Willie Murphy was a left-handed hitting outfielder who had an eight-year career in professional baseball, playing one year in the major leagues. In addition to playing with the Cleveland National League club and Washington in the American Association in 1884, early sources (The Baseball Encyclopedia, 7th Edition, Macmillan Publishing Company) indicated that he also played one game with Boston in the Union Association that year, which meant that he would have played in three separate major leagues in one season. However, later sources (Total Baseball, 6th Edition, 1999) and subsequent research by the author have revealed that the Boston player was not Willie, but rather Tony Murphy.
He acquired the nickname “Gentle Willie” early in his career and the only explanation found was from a former teammate, who long after Willie had retired, recalled “they called him ‘gentle’ because he was anything but … he was short and fat as butter and scaled around 240 pounds. He wasn’t fast in the field, but was a terrific hitter, and that made him valuable on any team.”ii Another ex-teammate said he got the name “Gentle Willie” due to his quiet, carefree manner. “The trouble was he wouldn’t take anything seriously, especially baseball. Sometimes an important game would be scheduled and Murphy wouldn’t even appear. He was a great hitter though …”iii
Willie was listed as standing 5′ 11″ and weighing 198 pounds, a large man for the era, although later in his career he weighed well over 200 pounds. He had a reputation as an erratic fielder, was a powerful hitter. It was said that he “could knock the ball over any fence and for any league that could pay him enough for it” and “in the 80’s he was the most talked of outfielder in the county.”iv However, Willie lived a sad and tragic life. Like many first generation Irish-American ball players in the 19th century, alcohol abuse affected his life on and off the field and almost certainly curtailed a promising career in major-league baseball. After one of his many suspensions, the Boston Daily Globe reported “It was not that William loved baseball less, but that he loved watermelon more.”v
William H. Murphy was born March 23, 1864 in Springfield, Massachusetts to William and Ellen (Coffer) Murphy who were both born in Ireland. He had four older siblings; James, John, Johanna (Josie), and Katie, and one younger sister Ellen (Nellie). He married Catherine (Katie) Mulloy on April 25, 1883.vi Anecdotal information was found indicating Willie had two children, a son William and a daughter Mary. A William Murphy was born February 1, 1884 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Parents listed on the birth record were William and Catherine Murphy, and the father’s birthplace as Springfield. A Mary E. Murphy was born December 26, 1887 to William H. and Catherine Murphy in Ludlow, Massachusetts, just a few miles north of Springfield.
In 1883, at the age of 19, Willie began playing with independent teams in his hometown of Springfield as well as Holyoke, Massachusetts and Plainfield, New Jersey. In August 1883, he was offered a contract by Boston; he started the 1884 season, however, with the Cleveland Blues in the National League. In July, the Washington Nationals offered him $150 to jump to their club. Less than two weeks later the Washington club disbanded and there were reports that Murphy re-joined his former Springfield club. Willie also played with Rockville in the Connecticut State League, and as mentioned earlier, played one game with Boston of the Union Association.
Cleveland signed Murphy on March 19 and he debuted with the team on May 1. He was 20 years old at the time. He appeared in 42 games for Cleveland, batting .226 and striking out a reported 23 times. His one home run was a solo homer off Fred Goldsmith in the top of the fourth inning at a game against the Chicago Cubs at Lake Front Park on June 6. Murphy drove in nine runs, but scored 18. He had three doubles and three triples. He was apparently not a good fielder. In 93 chances in the outfield, he committed 26 errors for a fielding percentage of .720.
His stay with Washington was brief, for just the two weeks. He played in five games, one of them at third base. In ten fielding chances, he committed three errors (all as an outfielder.) His batting average was .476 (10-for-21); he was walked once and hit by pitches twice.
In 1885, Willie played with the Meriden Maroons, whose team played in both the Connecticut State League and the Southern New England League that season. Willie’s .349 batting average led the Southern New England circuit. Though primarily an outfielder, he worked 13 games at third base for Meriden. He also spent part of the 1885 campaign with Lawrence, Massachusetts in the Eastern New England League. Baseball-reference.com lists a “P. Murphy?” on the roster of the Bridgeport, Connecticut Giants in the Eastern league in 1886, but this was Willie Murphy.vii He appeared in 18 games as an outfielder, hitting .235. He split the rest of the 1886 season between Meriden again and the Boston Blues in the New England League – and trouble continued to follow Willie. He said “he took exception to being considered drunk whenever he was not playing”, and “that he did not play yesterday because he was really ill.”viii Regardless, he was released by Boston the next day and returned home to Springfield for the winter.
Baseball-Reference.com shows Willie as having played in 30 games as a catcher with New Haven in 1887, but this was found to be a different Murphy.ix Gentle Willie did, however, began the 1887 season with the Bridgeport, Connecticut Giants in the Eastern League. In June, manager Robert Foster of the Minneapolis Northwestern League club telegraphed the manager of the Bridgeport team and offered $125 for Willie’s rights, not knowing that he had already been released by Bridgeport for drunkenness. But Murphy started off on a “big drunk, which he kept up for three weeks”xand Foster had to wire money to Murphy to get him to Minneapolis. After eventually joining the team, Murphy hit .313 in 83 at-bats for the Millers.
