The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, July 14, 2008

 

Bobby Murcer (1946-2008)

Several years ago, the legendary Cleveland proto-punk band the Styrenes rose from the grave long enough to reissue some great old material via album entitled All the Wrong People are Dying. The title track (listen here) is dirge beneath vocalist Mike Hudson's spoken-word eulogy for his 33-year-old recently deceased brother Joey, a fellow musician, and the cataloging of a few recent deaths of his punk peers -- punk stars Stiv Bators and Johnny Thunders among them. Halfway through the song, the music picks up the tempo, and both Hudson's story and the guitar crescendo into a defiant, Velvet Underground-inspired squall before returning to its melancholy mood. It's a great track that you've almost certainly never heard.

All the wrong people are dying, and this weekend, Bobby Murcer's number came up. A 17-year veteran of the majors who moved up to the broadcast booth when his playing days were done, he was 62 and had been battling a malignant brain tumor for the past year and a half, sporadically appearing on YES Network broadcasts and promoting an autobiography, Yankee for Life.

Heir apparent to Mickey Mantle as Yankee center fielder -- and like Mantle a native of Oklahoma and a shortstop when he began his career -- Murcer never lived up to the insanely high expectations set for him during the dark age between the Yankees' 1965 and 1976 World Series appearances. Nonetheless, he was a star for an extended period and enjoyed a very good career with the Yankees, Giants, Cubs and then the Yanks again. He had decent pop and good plate discipline (a lifetime line of .277/.357/.445 with 252 home runs), though he was considerably overrated as a fielder; he won a Gold Glove in 1972 but Baseball Prospectus' numbers show him as -142 runs overall. He made the All-Star team every year from 1971 to 1975, the first four years as the American League starter. His best seasons were 1971 (.331/.427/.543 with 25 homers, 94 RBI and 9.4 WARP) and 1972 (.292/.361/.537 with a career-highs of 33 homers, 96 RBI and 9.7 WARP). He led the league in OBP in '71 and finished second in slugging, and led the league in total bases in 1972 while finishing third in slugging. The guy could play.

I don't have particularly vivid memories of Murcer as a player other than a couple games with the Cubs and then as a reserve with the Yankees at the end of his career. He went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt as a pinch-hitter in the 1981 World Series against the Dodgers, most memorably bunting foul into a double play in the eighth inning of Game Three and flying out for Tommy John to end the fourth inning of a 1-1 tie of the decisive Game Six. Rough stuff for a guy who only got to that one Fall Classic.

I wasn't a huge fan of Murcer's broadcasting work in my early years of watching the Yankees, but gradually, his good ol' boy charms won me over, particularly his self-deprecating sense of humor when it came to talking about his playing days. Yanksfan vs Soxfan's Mark Lamster says it best:
As a broadcaster, Murcer did not have the deep reservoir of anecdotal material of Jim Kaat, and he wasn't especially skilled at breaking down the tactical game. But he had that most important quality for an announcer: an easy affability that made it a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with him, watching the game. His voice was a sweet Oklahama drawl; the aural equivalent of a lazy summer afternoon.
A couple of favorite Murcer stories come to mind. In one, he spoke of a time during the Yankees' exile to Queens amid their renovation. Talking with management about his 1975 contract soon after the 1974 season ended, he complained about the prevailing winds which made playing center field in Shea Stadium a challenging task, and which contributed to his drop from 22 homers to 10. As the story goes, the Yankees quickly traded Murcer to the Giants for Bobby Bonds, thus forcing him to endure the notorious winds in Candlestick Park. After two more seasons he was traded to the Cubs, where he found himself in... the Windy City. "Shoulda kept my big mouth shut," he sheepishly admitted. Broke the boys in the booth up.

In the other story, Bonds recalled a game in the early Seventies in which Yankee outfielder Ron Woods went over the wall in an attempt to prevent a home run, and in doing so momentarily knocked himself unconscious. Murcer climbed the wall and retrieved the ball, ceremoniously holding it up as though it had come out of his prostrate teammate's glove, and the ump called the hitter out. On the air, more than 35 years after the fact, Murcer admitted that the ball had been a couple of feet from his KO'd teammate.

Fellow YES announcer Michael Kay was aghast. "That's cheating!" he sputtered.

"Naw, that's not cheating," drawled Murcer. "That's heads-up baseball!"

Damn straight. Rest in peace, Bobby.

• • • 

Murcer's YES colleagues have a nice tribute here. Pete Abraham tracks some official Yankee responses here. Rob Neyer discusses his underrated playing career here. More good links as I find them.

Update: Joe Posnanski reminds us that Murcer had been bumped to right field in 1974 by the arrival of Elliot Maddox and supplies some eye-popping translated numbers to express how underrated Murcer was:
So nobody could appreciate just how good he was those two years. Murcer’s core numbers didn’t look that special. Still don’t.

1971: .331/.427/.543, 25 homers, 94 RBIs, 94 runs.
1982: .292/.361/.537, 33 homers, 96 RBIs, 102 runs.

Of course, nowadays we can hit one button on Baseball Reference and neutralize those numbers to see how they would look in an average run scoring environment. Hint: They look at lot better.

1971: .362/.462/.596, 29 homers, 114 RBIs, 114 runs.
1972: .329/.401/.605, 41 homers, 132 RBIs, 140 runs.

We can go to Baseball Prospectus, take a look at their translated stats, which places everyone in the same run-scoring environment. Hint: These numbers also look a lot better.

1971: .362/.449/.648, 35 homers, 111 RBIs, 110 runs.
1972: .326/.392/.684, 54 homers, 133 RBIs, 139 runs.

...But, my sense, is that he was not viewed as as GREAT player, and here’s a final reason why: He was one of those players cursed with the power of pushing imagination. No matter how good he was, people imagined he could have been better. He came from Oklahoma, just like the Mick. He played center field at Yankee Stadium, same position at DiMag. He had a sweet left-handed swing — seems that there was a fairly famous Yankees somewhere who had a sweet left-handed swing.
Pos also goes on at length about how the Bonds-Murcer deal was the rare trade that hurt both players. There's too much great stuff to figure out what to excerpt here, so just go RTFB.

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