It’s been nearly two years to the day that Bobby Murcer left us at the age of 62. I should have accepted this tragedy by now–it should have sunk in by this time–but his passing still stings. It still hurts that Murcer is no longer part of the Yankee broadcast booth, not to mention those wonderful Old-Timers’ Day reunions.
In looking for some consolation as we approach the second anniversary of his death, I can take some solace in his 1980 Topps card. For me, this card provided concrete evidence that Murcer had indeed returned to the organization in 1979, after a six-year layoff from the Bronx. That season became a swirl of disappointment, injuries, tragedy, and melancholy, but the return of Murcer represented at least one positive development.
The good news came on June 26, exactly 11 days after the official trading deadline of June 15. In the midst of an off season with the Cubs, Murcer slipped through waivers in both leagues, allowing the Yankees to acquire him for a minor league pitching prospect named Paul Semall. A lanky right-hander, Semall had won 17 games pitching at Double-A West Haven in 1978, but lacked a bigtime fastball. He was a decent prospect, but hardly a blue chipper. As it turned out, he never pitched in the major leagues, not for the Cubs or anyone else. Still, it wouldn’t have mattered much to me if Semall had become a 15-game winner for the Cubs; I was just thrilled that Murcer had returned to pinstripes, where he belonged.
As seen on his 1980 Topps card, Murcer brought a bit of a different look to his Yankee uniform in comparison to his earlier tenure. He now wore a helmet with a protective flap, having abandoned the old-style flapless helmet that was so common in the 1960s. He also brandished a large shin guard on his right leg, something that he had not worn in his earlier days.
Perhaps the extra equipment was a testament to his advancing age. Murcer was significantly older, at least in terms of baseball years. I didn’t much care that Murcer was now 33 and had already begun the declining stage of his career. He no longer had the power to hit 20-plus home runs a season and could no longer play center field the way that he had done for much of his first tenure in the Bronx. Yet, he still had real value as a role player. I figured that if the Yankees were smart, they would use him as a part-time left-fielder, platoon DH, and pinch-hitter extraordinaire off the bench. Those roles could all be filled in 1980, by which the time the Yankees figured to reload for another run at the American League East.
Yet, Murcer still had work to do in 1979. Some of that work involved the intangibles of leadership and grace, especially under a heavy veil of tragedy. On August 2, Murcer’s best friend in baseball, Thurman Munson, died in that horrendous plane crash in Canton, Ohio. Murcer eulogized his friend at the funeral service for the beloved catcher. Not so coincidentally, Murcer became a source of inspiration to his teammates, who were crying for leadership in the midst of a season gone mad.
Just hours after attending Munson’s funeral, the realities of the 1979 American League schedule dictated that the Yankees play a Monday night game against the Orioles. Though the season was long gone by then, a nationally televised game on ABC became a must-see event for diehard fans of the Yankees. Even if it was only to hear what Howard Cosell had to say about the Yankees, Monday Night Baseball was a necessity in the Markusen house.
Murcer was not supposed to play that night; manager Billy Martin had wanted to give him the game off because of the emotional stress of delivering one of the Munson eulogies. But Murcer told his manager that he wanted to play. As a vested veteran, he convinced Martin to change his lineup.
As with many games in 1979, the Monday night affair did not begin well for the Yankees. They trailed the Orioles, 4-0, and, understandably, seemed emotionally exhausted in the aftermath of the Munson funeral. Then, circumstances began to change in the seventh inning. Murcer initiated a comeback with a three-run homer. Still, the Yankees trailed by a run heading to the bottom of the ninth. Facing Orioles relief ace Tippy Martinez with two runners on base, Murcer laced a pitch down the left field line, bringing home both runners to win the game in melodramatic fashion.
If Hollywood had presented such a game as part of one its scripts, it would have come across as ludicrous. But in the real life setting of an actual major league game, Murcer’s five-RBI, comeback-capping performance made for wonderful theater. In a season in which so much had gone drastically wrong, Murcer had given the Yankees and their fans some reason to breathe and enjoy the game again.
Given such a performance–and his eminently productive second half bat–how could the Yankees not bring Murcer back for the 1980 season? Playing under Dick Howser’s multi-tiered platoon system, Murcer bristled at his lack of a fulltime role but again emerged as a reliable part-time player. Showing a knack for both situational hitting and timely batting, Murcer led the American League with nine sacrifice flies and also delivered 13 game-winning RBIs to place him among the league leaders.
Murcer remained useful in a lessened role in 1981. On Opening Day against the Rangers, Murcer came off the bench to hit a pinch-hit grand slam. Although he came to bat only 130 times that summer, he compiled an OPS of .801, making him one of the more effective bench players in the league. It was not until 1982 that Murcer showed major decline as a role player. A slow start to the 1983 season, coupled with the Yankees’ desire to make room for a young Don Mattingly, convinced Murcer that the time was right to announce his retirement.
Murcer’s second tenure with the Yankees added up to parts of five seasons. Though he had only a fractional amount of the talent that he had displayed for New York in the late sixties and early seventies, Murcer played more than respectably as a valued platoon and bench player. Just as importantly, that second stint gave us fans the chance to enjoy Bobby Murcer playing his final days–the right way–as a Yankee.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.