Murcer’s career was late to start because he had to serve two years in the military. But when he finally did break into the lineup upon his return in 1969, he started a love affair for all of the New York tri-state area. He was an Oklahoman like Mickey Mantle. He was handsome. And he played center field. What was there not to love?
Murcer’s first two years were promising. He didn’t hit for a high average (just .259 and .251) but he walked a lot and hit for power. He hit 49 homers combined those first two seasons. Still, his OPS+ for those seasons were 119 and 116 respectively. But he became a superstar in 1971, his third full season. In 1971, Murcer batted .331 and led the league with a .427 on-base percentage. After striking out a hundred times in his first two seasons, he struck out only 60 times in 1971. He had 56 extra base hits and led the league in OPS at .969, good for a commanding 182 OPS+. He came in seventh in MVP voting and had the highest WAR of all position players in the AL that season. My man-crush deepened.
Murcer didn’t have quite as good a season in 1972, but he actually finished with a higher WAR. His defense in center was better and he raised his homer total to over thirty for the first time in his career. He led the league in runs scored and total bases that season. It was clear that he wasn’t going to be Mickey Mantle. But he was as good as Carlos Beltran early in his career.
Bobby Murcer’s overall numbers were down in 1973, but he still hit over .300 and made the All Star team for the third straight year. He hit 22 homers and his OPS was good for a 134 OPS+. He was still one of the elite players in the American League. He became the first Yankee since Mickey Mantle to make $100,000 a year, a symbolic number in those archaic days. He was our star. He was our standard bearer. And then the dream ended. The Yankees announced that they were going to renovate Yankee Stadium and move to Shea Stadium for two seasons starting in the 1974 season.
Shea Stadium broke Bobby Murcer. The dimensions at Shea did not suit Murcer like Yankee Stadium did. Murcer’s home run total fell to ten in 1974. He hit only two homers in Shea Stadium all season. Suddenly, Murcer had warning track power. His OPS fell to .710. After compiling 23.9 WAR the previous four seasons, he fell to only 1.1 in 1974. He wasn’t even the center fielder anymore. Elliot Maddux took over that position in 1974 and Murcer moved to right. The writing was on the wall.
The Yankees were on the move during those years. George Steinbrenner had purchased the team and he was determined to build a winner. Murcer’s production wasn’t going to cut it with George and after the 1974 season, Murcer was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds. Our hearts were completely broken. Bonds was a good player, but he wasn’t our guy. Our guy went on to have four decent seasons for the Giants and the Cubs. His power somewhat returned and he hit 50 homers combined in 1976 and 1977, but it wasn’t for us. He never made another All Star team. He never led the league in any category again.
Steinbrenner, as was his wont, brought Murcer back for a swan song in 1979. He was there for us after Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. He got us through those days. But he was a broken down, role player by then. He gave us some moments to smile and cheer. But his career that seemed headed to glory before Shea Stadium, fizzled and withered away. Shea Stadium killed our dream and cost us our hero.
There are some things in life you never get over. The fall of Bobby Murcer as a Yankee superstar and his eventual trade were two things that hurt all these years later. He became a beloved figure on the early years of the YES Network. But then cancer took him away permanently. His Yankee glory was not long enough and neither was his life.