Just prior to the start of the 1969 World Series, Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson was said to have uttered the rather Grinch-like statement, “We are here to prove there is no Santa Claus.” Such unabashed, un-American hubris could only naturally result in a rude October awakening for Baltimore. No presents under the Orange Birds’ postseason tree. Just a lump of coal wrapped in pine tar.
Surprisingly, one individual who contributed mightily to the Miracle Mets that year was a jolly Texan who never swung a bat or fielded a ball at Shea Stadium: Red Murff. It was this super scout’s particular insight and dogged persistence that led to the signing of some of the most beloved players ever to doff a royal blue and orange cap. As a Mets scout Red was credited with delivering a core of gifted players to Flushing, thus making the 1969 sugarplum dream a clay and cleat reality. Jerry Koosman, Ken Boswell, and Jerry Grote all came to New York due to Murff’s efforts. Red was also credited with discovering a fellow Texan, a lean high school student the majority of scouts ignored. The only way this pitcher could have gotten into the Hall of Fame, so they thought, was if he bought a ticket. Murff proved his genius when he signed this fire-baller from Alvin: Nolan Ryan.
John “Red” Murff was born in Burlington, Texas on April 1, 1921 and came to the game late. There was no baseball program at Red’s high school in Rosebud, Texas; he only began playing during World War II while a member of an Army Air Corps team. After the war and a stint at a factory job, he signed on, at the age of 29, with the Baton Rouge Red Sticks of the Class C Evangeline League. Pitching for the 1950 Sticks, Murff went 17-4 while toting a respectable 2.96 ERA. When he wasn’t on the mound, Red played the outfield, batting .331 while knocking in 65 runs. Looking back on his Evangeline League Rookie of the Year Award, Murff reflects, “The nicest thing was the recognition that helped get me to the big leagues. The award made it known that I was a good player. And I was a rookie nearly 30 years old!”
The following year, in the process of amassing 19 wins, Red tossed a no-hitter for the Texas City Texans. He won 23 games for the Tyler East Texans in 1952 and led the Texas League with 17 victories the following year for the Double-A Dallas Eagles. Still an Eagle in 1955, he posted a 1.99 ERA, went 27-11, and logged more than 300 innings. The Sporting News named him Minor League Player of the Year. Red joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1956 and pitched in 14 games (one start) and had a 4.44 ERA. Sadly, the 34-year-old rookie injured his arm in the third inning of that first start for the Braves. Murff, who’d also suffered back problems, lamented that there was no real rehabilitation practiced in those days. He never graduated beyond being a bullpen pitcher in Milwaukee. His final game in the major leagues came just 13 months after his debut. He started just twice in 26 career games, though he was retroactively credited with three saves.
Murff remained with the Braves over the course of two seasons, going 2-2 for Milwaukee in 1957, but he did not pitch for the Braves after Memorial Day the year they went on to win the World Series. Murff lingered in the minors through 1959, pitching in Wichita and Louisville. He also hurled in the Puerto Rican League, where he later managed as well.
“Injury only stopped my baseball career as a player,” Red philosophically noted. “Baseball was still a part of my life. Baseball was my vocation.” Red became player-manager of the South Atlantic League Jacksonville Braves. That same year he helped a young pitcher named Phil Niekro, who was struggling with his knuckleball. More than three decades later, the 318-game winner said during his induction speech at the Hall of Fame. “When I played in Jacksonville, Florida, my manager by the name of Red Murff…walked to me and said, ‘Son,’ he said, ‘if you can get that knuckleball over the plate, you can pitch in the big leagues.’ And I believed him. I’ve had a lot of respect for Red and I still do. He’s here today and I just want to say thank you for finding someone at that age telling me that I could pitch in the big leagues with that knuckleball.”
It was merely Red Murff’s first instance of helping a pitcher on the path to Cooperstown.
After scouting for the Houston Colt .45s, Murff joined the expansion team that really needed help. He went to work for the Mets organization in 1963, touring a huge territory that embraced Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In an attempt to lift the fledgling Mets farm system, Red instituted the first-ever tryouts for young men enrolled in job training programs and helped establish winter instructional camps in Mexico. All the while the scout continued to cultivate a keen, almost prescient, ability to judge those players being overlooked.
