SABR

Jim Murray

This article was written by James Elfers.

The best description of Jim Murray would be marginal major leaguer. Talented enough to make a splash at various levels of the minor leagues, he never possessed the talent to earn much more than a cup of coffee with three major-league teams. Standing 5-feet-10 and weighing 180 pounds, he was a rather unimportant cog in the 1914 Braves’ miraculous season. He was gone from the club on July 10. His biggest contribution to the Braves was his salary dispute, which dragged into the next season.

James Oscar Murray was born on January 16, 1878, and raised in Galveston, Texas. The son of Richard Murray, a Canadian immigrant and Mary Murray, who, like her son, called the Texas coastal town home her entire life. The only time Jim was away from Galveston, he was in the majors. In fact his sojourn in professional baseball began in his own backyard. At the age of 19 in 1897 he broke in with the Galveston Sandcrabs of the Texas League. As a left-handed thrower and a right-handed batter he presented a rare combination in baseball. How good a player Murray was may never be known, because no statistics can be found for his first few years of professional baseball. What is clear is that he made steady progress up baseball’s ladder.

In 1900 Murray set the Virginia League on fire, leading it with eight home runs and driving in a respectable 38 runs. At the same time Christy Mathewson was leading the same league in wins, strikeouts, and winning percentage. In the minor leagues Murray generally hit in the high .200s; he reached the .300 plateau just four times in a career that spanned more than two decades (1897-1920). Murray first really made his mark in the Texas League, playing for San Antonio and Houston in 1899, and then in Virginia for Portsmouth and Newport News in 1900 and 1901, hitting around .300 in those three years By 1902 Murray had worked his way up to the Class C New England League. A solid .289 season with Manchester earned him the opportunity to play with the Chicago Cubs. He debuted on September 2, 1902, and a 12-game stint with the Cubs indicated that he was not yet up to snuff for the majors. He batted just .170 with eight hits, three runs and one RBI. Even for the offense-impaired Deadball Era those were not good numbers.

In 1903 Murray played in the Eastern League for Toronto and in the New England League again with Manchester. In 1905 he played for three teams, Harrisburg, Buffalo, and Toronto. The years he spent in the high minor leagues were the closest he ever became to being a star.

While the date of the specific game is lost to time, a Galveston sportswriter almost 40 years later described what was no doubt Murray’s greatest day on the diamond: “It was after Jim Murray contributed a home run, a triple, and two singles to knock home eight runs in a game for the Buffalo Bisons with the Baltimore Orioles at Buffalo that the sports editor on the Buffalo paper saw fit to write his headline this way – OH: YOU JIM WOW!”1

It was flashes of brilliance such as those that piqued the interest of major-league clubs. Time after time, however, the majors decided that Murray was not what they were really looking for. After his dozen games with the Cubs, nearly a decade passed before he was again called up by a big-league club. Not even with the pathetic, perpetual sad-sack St. Louis Browns could Murray make a go of it. He joined the Browns for the 1911 season and lasted just 31 games before he was sent back to Buffalo. The team finished in last place at 47-107, according to Retrosheet. (Other sources have it 45-107.) Murray produced a grand total of eight runs and his batting average of .186 was only incrementally higher than it had been in 1902 with the Cubs, The only surprise was some power. During his stint with the Browns he hit his only three big-league homers; all were solo home runs. Murray spent the next three years back in Buffalo, and while a bit long in the tooth at the age of 33, he put it all together and had three straight seasons of batting .300 or better in 1911-13. After 1913, his contract was purchased by the Boston Braves with an eye toward 1914, and at 36, Murray was given his third chance for a roster spot in the majors. He joined the Braves on April 22, 1914. It was a turbulent time. The Federal League in its first year was wreaking havoc with the major leagues. Salaries were being inflated everywhere. The crosstown Red Sox, in order to keep Tris Speaker out of the clutches of the Brooklyn Feds, paid a salary of $16,000 a year for three years with a $5,000 signing bonus. This was a nearly incomprehensible amount of money for a professional athlete of the time. “One statistician was so struck with the amount that he went to the trouble of figuring out Speaker’s hourly remuneration. He concluded, “Speaker will get $58.44 an hour or $116.88 a game.”2

In a similar vein, the Braves sent cash and a player to pull Johnny Evers away from the Cubs. To keep him from the Federal League, Evers received $25,000. It was a bold step for the usually bargain-basement Braves. For major-league players of every stripe, and especially for stars, money seemed to be growing on trees as long as the Feds were in operation. Manager George Stallings, after the Braves’ 1913 season, their most successful in decades, saw something in his 1914 team. It took a while for his vision to come to fruition.

