When the great DiMaggio quit, Mantel moved into center field. It was very neat, an orderly succession of kings. And when time and pain pushed Mantle aside, it seemed right - more than that, it seemed divine in origin - that Bobby Murcer follow. Like Mantle. Murcer was an Oklahoman, strong, fast, an open-faced country boy come to the big city. Mantle had worn No. 7. Murcer became No. 1.

Before the Yankees gave up on him, Murcer hit 139 home runs in the six seasons from 1969 to 1974. Mantle had done better. Before the Yankees traded him to San Francisco for another center fielder named Bobby Bonds (the black Mantle?), Murcer hit .284 in 826 games. Mantle had done better.

Murcer is with the Chicago Cubs now, a part of baseball's most improbable, most heart-warming fairy tale. The Cubs are in first place on the Fourth of July, affirming that this is the land of the impossible made possible. The Cubs last won a pennant in 1945, when the good players were on a road trip to World War II. If the Cubs, the Chicago ever-suffering Cubs, can win a pennant, then we should look to the skies, for soon elephants will be flying.

Murcer is hitting .278 for the Cubs with 11 home runs and 50 runs batted in, on his way to another of the solid, workmanlike seasons that never reminded New York of Mantle, never caused remembrances of Joltin' Joe.

Murcer was in the Cub clubhouse, taking his ease in a rocking chair, when someone asked him if now - with the Cubs, in first place, three years gone - he ever looked back on the New York years.

"That's the best way to do it, isn't it?" Murcer said. "Best way to look at New York is to look back, right?"

Murcer smiled. "No, really, I had a lot of good times in New York, a lot of good years, a lot of experiences. I have no regrets about playing in New York."

The pressure to be the next Mantle.?

"There was no pressure at all. I didn't pay any attention to all that. Everybody knows Mickey couldn't carry my jock."

Sometimes it's hard to tell when Murcer is being serious.

"Don't write that down," Murcer laughed and said "You know it. Things are always better if you're winning. If you do your thing and the team is winning, you're all right. But if the team is losing, nobody gives a damn."

As it happened, Murcer's years with the Yankees were the dark ages of that monarchy. On a team whose very appearance once drove opposing pitchers to call in sick. Murcer was one of the few consistent hitters. And if he once hit four straight home runs, if he once hit .331, once had 33 homers and 96 runs batted in, it wasn't enough to save a dynasty from crumbling.

And when he had one bad year hitting .274 with 10 home runs, the Yankees traded him to San Francisco for Bonds. Murcer was hurt.

"They had no basis for it," he said.

Does it make any more sense today? The Yankees have since traded Bonds to California for pitcher Ed Figueroa and outfielder Mickey Rovers.

"Yeah, they got Figueroa and Rivers," Murcer said," and they paid $3 million for a right fielder." Reggie Jackson is the high-priced man.

Bitterness in Murcer?

"From here on in I'll always be comfortable. I don't look back any more. I just look ahead."

If the Yankee-to-Frisco trade upset him, the Frisco-to-Chicago deal made him a replayer reborn.

"I was happy to get out of there. I just couldn't take Candlestick Park any more. The wind and cold. I just about packed it in and quit."

Instead, Murcer is in a pennant race for the first time in his career. Any attempt at explaining the inexplicable must begin with a listing of the Cubs' new men: Murcer and third baseman Steve Ontiveros (.281 now), acquired in exchange for two-time batting champion Bill Madlock; and short-stop Ivan DeJesus (.271) and first baseman Bill Buckner (.262), brought in from Los Angeles in a trade for Rick Monday. Relief pitcher Bruce Sutter has been astonishing with 21 saves.

The manager, Herman Franks, soft-pedals the Cubs' accomplishments.

"Just 25 guys playing every day," he said. "Just hustling, grinding every day."

Franks' presence is itself extraordinary. He's 63 years old, reputedly a millionaire businessman in Salt Lake City. ("I don't talk about my business.") A career baseball man, he managed the San Francisco Giants for four years, finishing second each time before quitting in 1968. He said he took the Cubs' job last winter not because he missed baseball, but because his sons were running the businesses and he had nothing to do.

While at San Francisco, Franks were known to be as friendly as barbed wire. Today he sits in his office, puffing on a cigar, all smiles. "I try to be more patient now," he said.

Amazing what first place does for a guy. Franks becomes Dale Carnegie. And Murcer? For the Cobs he wears No. 7.