Following up on a lead regarding a lefty hurler at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Red was shocked to find a “very fat” Jerry Koosman roaming the outfield. Weight was not the only reason the men in plaid were discouraged about this plump fellow from Minnesota; his lackadaisical approach caused scouts’ clipboards to remain blank. Red convinced the pitcher, who proved his craft on the mound, to drop the weight. He signed Jerry shortly after his military discharge. Murff gave a helping hand to Sam Houston State student Ken Boswell, tutoring the infielder how to approach the commissioner’s office and enter the major league draft as a special exception. (The Mets took him in the fourth round of the first major league draft in 1965.) Jerry Grote, who would become a lifelong friend of Red’s, was inked by Murff while he was scouting for the Colt .45s. When Houston lost interest in the catcher, Red’s word convinced the Mets brass to acquire the backstop.
Ryan provides a special example of Red’s foresight and determination. Not even Nolan’s blossoming fastball attracted scouts. The skinny kid’s wild delivery did not resemble anything close to big league potential. It was Red Murff who stood by the young pitcher, seeing what no one else could. During Ryan’s 1999 Hall of Fame induction speech, the man who hurled seven no-hitters praised Murff for making his baseball career possible. “Red is a friend and Red took more of an interest in me at an early age,” Ryan said. “He thought when he saw me at 6-foot-2 and 140, he wasn’t discouraged by my build and by the way I threw the baseball as many other scouts were. And I appreciate the fact that Red spent so much time with me and worked to help me become a better pitcher.”
While Koosman, Ryan, Grote, and Boswell propelled the Miracle Mets into a ticker-tape blizzard along the Canyon of Heroes, one has to remember it was Red who helped bring these gifted players to the Shea faithful. It is no fairytale for fans and statisticians to look at the contributions of these four ’69 Mets and honestly credit Red Murff with winning 23 regular season games while collecting 272 strikeouts during that magic season. By bringing Boswell and Grote to the Mets, Murff can also be credited with uncovering 72 RBIs for that club. Red’s postseason numbers for 1969 are even more impressive: two World Series victories and a save, not to mention the clinching victory in the NLCS.
Ironically, by the time the Mets won the Series, Murff was with another club. Murff again joined another expansion club that really needed his help: the Montreal Expos. He joined the Expos in September 1968, before the expansion draft was even held and he helped the club start a major league franchise from scratch. He was named Montreal’s Scout of the Year in 1975. Murff also started the baseball program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor College near his home in Belton, Texas, and came up with the innovative method of allowing released professional ballplayers to get an education and still be able to play college ball (games against ex-professionals were deemed exhibitions). The school’s baseball ballpark was named Red Murff Field in 1994.
Murff, who was also credited for finding John Bateman (Oklahoma), Mike Stanton (Texas), and Norm Charlton (Louisiana), retired from scouting in 1991 after 34 years on the job. He was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Texas Scouts Association Hall of Fame in 1999. He tried his hand at writing, penning a children’s book called Little Whiskers Fin after telling his grandson a story. With that under his belt, wrote his own story, The Scout: Searching for the Best in Baseball (with Mike Capps).
He remained close to the game even in his 80s. He moved in 2003 and quickly took an interest in the University of Texas at Tyler. “Red loved baseball and I loved it as well and we hit it off,” athletic director James Vilade said. “Early on in our program, Red was the only person who supported our team and our players. He was instrumental with having a scouting day and getting our players ready for professional ball and it really helped them out.” He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the school by Villade.
Even when Parkinson’s disease, along with heart problems, forced a move into a Tyler nursing home, he still talked baseball and went with Villade to area games on occasion. One of his prize pupils, Nolan Ryan, even paid a visit. Murff died on November 28, 2008 at the age of 87.
Red Murff interviews conducted by Michael J. Bielawa, 2005.
National Baseball Hall of Fame File of Red Murff, Cooperstown, New York.
Cotham, Jeremy, “‘Red’ Murff: The Legend of Baseball Legends,” The Patriot Talon (University of Texas at Tyler), December 8, 2008.
Murff, John “Red” with Mike Capps. The Scout: Searching for the Best in Baseball. (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996.)
The Sporting News, 1965–68, 1973.