By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
The New York Times
Published: July 13, 2008
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
Bobby Murcer in the broadcast booth at Yankee Stadium before the Yankees played the Seattle Mariners on May 2.
Bobby Murcer, the Yankees’ All-Star outfielder and longtime broadcaster who never became another Mickey Mantle but endeared himself to Yankee fans in a baseball career of more than four decades, died Saturday in Oklahoma City. He was 62.
Murcer’s death, at Mercy Hospital, was announced by the Yankees, who said the cause was complications from brain cancer.
Murcer had surgery for a cancerous brain tumor at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in December 2006 and had received an experimental vaccine in a clinical trial there.
He returned as a Yankee broadcaster in May 2007 and broadcast some games this season. His memoir, “Yankee for Life: My 40-Year Journey in Pinstripes,” written with Glen Waggoner, was published in May, on his 62nd birthday.
When he made his Yankee debut in September 1965 as a teenage shortstop, Murcer evoked images in the press of a young Mantle. Murcer batted left-handed while Mantle was a switch-hitter, but both were Oklahomans, both had been signed by the Yankee scout Tom Greenwade, both possessed speed on the bases, and both had played at shortstop in the minor leagues.
But Murcer, at 5 feet 11 inches and 160 pounds, had a slighter build than Mantle. “Both of us were power hitters, the only difference being that Mickey’s power took the ball over the fence a lot more often than mine did,” Murcer said in his memoir.
Murcer eventually succeeded Mantle, his boyhood hero, in center field. He never approached a Hall of Fame career, but he proved an outstanding hitter and a fine fielder in his 17 major league seasons.
Playing mostly for the Yankees, Murcer hit 252 home runs and had 1,862 hits and a .277 career batting average. In 1971, he hit a career-high .331 and was the runner-up for the American League batting title, and he became adept at bunting. The next year, Murcer won a Gold Glove award.
He was named to five All-Star teams, from 1971 to 1974 while with the Yankees and in 1975 while with the San Francisco Giants. A memorable career moment came on June 24, 1970, when he hit four consecutive home runs in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians.
Murcer moved to the Yankee broadcast booth, as a commentator, the night of June 20, 1983, hours after George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, offered him the job during his second stint with the Yankees, when he was playing infrequently. He teamed at the outset with Phil Rizzuto, Frank Messer and Bill White and remained a Yankee broadcaster most of the time after that until his death.
Murcer recalled how he mangled syntax and offered a few baseball clichés as he learned his craft and how “one critic sniffed that my Oklahoma accent sounded a bit incongruous.” But, as he put it, “I’d spent almost four decades perfecting that accent, and I sure wasn’t going to change now.”
As for those early comparisons to Mantle, Murcer once told The New York Times that he did not feel overburdened. “I was too young and too dumb to realize what they were trying to do in the first place,” he said, “and by the time I realized it, I had already established myself.”
Bobby Ray Murcer was born May 20, 1946, in Oklahoma City. His father, Robert, owned several small jewelry stores. Murcer was signed out of high school, and spent two years in the minors before joining a Yankee team that had entered a long decline.
After playing briefly with the Yankees for two seasons, then marrying his high school sweetheart, Diana Kay Rhodes (known as Kay), Murcer spent two years in the Army. He became a regular in 1969, when Mantle retired.
In 1973, Murcer became the third Yankee, after Joe DiMaggio and Mantle, to receive a $100,000 salary. A year later he became the highest-paid player in Yankee history, with a $120,000 contract.
Murcer once recalled that after Steinbrenner gained control of the Yankees in 1973, “he told me that I was a big part of the Yankee tradition, and always would be.”
But after the 1974 season, the Yankees traded Murcer to the Giants for Bobby Bonds. Murcer spent two seasons in San Francisco and two and a half seasons with the Chicago Cubs.
“What hurt the most was that in the years I was with the Giants and the Cubs, the Yankees won three straight pennants and back-to-back world championships,” Murcer wrote in his memoir. “It just ripped my heart out not to have been part of that.”
Murcer was traded back to the Yankees in late June 1979 and emerged as a team spokesman six weeks later when the Yankees’ star catcher and captain, his longtime friend Thurman Munson, died in the crash of his small plane. Murcer and his wife stayed up all night with Munson’s widow, Diana, in the hours before Munson’s funeral — attended by the Yankees, who flew to Canton, Ohio, from New York — and Murcer delivered a eulogy.
“We all flew back to Yankee Stadium for a game against Baltimore,” Murcer recalled in a 1983 article for The Times. “None of us wanted to play, but we did, and I batted in all five runs and we won, 5-4. I never used that bat again. I sent it to Diana.”
Murcer finally made it to the postseason in 1980, and he played on a World Series team for the first time in 1981, when the Yankees were beaten by the Dodgers. But he had only a part-time role in his second Yankee stint.
In addition to his wife, Murcer is survived by a son, Todd; a daughter, Tori Witherspoon; his brother Randy and five grandchildren.
In August 1993, Mantle presented Murcer for induction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame at ceremonies in Oklahoma City.
Mantle, who died in 1995, struck an irreverent note at the ceremony. “The first time I ever heard of Bobby Murcer,” The Saturday Oklahoman quoted him as saying, “they said a kid from Oklahoma was gonna be the next Mickey Mantle. They were right. Sure enough, he couldn’t play shortstop either.”