Stallings was familiar with Murray, having managed him in Buffalo in 1905-06 and 1911-12, and was initially enthusiastic about him. As Sporting Life described the situation, “The Braves got such a bad start and the players were hitting so poorly that Manager Stallings started out to quietly strengthen his team. Stallings wants to fight in boostering up his club and the players know that they must deliver the goods if they want to stay with him. His outfield was particularly weak at the bat so he scurried around to make a deal with the Buffalo club for the services of Jim Murray, the outfielder. Murray is not a particularly fast runner but he can hit the pill and that is what Stallings needs just now.”3

Murray had hit an even .300 with the 1913 Bisons. With the Braves, at the higher level of play, his batting average fell to .232 – respectable for the Deadball Era, but not what Stallings had been hoping for. Of Murray’s 34 hits, 28 were singles; he had four doubles and two triples. His fielding percentage of .941 needed improvement as well. At 36, Jim was too old to learn new tricks. After Murray went 0-for-2 on July 10, Stallings decided that enough was enough, and on July 11, Murray was sold to the St. Paul Apostles of the American Association. Stallings had not seen much of a future for Murray, and indeed Murray spent the next four years working his way back down the ladder of Organized Baseball.

Murray left the Braves under a cloud. Apparently Stallings had held on to him for a month longer than he would have liked in order to find a minor-league club with which the player would be content. After that, things get murky. Murray placed a claim with the National Commission at the close of the 1914 season. He said Stallings had assured him that the Braves would pay Murray’s salary while with the Apostles. When the American Association season ended on September 27 and the Braves season ended on October 7, Murray claimed that he was owed $180.70 by the Braves. While the commission did find a telegram from Stallings informing St. Paul that Murray’s salary was $400 a month, both Stallings and the president of the Apostles claimed that there was no provision to pay him after the American Association season ended. The National Commission agreed with this version of events and turned down Murray’s appeal.4

The rest of the 1914 season must have been galling to Murray. Upon his dismissal and that of Wilson Collins (whom Stallings thought much more of), the Braves became positively incandescent, reeling off eight straight wins as part of a 34-10 stretch that put them within hailing distance of John McGraw’s tired New York Giants. The Giants-White Sox world tour of 1913-1914 may have left the New Yorkers vulnerable to the Braves. For whatever reason, the Giants withered under the Miracle Braves’ assault. Meanwhile, Murray was marking time in Minnesota, playing just adequate baseball for a last-place team.

Although he was aging, Murray was game to play anywhere. By 1916 he was bouncing between Class B and Class D ball. He even tried his hand as player-manager for the Oklahoma City Senators of the Western Association in 1917. Coming in as a midseason replacement, Murray could do no better than drive his team to a fifth-place finish in an eight-team league. In his last hurrah, he came out of retirement in 1920 to embarrass himself with his hometown Galveston Pirates. Now 42 and mired in Class B, even he had to admit that baseball was over for him.

Nearly a lifelong bachelor, Murray was employed as the night clerk at the Malloy and Son Funeral Home in Galveston. Always willing to share stories of his baseball adventures, he proudly displayed the scrapbook he kept from his playing years. There was not much family to share it with; Jim had two sisters, one unmarried. Jim had briefly married but was divorced by the time of his death at the age of 67 from a heart attack on April 25, 1945. . His employer provided the service and the Galveston Episcopal Cemetery provided a place for his final repose.

Perhaps Murray’s most fitting epitaph was a poem about himself that he displayed in his scrapbook. In a style now long gone from the sports pages, a local advertising agent named Henri Parmalee channeled Grantland Rice and waxed rhapsodic about Murray’s long forgotten minor-league career. Evidence suggests that the poem was published in 1909 in St. Paul when  Murray was putting up less than respectable numbers for the Saints and Parmalee was also residing in that city.

The bags were filled when up came Chick,
His willow in his hands,
He taps it lightly on the plate
And cheers ring from the stands

But Chicken fanned the humid breeze,
From the bleachers came a sigh
Jimmie Murray then took Leslie’s place
Once more our hopes beat high

The first ball pitched he let go by
The second was a foul
The third he hit full, hard and square –
The bleachers raised a howl

Far out to right the horsehide flew,
Above the fielder’s head
It reached the fence and bounded back
So fielder Hayden said

Before the ball could be relayed
The bags were empty, quiet
Four runs were chalked up by the Saints
It was a goodly sight

And when we prate about the days
The days that now are not
We’ll tell them the story
Of Murray’s mighty swat.

 

This biography is included in "The Miracle Braves of 1914: Boston's Original Worst-to-First World Series Champions" (SABR, 2014), edited by Bill Nowlin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited, the author used Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com. Thanks to Daniel O’Brien and Bill Nowlin for research and contributions to this biography.

 

Notes

1Orland Dodson, “Baseball was Tops When Jim Murray Was a Star,” Galveston Daily News, April 26, 1945, 10.

2 James E. Elfers, The Tour to End All Tours: The Story of Major League Baseball's 1913-1914 World Tour (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 240.

3 Sporting Life, May 2, 1914, 7.

4 Base Ball Magazine, January 1915, 92.

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