Cooperstown Confidential: My first trade: Bonds for Murcerby Bruce Markusen
August 03, 2012
With names like Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Geovany Soto and Ryan Dempster all changing uniforms at the July 31 deadline, not to mention earlier deals that relocated Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, this summer’s “tradefest” took on epic proportions. Given all of the uniform swapping—and the potential it may have on the various pennant and wild card races—I started thinking about the first trade I could remember.
That happened in 1974, not at the old June 15 trading deadline (the direct predecessor to the July 31 deadline), but during the offseason. And it was a blockbuster. Unlike most of today’s swaps, which involve trading an impending free agent veteran for a package of minor league prospects, it was a certified star-for-star exchange of headline-making proportions.
Not merely a star, Murcer was arguably the most popular player on the Yankees—it was either him or Thurman Munson—a homegrown center fielder-turned-right fielder who had put up monstrous numbers as recently as 1971 and ’72. In return, the Yankees had acquired Bonds, a legitimate 30-30 player who was once considered the heir apparent to Willie Mays.
Given Murcer’s popularity and his left-handed swing, always a nice commodity to have at the original Yankee Stadium, it mystified some that the Yankees would surrender him in such a trade. Well, general manager Gabe Paul had his reasons. Keep in mind that the Yankees were in the midst of a two-year stretch (1974 and ’75) of playing home games at Shea Stadium while Yankee Stadium was being renovated. Murcer’s hitting suffered badly at Shea, a place he simply hated because of its pitcher-friendly dimensions and unpredictable winds.
After watching Murcer endure a subpar season at Shea, Paul decided it wasn’t worth the wait for the opening of the renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976, when Murcer might be able to revive his game and reacquaint himself with the short porch in right field.
Paul was also infatuated with Bonds, who is better known today as the father of Barry Bonds but was enormously talented in his own right. How talented was Bonds? An argument could be made that he was the most gifted outfielder the Yankees had during the entire decade of the 1970s, arguably more so than even Reggie Jackson. Possessing game-breaking speed, Bonds had the range to play center field, and had just as much power as Jackson. Reggie was physically better only in one respect: H had a stronger throwing arm, and even that ability had diminished by the time he would join the Yankees in 1977.
More to the point, Bonds was more talented than Murcer, his counterpart in the one-for-one blockbuster. Bonds had more power, speed, and range, and drew more walks. Murcer made better contact and hit for a higher average, but that was about it. Clearly, Bonds was better.
Yet, Yankee fans didn’t care that Bonds had more physical ability than Murcer. They fumed at the loss of the beloved Murcer, whose down-home personality, smooth left-handed swing, and embodiment of the little man (he was all of 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds) made him an icon with Yankee fans. The Yankees could have traded Murcer for Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson or Carl Yastrzemski and still felt a backlash from fans who believed the front office had been disloyal to a favorite son.
In spite of the hostile welcoming party waiting for him Shea Stadium, Bonds played well during the first half of the 1975 season. He picked up enough votes in the fan balloting to earn a starting role on the American League’s All-Star team. His only bit of first-half adversity occurred in June, when he missed a week because of a strained knee. But then came a larger obstacle, one that arrived in the form of a midseason managerial change.
On Aug. 2, the Yankees fired the placid Bill Virdon, who was an ally of Bonds, and replaced him with the temperamental Billy Martin. Surely someone with the Yankees could have foreseen that the new skipper would have difficulties with Bonds. Martin brought with him a reputation for moodiness; at every managerial stop, whether in Minnesota, Detroit or Texas, he had constructed a virtual doghouse, in which he placed players who made mental mistakes, didn’t hustle or dared to challenge his authority.
In spite of a wealth of talent, Bonds had developed a reputation as a careless baserunner and intermittent loafer in the outfield, where he sometimes missed the cutoff man on throws. That was not the kind of player Martin appreciated. He liked players who scrapped, not players who overlooked the “little things,” the way Bonds sometimes did.
There was also an off-the-field factor. Both Bonds and Martin liked to drink—and drink heavily. If they ever ran into each other in the same bar or tavern, an explosion could have occurred. Given such a combustible formula, the two men were bound to clash.
