Though his major-league career consisted of only ten games with the Washington Senators in 1923, Bobby Murray devoted his entire life to baseball. A friendly, modest man with an impish smile and blue eyes that twinkled when he laughed, Murray enjoyed nothing more than teaching younger generations about the game he loved. “He was about as good an instructor of infield play as anyone I ever saw,” says long-time Dartmouth baseball coach and Vermont resident Tony Lupien, a former big-league first baseman. “You know, Murray and Larry Gardner were good friends. They both played ball the same way–shrewdly.”
Robert Hayes Murray was born in St. Albans on the Fourth of July, 1894. Thirty years earlier, the Franklin County shire town had been the scene of the northernmost engagement of the Civil War when a band of 22 Confederates robbed three banks and fled to the Canadian border nearby. At the time Murray lived there, St. Albans had a population exceeding 6,000, making it the fifth-largest city in Vermont. It was known as the “Railroad City” because the Central Vermont Railroad was headquartered there, and it was also the home of a pretty good baseball team. Ed Doheny, another future major leaguer, was pitching for the local nine at the time Murray lived there.
Bobby’s father, John P. Murray, was a self-employed carpenter, and he and his wife, Julia, moved to Franklin, New Hampshire, when Bobby was still a toddler. As a youngster Bobby was fascinated with Civil War history, and this curiosity propelled him to visit regularly with the disabled and homeless Civil War veterans living at the Old Soldiers Home in Franklin. After attending prep school at Tilton Seminary and Westbrook Academy, Murray returned to Vermont and enrolled at Norwich University in Northfield (coincidentally Doheny’s hometown). One wonders if his interest in Civil War history had something to do with his decision to attend a military institution. During World War I, Murray served in the Army from September 1917 through December 1918 and advanced to the rank of staff sergeant.
Bobby tried his hand at boxing while stationed at Camp Devens, Masachusetts. He trained with Battling Levinsky, holder of the U.S. light-heavyweight championship until his 12-round defeat by Gene Tunney at Madison Square Garden in 1922. Years later Bobby befriended another light-heavyweight champ, Billy Conn, whose nickname was “The Pittsburgh Kid.” Although Murray was no heavyweight himself (he was 5’6″, 155 lbs.), he could measure up to anyone when it came to toughness. “Bobby was the kind of guy,” says longtime friend Bill Twomey, “who could shake your hand and then hand you back your bones.”
After the war Murray focused his attention on baseball, and an unattributed clipping in his file at the National Baseball Library gives an indication of the type of player the lefthanded- hitting infielder was:
The fact is that the little Worcester player is really good, shining especially in the role of top man in the batting order. He hit for .285 last season and he led the league in drawing bases on balls, which is his specialty. He also led it in getting hit by pitched balls, which is a useful but dangerous trait.
In 1920 a Bridgeport newspaper named Murray the best shortstop in the Eastern League, and in 1921 he continued his climb towards the majors by playing Double-A ball (the top minor-league classification at the time) with Toledo of the American Association.
Playing for Rochester, another Double-A team, in 1922, Bobby was involved in a freak accident that sowed the seeds for a life-time friendship. After swinging two bats in the on-deck circle, Murray headed for the batter’s box and innocently flipped the extra bat towards the dugout. Unfortunately, the bat struck a zealous 12-year-old bat boy in the mouth, knocking out several teeth. Murray was so distraught that he paid the child’s dental bill, then tracked his whereabouts over the years in case complications arose. The boy’s name was Gabe Paul, and he went on to become president of the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.
Despite batting .296 the previous year with Rochester, Bobby found himself playing in a lower classification with the Nashville Vols in 1923. One of his teammates in Nashville was a 23-year-old outfielder who won Most Valuable Player honors in the Southern Association that summer and went on to enjoy a Hall-of-Fame career in the majors. The player’s name was Hazen Shirley Cuyler, better known as “Kiki” (pronounced “kie kie”), and Bobby Murray claimed that he was responsible for coming up with that moniker.
There are actually two stories of how Kiki Cuyler got his nickname, but either way Bobby Murray was involved. According to the most common version, for years Cuyler had been called “Cuy” by his teammates. At Nashville, when a flyball was hit to center field, the shortstop would call out “Cuy,” signifying that Cuyler was to make the catch, and the second baseman [Murray] would echo the call. Fans picked up the cry, and before long a writer tagged him with “Kiki.”
Murray told a different story to Bill Twoomey. According to Murray’s version, Nashville’s manager stuttered when he read the batting order aloud. When the team took the field, Murray, playing second base, would turn to Cuyler, playing center field, and yell out, “Hey, Ki–Ki- Ki–Cuyler,” mimicking the manager. After the joke was repeated a few times, other players started referring to him as Kiki.
