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Bobby Murcer's Legacy Lives On in Oklahoma

10/23/2015

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Most people wilt under the weight of unrealistic expectations, especially on the athletic field. A surefire way to guarantee failure is to label an athlete as “the next-so-and-so.” That’s exactly what happened to Bobby Murcer, but he didn’t wilt under the pressure. Perhaps he didn't officially become the next-so-and-so either, but he did find great success as a ballplayer. And after his playing career, Murcer continued to demonstrate his personal brand of courage and commitment by relentlessly fighting to transform Oklahoma into a healthier place to live.

The pride of Oklahoma City

Bobby Ray Murcer was born in Oklahoma City on May 20, 1946, making him a Baby Boomer, but as he explained in his autobiography Yankee For Life, he spent his first 19 years “living and breathing University of Oklahoma football, which makes me a Boomer Sooner.” He was the middle child of Robert and Maybelle and grew up on the south side of Oklahoma City. As a kid baseball was his favorite sport, though he grew up in a “football state” with the closest big league baseball team 500 miles away in St. Louis. He had many jobs growing up, including selling papers for the Oklahoman on the corner of 10th Street and N. Walker. But mostly Murcer was free to concentrate on his athletic pursuits. Bobby was great at just about any game that involved a ball. By the time he was a student at Southeast High School he was one of the best athletes in all of Oklahoma. As a sophomore he starred on the baseball, football, and basketball teams. As a senior he was named All-State in both baseball and football. At Southeast High he met Kay, who would become his wife and trusted partner in his long career as a professional athlete. Anyone who knows Oklahoma knows that football is king, and Murcer planned to attend the University of Oklahoma on a football scholarship, until he received an offer to play baseball two weeks after his 18th birthday. When the New York Yankees offer you a $20,000 bonus to play (that translates into almost $150,000 today), you say yes. And so Murcer became a professional baseball player.

Compared to Mickey Mantle

It was natural for fans to compare Murcer to another Oklahoman who made it good with the Yankees: Mickey Mantle (born and raised in Commerce, OK, and nicknamed “The Oklahoma Kid” and "The Commerce Comet"). But that wasn’t fair because no one could be “the next Mickey Mantle." Murcer simply wanted to be the first Bobby Murcer. In order to do that, he would need to overcome that unrealistic expectation as well as other obstacles. Initially the Yankees wanted Murcer to play shortstop, but he struggled there because he didn’t possess the range necessary to play that demanding position. His play in the field impacted his concentration at the plate, and he didn’t start his big league career with the Yankees as well as he would have liked. “I felt a lot of pressure to be a great Yankee in the tradition [of that team]”, he told The Sporting News when he reflected later on his career. Bobby himself added a bit to that pressure on September 14, 1965, when his first hit as a major leaguer was a home run in Washington against the Senators. Maybe he could be the next Mantle after all?

Military service and return to baseball

Then in 1966 real life intervened and sidetracked the young ballplayer. With a war going on in Vietnam, the 20-year-old Murcer was drafted into the United States Army. While he never went overseas, he served as a radio corpsman stateside and missed two full seasons of baseball. In 1969 when he came back to the Yankees he was a little more mature and equipped to handle whatever was thrown at him. Turns out he needed that life experience. Mantle had retired in 1968 and the Yankees were left with a void in center field, a void they asked Murcer to fill. He drew the unenviable task of replacing the great legend. That was hard enough, but the fact that Murcer was also from Oklahoma made it even more challenging, because some people thought he should be like Mickey. But of course no one could. Murcer eventually settled in and began to produce results as a center fielder. He was an All-Star every season from 1971 to 1974 for the Yankees. In 1970 he tied a major league record when he hit home runs in four consecutive at-bats. Though the Yankees didn’t win any pennants with Bobby in the lineup, he was a star in the Bronx. He loved being a Yankee alongside several teammates who had worked their way through the organization to make the big leagues. This included Mel Stottlemyre, Roy White, and a bull-like catcher named Thurman Munson who arrived in New York in 1969. Munson was the best catcher in the American League, a gritty player and team leader. If something needed to be said or if a teammate needed to be straightened out, Munson was the man to do it. Bobby and Thurman were a dynamic duo soon joined by outfielder Lou Piniella, who came to the Yanks in ’74 via trade. The three became close friends, both in the clubhouse and outside it. Their families became friends, too.

Traded by the Yankees

After the ’74 season, Murcer’s world spun when the Yankees traded him to the San Francisco Giants. Not only was Bobby no longer a Yankee, he and his family were moving all the way across the country to the other coast. He was entering a foreign clubhouse, without his best friends Munson and Piniella. For the first time since he was 18, Murcer wouldn’t wear pinstripes. He was no longer a Yankee. Murcer never felt comfortable in San Francisco as a member of the Giants. The ballpark was not a good fit for his hitting style. Eventually he was traded to the Chicago Cubs, but he never really found his footing out of the Yankee pinstripes there, either. He missed his Yankee teammates, especially Munson, the guy he called “Tugboat.” Murcer had good seasons while he was playing for the Giants and Cubs, earning an All-Star selection with San Francsico in 1975. He hit his 200th career home run in 1977 with the Cubs and his popularity continued with teammates and fans everywhere he played. “Everyone in baseball knew that Bobby was a great person,” teammate Bill Buckner said in a 1998 interview. “He was an excellent teammate and I learned a lot from him.” “One of the good guys, for sure,” agreed teammate Ken Holtzman. “I can’t remember anyone having anything bad to say about Bobby Murcer in all the years he was in the game.”