The inevitable collision during a road trip to Kansas City on Aug. 17. The Yankees took an early 3-1 lead, but the Royals stormed back to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth against Catfish Hunter. In the seventh inning, Kansas City’s Al Cowens hit a fly ball to deep right-center field. Bonds failed to track down the long drive, instead crossing paths with Yankee right fielder Lou Piniella. As Bonds and Piniella tangled, the ball banged off the wall and Cowens ended up with a triple, enraging Martin, who believed that Bonds could have made the catch with a more determined effort.
Martin immediately sent backup outfielder Rick Bladt into the game, replacing his star center fielder. Bladt was a journeyman, practically the 25th man on the roster. The move clearly upset Bonds; he didn't directly confront Martin, but spent the rest of the game trading glares with Martin in the Yankee dugout.
To make matters worse, the Yankees lost the game. Martin did not take the defeat well: He overturned the postgame spread in the clubhouse, to the wonderment of the Yankee players.
Coincidentally or not, Bonds did not play in the Yankees’ next game in center field. Instead he found himself in right field, with ex-Orioles speedster Rich Coggins replacing him in center. The next day, Bonds returned to center field, but his relationship with Martin had been frayed irreparably.
Even so, Bonds had a fine season, leading all Yankee regulars in both on-base percentage (.375) and slugging (.512. He also reached 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, something he had done twice during his days in San Francisco. He finished fourth in the American League in home runs, overcoming the difficult dimensions of Shea Stadium, known as a graveyard to most power hitters.
Given his ample on-field achievements, Bonds should have remained in pinstripes for years, becoming a player the Yankees could build around as they prepared to move closer to contention while simultaneously moving into the remodeled Yankee Stadium.
It didn’t happen. Knowing about the friction between his temperamental manager and his hard-living star, Gabe Paul shopped the 29-year-old Bonds until he received an offer he considered favorable. Paul dealt Bonds to the Angels, who offered Mickey Rivers, the fastest man in baseball, and a young right-handed workhorse pitcher, Ed Figueroa.
Once again, Yankee fans responded with anger. Casual fans, many of whom knew little about Figueroa, wondered why the Yankees had seemingly acquired so little for a star talent like Bonds. As it turned out, Paul knew exactly what he was doing. He was less interested in name value than he was in fortifying the team’s starting rotation. Figueroa would emerge as the team’s No. 2, first behind Hunter and then Ron Guidry. Rivers, while not nearly the ballplayer Bonds was, would bring energy to the lineup and humor to the clubhouse.
Unfortunately, Bonds’ fate did not turn out as well. He averaged about a team per season, as he bounced from the Angels to the White Sox to the Rangers to the Indians before returning to the National League, where he flopped with the Cardinals and Cubs. Worn down by too much drinking and too many cigarettes (like many players of the era, he was a heavy smoker), Bonds aged badly while residing in the fast lane. By the age of 33, his days as a regular were over. Two years later, his days as a major leaguer had ended.
And what about Bobby Murcer? I lost track of Murcer as he played those in-between years with the Giants and then the Cubs. He put up three productive seasons (with OPS marks of .828, .796 and .810 before experiencing a decline. But he wasn’t happy; he hated Candlestick Park, didn’t like Wrigley Field much better, and longed for a return to the American League—and to the Yankees. That return finally happened in 1979, when the Yankees reacquired him in the middle of a lost season.
Playing under Dick Howser’s multi-tiered platoon system in 1980, Murcer bristled at his lack of a fulltime role but 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, he 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. Still, Murcer’s second tenure with the Yankees added up to parts of five seasons.
Sadly, both Murcer and Bonds encountered tragic circumstances far too soon after their playing careers. Bonds saw his body become ravaged by cancer, in the form of both a brain tumor and cancer in his kidneys. In 2003, he died at the young age of 57.
Five years later, Murcer lost his own battle with cancer, as he also succumbed to the effects of a brain tumor. He died at the age of 62.
It’s hard to believe, but less than 40 years after that memorable trade both men are gone. Neither had the direct impact he was expected to have with his new team; I suppose there is a lesson in there somewhere. With trades, you just never know who will win and who will lose.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.