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.
By Glen Sparks
New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle blasted a 1-0 pitch off the Washington Senators’ Chuck Stobbs on this date in 1953. The baseball flew out of Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., punished into the distance by one of the game’s mightiest swings.
We know the ball rocketed off the National Bohemian beer sign and kept going. But, did it really travel 565 feet, as some of have said, farther than any other home-run ball in history? Or, was it not even close? The debate goes on.
This is the story: The Mick, just 21 years old, stepped into the batter’s box with a 34-ounce Louisville Slugger that he had borrowed from teammate Loren Babe. The Yankee slugger, a switch-hitter, batted from the right side against Stobbs, a lefty.
Mantle nailed Stobbs’ second pitch. A ferocious breeze roared straight to left field as he connected. The ball kept going and going, taking a wild ride in a kicked-up jet stream. Players and fans lost sight of the ball it was hit so high. Mantle’s solo clout sailed over the left-field bleachers and out of the ballpark.
Arthur E. “Red” Patterson went to work. Patterson, a former sportswriter, had taken a job as the Yankees’ PR man. He ran after the ball. He found it in a yard at 434 Oakdale Place, the leather torn, suitably injured. A youngster named Donald Dunaway, playing hooky that afternoon, had retrieved the prize.
“I’ll give you a dollar for that ball, young man,” Patterson said, or something like that.
“Deal,” Dunaway decided. That was soda and candy money.
Patterson sprinted back to the press box. The game was still going on. Mantle had knocked Stobbs’ effort out of Griffith Stadium in just the fifth inning.
The home-run ball traveled 565 feet, Patterson said to the press corps. He explained it this way: The ball cleared the stadium at about the 391-foot mark. He then walked to the back of the bleachers, another 66 feet. So, 391 plus 66 equals 457. Then, he marked off 36 strides, at three feet a stride, to where the ball landed. That would be 108 feet. And, 457 plus 108 equals 565. First, Patterson said he used a tape measure to estimate the blast. Later, he said that wasn’t true.
The newspapers went with Patterson’s story. They snapped pictures of Mantle with the beaten ball. The Hall of Fame wanted both the bat and the ball. The Sporting News reported that when the ball rocketed over the stadium “the neighbors thought it was a flying saucer.”
But, in this age of precision, was Patterson’s measurement precise? The answer remains unclear.
Alan N. Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois, wrote an article on the university’s web site in 2010 about the home run. He figures that the ball hit a building roof on Fifth Street and bounced into a nearby yard where Dunaway retrieved it. Nathan estimates that Mantle’s ball traveled about 538 feet, still a huge hit, albeit one helped considerably by the moment’s strong wind.
Nathan used a series of diagrams and possible trajectory angles of Mantle’s homer. He pointed out that the ball clanged off the Natty Bo sign, about 460 feet from home plate. (The exact measurements change according to the source.) Winds gusts reached 40 mph that afternoon in the nation’s capital. He, like everyone else, doesn’t know the exact wind speed, the batted-ball speed, the vertical-launch angle and the spin on the ball.
“The landing point of the ball depends on that vertical-launch angle, traveling farther for a line drive and less far for a pop fly,” Nathan writes. “The landing point is 578, 538, 517, and 504 ft for launch angles of 20o, 30o, 40o, and 50o, respectively.”
Then, Nathan goes a bit further, thanks to research from Jane Leavy, author of The Last Boy, a 2010 biography of Mantle. The ball was found behind a group of row houses that no longer exist but were about 512 feet from home plate. The row house roofs stood about 22 feet high. Using a few more calculations, Nathan gets his 538 feet figure, plus or minus just two feet.
Bill Jenkinson, an expert on long-distance home runs and who, along with physicist Robert Adair helped Nathan on his 2010 article, did his own research for a book called Baseball’s Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Greatest Distance Home Run Hitters. He makes his estimate at 510 feet, again still a huge hit, but not a 565-foot one. He says the 565-foot estimate is just as much a piece of legend as stories of Big Foot and the Loch Ness monster. Jenkinson points out, for instance, that Patterson once said that he never asked Dunaway where the ball actually landed.
“Once a myth takes hold, it very rarely is completely withdrawn” Jenkinson said in a 2008 article on Yahoo Sports.
Not surprisingly, the web site Mickeymantle.com offers a different take. An article on the site puts “Mickey’s Historic Homer on Trial.” It quotes the great Yankee catcher Bill Dickey, among many others. “Ruth could hit a ball awful high and awful far,” Dickey said. “Mickey can hit it just as high and just as far.”
Mantle, the Yankees’ legendary No. 7, blasted 536 home runs in his career, plus 18 in 65 World Series games. He remains one of the game’s iconic figures, the blond-haired boy from little Commerce, Okla., who made his mark in the nation’s biggest city for the sport’s greatest team. A three-time MVP, he led his team to seven World Series titles. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, in his first year on the ballot.
He may have hit a ball 565 feet on this day in 1953. He may have fallen a bit short. In the story of Mickey Mantle, though, just as in the story of so many larger-than-life characters, the mix of truth and the legend remains just another part of the tale.