in on-base percentage (.427), OPS (.969) and OPS+ (181).
Murcer smacked 33 homers in 1972 and drove in 96 runs, both career highs. He topped the A.L. in runs scored (102) and total bases (314). The writers voted him fifth in the MVP race.
In 1973, Murcer hit 22 homers with 95 RBI and batted .304. He slumped in 1974 (10/88/.274), and the Yanks traded him to the San Francisco Giants straight-up for Bobby Bonds. The deal left a wound. Murcer loved playing for the Yankees and didn’t like being exiled 3,000 miles away from his baseball home. He loathed cold, windy Candlestick Park. It was summer everywhere but in San Francisco, Murcer complained one July day.
He ripped just 11 homers, but still drove in 91 and hit .298 that first year. The next year, he hit .259 but rebounded with 23 homers. The Giants sent him packing to the Chicago Cubs in 1977. There, Murcer knocked 27 home runs but managed only nine in 1978.
Midway through 1979, the Cubs sent country-boy Murcer back to the Yankees. He spent the rest of his career there as a part-time player and retired early in the 1983 campaign.
Murcer retired with 3 Blank Ink points, denoting how many times he led the league in a particular category. (Black because the league leader is usually listed in bold.) The average Hall of Famer has 27 Black Ink points. Murcer had 95 grey ink points (to donate Top 10 finishes). The average Hall of Famer has 144. Mantle retired with 62 Blank Ink points and 272 Grey Ink points.
Following his playing career, Murcer opened a few businesses in Oklahoma and did some broadcasting for his beloved Yankees. Mantle, meanwhile, began battling health issues. He had done plenty of drinking during his career, sure that he would die an early death from Hodgkin’s disease just like his dad (40 years old).
As it turned out, Mantle lived many years longer than Charles “Mutt” Mantle. (He famously once said, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”) Mantle died of liver cancer on Aug. 13, 1995, at the age of 63.
Murcer smoked for much of his life. Later, he gave it up for chewing tobacco. He underwent surgery for a brain tumor on Dec. 28, 2006, and spent much of his time afterward warning people, especially youngsters, of the dangers of tobacco. Rebounding a few times, Murcer died July 12, 2008, at the age of 62.
Mantle and Murcer.