Heroes Are Still Out There

By Larry Canale

A few months ago, I got hit with a double dose of distressing news – two sports heroes of mine were diagnosed with brain tumors. One of them was Bobby Murcer, revered among Yankees fans both as a player and announcer. The other was Ozzie Sweet, whose classic photography is familiar to legions of fans largely because of his brilliant Sport magazine covers from 1949 thru the 1960s.

If you don’t recognize Sweet’s name, you undoubtedly have seen his work. His distinctive photographs have appeared on hundreds of magazines beyond Sport, including Tuff Stuff and Sports Collectors Digest as well as Boys’ Life, Cosmopolitan, Dog World, Family Circle, Field & Stream, Newsweek, Parents, Popular Mechanics, Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, and TV Guide, to name but a few.

In fact, I may go broke finding all 1,700 of Sweet’s covers, even though most are only $5-$10 (although certain issues of Sport can sell for $25-$150, largely because of the cover subject). Sweet’s transparencies also surface from time to time, selling for hundreds of dollars.

My Sweet collection began more than a dozen years ago. I met him in 1994 after inquiring (as Tuff Stuff’s editor at the time) about the use of one of his Mickey Mantle images on our cover. That meeting led to our collaboration on the book Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years. Later, we teamed up for a second book, The Boys of Spring.

While I’ve come to know Sweet well, I’ve met Murcer on only two occasions. Even so, I classify them as being from the same mold: unwaveringly positive, resilient men who know how important it is to do what you love, and to love what you do. These guys have lived life to its fullest and they’re not done yet.

In Murcer’s case, tests in December revealed incurable brain cancer. Just after Christmas, he underwent surgery to have a malignant tumor removed. By all accounts, he emerged in high spirits, anxious to treat and beat cancer. Following the surgery, Murcer underwent three months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Houston.

“There’s no cure for the cancer I have,” he told The New York Times. “They just want to keep it in check.”

Treatments will involve a monthly vaccine designed to kill off any new cancer cells. In late March, a release from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center announced that Murcer was clear of any tumor growth. So on Opening Day 2007 at Yankee Stadium, there he was, in the fabled old ballpark, visiting players and friends before the game and drawing a rousing ovation from the crowd. His grey hair was gone due to chemotherapy, but Murcer’s smiling face was very much intact.

For legions who grew up in the 1970s, pulling a Murcer out of a Topps pack was akin to pulling a Mantle in the 1950s or ’60s. Murcer, after all, was the clear successor to “The Mick” – a centerfielder from Oklahoma who had a certain charisma. As it turned out, Murcer didn’t put up Mantle numbers, but he did enjoy a productive career. Between 1965-83 (minus two years spent in military service), he hit .277 with 1,862 hits, 252 homers, 127 stolen bases and 1,043 RBIs.

I got to see Murcer play in person in the 1970s, so the sight of No. 1 at the plate is etched into my mind. My favorite Murcer performance, though, might be one I heard on the radio during a doubleheader in 1970, when he tied a record by hitting HRs in four consecutive games.
In October 1974, the Giants acquired Murcer for Bobby Bonds in a trade that blindsided Yankees fans (I admit, I got a little emotional about that one). Fittingly, though, Murcer returned “home” midway through the 1979 season. His most memorable moment during his second go-round in New York was a dramatic five-RBI night in August 1979 in the Yankees’ first game after Thurman Munson’s death. Murcer’s three-run homer made the game close, and his two-run double in the bottom of the 9th inning sealed an emotional 5-4 win in honor of his friend.

No wonder I held onto my treasured 1960s and ’70s cards – his Topps regular issues, coins and inserts, Kellogg’s releases, and Hostess cutouts. I saved every Murcer magazine cover from the era, plus newspaper clippings, Yankee game programs, yearbooks and posters. And I’ve been adding to them all along, usually at affordable prices. I say “usually” because a 1972 Murcer “In Action” card, No. 700, sold on eBay last month for $1,170: It boasted a perfect PSA-10 grade. You’ll find ungraded copies in the $10-$20 range.
Murcer’s autograph sells in a wide range of prices, depending on whether he inked it on a trading card (I’ve paid anywhere from $10-$50 for various signed inserts), a photograph ($25-$100), or a baseball ($50-$125).

My treasures got trumped in 2004, however, when I got the chance to interview Murcer after a spring training game. Somehow, he matched the image I had all those years – approachable, pleasant and well spoken.

I saw Murcer again in 2005 and presented him with a copy of The Boys of Spring. His photograph appears twice in the book: Sweet captured him as a fresh-faced rookie in 1966 and as a broadcaster in 2004. The two of them enjoyed reminiscing about that first session, when the 20-year-old Murcer’s face seemed to light up by the mere presence of Mantle.

In 2006, Sweet and I returned to spring training for an assignment, but we missed Murcer. Otherwise, Ozzie attacked his work just like he always did. Little did I know that a year later, in February 2007, Sweet would undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor. It was a benign tumor, but the operation itself was risky.

Despite some tough days following the surgery, Ozzie, now 88, pulled through, with his wife of 33 years, Diane, and his family and close friends rallying in support. As I file this column, thankfully, he’s ready to return to his coastal Maine home.

“Ozzie, you always said you wanted to retire at 90,” I told him last week, “so I’m holding you to that. Count on going to spring training in 2008.”

The first name we’ll look up? Bobby Murcer. In the meantime, I’ll keep sending positive thoughts and prayers in the direction of these “classics,” and I hope you will too.

Larry Canale is editor in chief of Antiques Roadshow Insider, author of The Boys of Spring (2005), Tuff Stuff’s Baseball Memorabilia Guide (2001) and Mickey Mantle: The Yankee Years (1998). Write him via e-mail at larry.canale@comcast.net.

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