Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: The New York Yankees
In case you’re just joining us, this is Part 3 of a series called “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons,” where I take a look at a couple of players from each baseball team who have largely been forgotten over the years. In Parts 1 and 2, I wrote about Lance Johnson and Frank Viola of the Mets, and Dave Kingman and Bill Buckner of the Cubs.
In Part 3, we will be taking a look at a couple of players who are not often remarked upon these days, but who, about forty years ago, performed extremely well for the New York Yankees.
But first, some background.
The years 1963-75 were not kind ones to the New York Yankees. After having won nine World’s Championships from 1949-62, the Yankees (gasp!) did not even make it to another World Series until 1976.
There were several reasons for this decline. One of the reasons was that the American League in general, and the Yankees (and the Red Sox) in particular, were slow to integrate African-American players into their ranks.
Most of the African-American stars who played in the major leagues in the middle of the twentieth century rendered their services to National League teams. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey played for the Giants; Ernie Banks for the Cubs; Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella for the Dodgers; Frank Robinson for the Reds (although the Orioles were happy to steal him in 1966). Hank Aaron, of course, was hitting homers for the Braves, and a little later, Gibson, Brock and Flood played in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, although Elston Howard had been on the Yankees since 1955, his talents had largely been wasted (300-400 at bats per season) until he finally took over full-time catching duties in 1962 at age 33. The Bronx Bombers featured a decidedly white roster in those years that included Mantle, Maris, Rizzuto, Martin, Ford, Skowron, Richardson, etc. Elston Howard’s blackness only served to accentuate the rest of the team’s whiteness.
Yet the Yankees enjoyed enormous success in the 1950’s and early ’60’s without having to alter the status quo. Therefore, the lesson that the Yankees learned during this period of time was that if the N.L. wanted to bow to social pressures and seriously integrate their teams, fine. But the Yankees weren’t going to bow to this fad. Yankee Tradition was doing just fine, thank you, and would have none of that tomfoolery on display in the proletarian N.L.
By 1965, however, Yankee Tradition began to fray around the edges. By 1969, when their cross-town rival Miracle Mets won a stunning victory over the heavily favored Orioles, Yankee Tradition had all but unraveled.
There was no way to ignore the fact that the Mets lineup included African-American players who made significant contributions to that World Series triumph. Donn Clendenon, Tommie Agee, and Cleon Jones were integral parts of that Mets team.
Finally, in the Bronx, it was time for Plan B. This plan took a while to implement because the Yankee farm system was largely bereft of “colored” talent into the mid-’60’s. Yet even during this rare Yankee rebuilding phase, it soon became clear that the new master plan wouldn’t be entirely different from the traditional Yankee Way.
The new plan would simply be, as it turned out, a modest modification of the old traditional Yankee rosters. Here’s what the new strategy would look like: Instead of having a white super-star buttressed by a competent cast of white supporting personnel, the new Plan B would feature a white star providing leadership to a tolerably mixed race roster.
Enter Bobby Murcer and Roy White.
By the mid-60’s, the current Yankee star, Mickey Mantle, was essentially done. His heir apparent would be a fresh-faced kid from Oklahoma, Mantle’s own home state.
Bobby Murcer signed a $10,000 dollar contract to play for the Yankees in 1964. He turned down twice as much money offered to him by the Dodgers because he was a life-long Yankee fan. He debuted in 1965 when he was just 19 years old.
After spending a couple of years in the minors, Murcer came up to stay with the big club in 1969. By 1971, he had almost become the star the Yankees were hoping for.
When viewed in the context of what Mantle accomplished in the 1950’s and early ’60’s, Murcer’s accomplishments in his prime years, the early 1970’s, appeared to fall short. He was not smashing forty or fifty homers a year. He was not winning a Triple Crown. And most importantly, he was not leading the Yankees back to glory.
Yet, in truth, baseball had already become a very different game by the late 1960’s, and well into the 1970’s. Pitching, not hitting, was now dominant. It was simply inaccurate and unfair to compare Murcer’s accomplishments stat-line by stat-line with what Mantle had accomplished in an era far friendlier to hitters.
Murcer’s best “forgotten” season, one of the best forgotten seasons by any Yankee, was 1971. In that year, at age 25, Murcer had 175 hits, 94 runs scored, 25 homers, 94 RBI’s, 14 stolen bases. He drew 91 walks while striking out only 60 times. Now, those numbers might not look all that great until you take a second look. Let’s flesh out the rest of his season.
In 1971, Murcer also hit .331, which was second in the league. He led his league in runs created with 266. He led the A.L. in on base percentage at .427. He slugged .543 in an era when slugging over .500 meant something. His OPS (on base plus slugging) was a league best .969. His adjusted OPS+ was an astonishing 181, which means that, adjusting for ballpark and era, he was about 80% better than the average A.L. player that year.
It could be argued, however, that his 1972 season was in some ways even better. Without going into all the numbers from that season, I’ll simply note that he led the A.L. in total bases with 314 and runs scored with 102. His 70 extra base hits also led the league. And in 1972, he won his first Gold Glove.
So take your pick, 1971 or ’72. Either way, you are looking at a pair of the best “forgotten” seasons by a player on a team that has enjoyed more media coverage than several other teams combined.
Murcer, after spending a few decent seasons with the Giants and the Cubs, returned to the Yankees in 1980, having missed out on their World Series triumphs (which featured black players like Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph and others.) He finished out his career with the Yanks in 1983 at age 37.
A five time all-star, Murcer hit 252 home runs in his career and drove in over 1,000. He passed away almost two years ago at age 62, never having attained the super-star status the Yankee brass expected of him, never having led his team to a World Series. But in his largely forgotten 1971 season, he was truly a star.
Roy White, being black, was, of course, supposed to play the supporting role on several Yankees championship teams. Oddly enough, he did.
Roy White enjoyed a highly productive and lengthy career with the Yankees that lasted from 1965-1979, meaning that, unlike his contemporary Bobby Murcer, White went to three World Series with the Yankees, enjoying the triumphant World Championship seasons of 1977-78.
But White’s best forgotten season came much earlier. Debuting in 1965 at age 21, White enjoyed his best year in 1970 at age 26, during the Yankees lost in the wilderness era.
White played all 162 games that season, which he would do again in 1973. He had 180 hits in 1970, 30 of which were doubles, and he hit 22 homers, which translated into Year 2000 numbers, would have been more like forty. He scored an impressive 109 runs, drove in 94, had 24 stolen bases, drew 95 walks (against just 66 strikeouts), and hit .296 with a .387 on base percentage.
His OPS+ in 1970 was an excellent 142. He was also an excellent defensive outfielder. In fact, he led A.L. outfielders in range factor six times, and in fielding percentage four times. Always a good eye at the plate, White finished in the top ten in the A.L. in walks seven times. He drew 934 walks in his career against just 708 strikeouts.
Roy White was drafted to be a competent black player on a white Bobby Murcer-led team. Ironically, it was Roy White who helped guide the Yankees back to glory in the late ’70’s, while Murcer was exiled in Chicago.
In truth, though, both of these players enjoyed two of the most overlooked, underrated, and almost certainly forgotten seasons in the long history of the New York Yankees.
On a personal note. I will be attending to some personal business for about a week, so I will not be posting again on this blog until about Friday, June 11th. But please feel free to leave comments for me regarding your thoughts about this blog-post. I’ll be looking forward to reading them when I return.
Thanks for reading, Bill