The tragic loss of a friend

On June 26, 1979, after nearly five years away, Murcer was delighted when the Yankees reacquired him from the Cubs. He was coming back to the Bronx and to reunite with Munson, Piniella and the organization that had signed him as a 18-year-old. In his first game back as a Yankee he had two hits. Soon it felt as if he’d never left. “For the first time in years I was wearing a uniform that fit,” Murcer said. But on August 2, 1979, everything changed. It was an off day and Murcer was at the condo he still owned in Chicago spending time with his family when he received a phone call from New York. Thurman Munson had been killed while practicing takeoffs and landings in his personal jet in Akron, Ohio. Munson had been taking flying lessons for some time as a way to transport himself back and forth to his family during the long season. Just one day earlier Murcer, his wife Kay, and their children had driven Munson to the airport in Chicago so Thurman could fly back to Ohio. Now he was gone. Murcer was shocked and devastated. The heart of the team was gone. “It was all so surreal,” Kay Murcer remembered, “time just seemed to slow down for a few days.” Bobby and Kay stayed with Munson’s widow Diana and her children that night in her home in Ohio. There was nothing to do but comfort each other. The Yankees started a four-game series the next day at Yankee Stadium but the team was essentially numb through the first three games. On Monday August 6th, four days after his death, Munson’s funeral was held in Canton, Ohio. The Yankees chartered a plane so the team could attend and Murcer delivered a eulogy. After the service the team took a flight back to New York to play a nationally televised game against the Orioles. “It was like a bad Hollywood script, but because it actually happened, Murcer's performance that night turned out to be a great story,” baseball historian and author Bruce Markusen remembered. “He drove in all five runs, hitting a three-run home run in the seventh inning and the game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. His Yankee teammates mobbed Murcer like it was a playoff game. Remember, this was a time when teams didn't celebrate walk-off wins in the overdone, orchestrated way that they do today. But this wasn't an orchestrated celebration; it was a genuine display after the tragedy of the last few days.” Bobby Murcer had come full circle in many ways, returning to the Yankees where his professional career had begun. He’d lost his good friend but he showed his resiliency by having the game of his career a few days later. Bobby never used the bat from that game again. He later gave it to Diana Munson. After the emotion of the evening, Murcer’s place in Yankee history was secure. He may not have added his name to the list of Hall of Fame Yankee center fielders, which included Earle Combs, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle, but he had delivered one of the most memorable hits in franchise history, and, most importantly, he did it while honoring a fallen friend.

Fighting to make Oklahoma a healthier place

Murcer finished his playing career as a Yankee in 1983 wearing pinstripes to the end. He gracefully transitioned into a career as a broadcaster when owner George Steinbrenner made the offer in the middle of his final season, and he won multiple Emmy’s for his work. Throughout his career in baseball, which spanned more than four decades, Bobby and Kay Murcer maintained their connection to Oklahoma. It was always their home. “I’m so happy we grew up where we did,” Kay said in an interview for this story. “Oklahomans pull for each other. We pitch in and get things done.” After his playing career Bobby suffered more heartache: both of his brothers and his mother succumbed to lung cancer. Even before those losses, Murcer was determined to help curb America’s addiction to tobacco. Ironically, during his playing days, Murcer had not only smoked and used smokeless tobacco, he’d even been a spokesman for the United States Tobacco Company and Skoal. “I have this one giant regret,” Murcer wrote in his autobiography, “and it is that I used my celebrity to try to influence people -- especially young people -- to use tobacco…. I vowed to do everything I could to make amends.” Fueled by that goal, Murcer lobbied for tougher laws governing tobacco sales at the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Eventually, in 1997, the Oklahoma State Senate passed Senate Bill 619, which makes it more difficult for minors to purchase tobacco. It’s known as the Bobby Murcer Tobacco Addiction Prevention Bill. His efforts also helped to ensure that most restaurants in Oklahoma City are smoke-free, an important battle against the dangers of second hand smoke and the fight against lung cancer. On Christmas Eve in 2006, Murcer was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He made a recovery after surgery, but in 2008 the cancer returned, and he passed away on July 12, at the age of 62. His memorial service was held on August 6 -- 29 years to the day that Murcer had delivered the eulogy for his friend Thurman Munson. Prior to his death Murcer emceed a dedication ceremony for a statue of Mickey Mantle at Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City. After his death, a statue of Bobby was added to the west entrance of the ballpark, ensuring that two of Oklahoma’s greatest ballplayers would be remembered by fans. In 1993 Bobby was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, and a training facility at Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond is named for him. In addition to the tobacco legislation he helped pass in Oklahoma, Bobby’s legacy lives on in Oklahoma through the Bobby Murcer Swing For Hope charity golf tournament at Oak Tree National Golf Course in Edmond. The annual event raises money to support the Oklahoma Brain Tumor Foundation.

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Photo of Murcer is licensed under Creative Commons. Rights belong to the copyright holder.

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