In August of 1887, he was loaned to Fargo, North Dakota in the semipro Red River Valley League. It appeared he was still on a drunk as in an August 17 game “Gentle Willie was a clown in reality, and the manner he walked around the diamond on muffed balls and wild throws, was well worth the price of admission alone”, and the next day “… especially Murphy (who was charged with four errors in left field) did some of the poorest attempts of handling the ball that the nine had been guilty of … it was curiously whispered in the grandstand that Murphy’s playing was about on parallel to a nine year old school boy…”xi
At some point Willie returned to Minneapolis but soon ran afoul of the law. It seems Murphy and someone named Ryan were accused of stealing chickens and articles of clothing. When police searched the shanty occupied by Murphy and Ryan, they found horse blankets as well as a large number of chicken heads and feathers. He was arraigned in municipal court in Minneapolis, found guilty of larceny, and sentenced to 20 days. In December, 1887 it was reported Murphy had “served his sentence in Minneapolis, and is again a free man.”xii Nonetheless, Minneapolis manager Foster expressed a willingness to have Willie return the next season “if he can get him to pledge himself not to drink any more.”xiii
Murphy’s whereabouts in 1888 are unknown, but during the offseason he wrote to the manager of the Worcester, Massachusetts club asking for a chance for the next season. In his letter Willie said that “he had given up drinking and is in good trim.”xiv His 1889 season was a microcosm of Gentle Willie’s career in baseball. He split the season between Hartford and Norwalk in the Atlantic Association. In one early-season game, the local sheriff came into the ballpark with a warrant for Willie’s arrest, but his manager paid his $20 fine. On May 9 he hit three home runs in a game against New Haven and in their May 29, 1889 issue, Sporting Life reported “Gentle Willie Murphy … is one of the finest hitters in the business and if not for his lushing tendencies, would have been a major league player right along.” In June, a local paper reported “Gentle Willie Murphy is boozing again” and in August Norwalk suspended Willie for “indifferent work and insubordination” and released him a short time later.xv
In 1890, Murphy played for independent teams in New Jersey and in Norwich, Connecticut. He stayed on with the Norwich club which in 1891 entered the Connecticut State League, his last known season in Organized Baseball. 1891 was the first time Gentle Willie made it through an entire season with one team. In 1892, Murphy played for an independent team in Plainfield, New Jersey, even establishing a shooting gallery in that city, but was released by the club in August, 1892. There are also reports of him playing with different “athletic clubs” in New Jersey, including the Staten Islands, the Bergens, and the Orange Athletic Club.
In April 1895, Murphy was arrested for interfering with police officers in Willimanatic, Connecticut in what was described as “a lively chase in which pistol shots figured.”xvi He was fined $6 and costs and sentenced to 30 days in the county jail in Wyndam, Connecticut. In February 1898, the Hartford Courant printed a story in which a former Hartford teammate, John Henry, had just returned from Africa and that while there he encountered “Gentle Willie” Murphy who he said had struck it rich in the gold fields to the tune of $50,000. Both the Courant, and Sporting Life in their March 19, 1898 issue, expressed skepticism, stating, “That story may be true, but the chances are that Mr. Henry has Gentle Willie mixed up with some other Murphy.”xvii
Gentle Willie Murphy was not heard from again until 1908 when he was spotted wandering around different cities in New England “somewhat battered by the seamy side of life”xviii looking for his two children that he hadn’t seen since 1889. He was living in Newark, New Jersey at the time “where he has rested for several years” and was employed as a driver. He eventually made his way to Hartford where some former teammates staged a benefit game on his behalf. This is the last anyone saw of “Gentle Willie” Murphy: no obituary or notice of his death has ever been found.xix
iThe Baseball Encyclopedia, Seventh Edition, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1988
iiMeridian (CT) Daily Republican, October 25, 1935.
iiiHartford Courant, August 3, 1930.
ivHartford Courant, September 21, 1908
v The reference is to watermelon laced with alcohol. Boston Daily Globe, September 10, 1886
viiSpringfield (MA) Republican, April 11, 1886.
viiiBoston Daily Globe, September 9, 1886.
ix The Day, New London, CT, September 14, 1917
xSt. Paul Daily Globe, October 23, 1887.
xiFargo (ND) Daily Argus, August 18, 1887.
xiiBoston Globe, December 12, 1887.
xiiiSt. Paul Daily Globe, December 4, 1887.
xivBoston Herald, January 27, 1899.
xv Boston Daily Globe, August 18, 1889
xvi Hartford Courant, February 2, 1898
xviiSporting Life and Hartford Courant, March 19, 1898
xviiiThe Day (New London, CT), October 26, 1908.
xix James M. Egan, Baseball on the Western Reserve: The Early Game in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2008).