Murray hit a career-high .307 for Nashville in 1923, and even though he was in a lower-classified league than he had been the previous two years, he finally got the call. In late September he was ordered to report to Griffith Stadium in Washington because of an injury to one of the team’s better players.
When he had arrived with the Senators one year earlier, Ossie Bluege considered himself a slick-fielding shortstop. But Washington already had a shortstop, veteran Roger Peckinpaugh, so Clark Griffith asked Bluege if he could adjust to playing third base. “If it’s a groundball, I can field it,” Bluege replied.
The rookie’s words proved no idle boast. In the midst of his first full season in the majors in 1923, the 22-year-old had already established himself as one of the finest-fielding third basemen in the American League. Bluege felt secure in his starting position, even if his .245 batting average was the lowest among Washington’s regulars.
But on September 23, 1923, in the second game of a double-header against the Cleveland Indians, Bluege shattered a bone in his right leg. This was the opportunity Bobby Murray needed to reach the majors. The next day the Vermonter started for Washington, playing third base and batting second, sandwiched between the pesky Nemo Leibold and hard-hitting Goose Goslin.
The opposing pitcher for the Chicago White Sox was right-hander Charlie Robertson, who in 1922 had pitched the sixth perfect game in major-league history in only his third big-league start. On this day he was almost as good, shutting out the Senators 1-0 and holding Murray hitless in three official at-bats. Bobby had to wait until the next day for his first major-league hit, a single.
Not until his third game, on September 26, 1923, did Bobby Murray understand the magnitude of what he had accomplished in reaching the major leagues. As Chicago’s lead-off hitter, Harry Hooper, prepared to step in, Murray turned towards the pitcher’s mound from his position at third base and watched Walter Johnson warming up with his easy sidearm motion. Suddenly he realized he was standing on the same diamond as the greatest pitcher who ever lived. Years later Bobby admitted that it was the one time in his career that he felt chills running down his spine.
Murray played in each of Washington’s last ten games of the 1923 season, batting .189 (7 singles in 37 at-bats) with two runs scored and two RBIs. Despite playing out of his preferred positions in the middle infield, he did not commit a single error.
Though he never returned to the major leagues, Bobby Murray continued to play professional baseball through 1937. All told, he played for ten different teams and managed four of them.
During that time Bobby played with and against some of the great names in baseball history. The feat he remembered best came against Van Lingle Mungo, a temperamental fireballer who pitched his best years for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1930s. “Mungo had us blanked and was working on a no-hitter,” Murray said. “He would throw that big foot up in the air and that’s all you would see and the ball would be by you. Well, he had us going into the ninth and I hit the ball off the fence, spoiling the no-hit, no-run effort. That Mungo didn’t speak to me until about four years later.”
During the 1930s, actor Buster Keaton hired Murray as player-manager of his winter-league club in Culver City, California. Murray had an old Model-T Ford that he drove cross-country, stop-ping along the way to visit friends from among his vast network of former teammates. When he reached the southwest desert, he filled the back seat of the car with ice and closed the windows to create an early form of air conditioning.
Keaton taught Murray his baggy-pants burlesque routines and even found him a role in a Hollywood movie. It was an obscure baseball film called “Slide Kelly Slide” and the director needed someone to play a background role as one of the sliding ballplayers. After receiving instructions on how to slide in order to produce the desired screen effect, Bobby expressed his dissatisfaction that any film director would instruct his actors to deviate from proper sliding technique. Murray set up his own class on proper sliding for members of the cast, but in the end he reluctantly agreed to slide the way the director wanted him to.
After his playing career, Murray settled down in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he lived for the last 39 years of his life. He scouted at various times for the Detroit Tigers, Boston Braves, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals, and his diverse baseball experience included a stint in 1953 as business manager for a PONY League club in Corning, New York. From 1956 through 1959 he coached the baseball team at Providence College, and he also coached several semi-pro, American Legion and Little League teams. In 1974 Murray received the Service to Youth Award from the Nashua Boys Club, and the following year the Nashua Parks and Recreation Department gave him the Salute to Youth Award.
Bobby also worked as an instructor at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, Massachusetts. His closest friend at the camp was Eddie Waitkus, the old Chicago Cubs first baseman whose 1949 shooting was the real-life inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. Waitkus was an alcoholic, and Murray was careful to hide him from campers when he was under the influence. In later years, Murray visited Waitkus at his nursing home–the Old Soldiers Home that Bobby had visited as a kid.
After retiring from baseball Murray worked at Phillip Morris Sporting Goods in Nashua. Over the years he had become a knowledgeable freshwater angler and could advise customers on fishing as well as baseball equipment. Murray had also written an instructional book on baseball that he was planning on submitting to publishers, but he kept the manuscript at the store and was devastated when it burned in a fire. Bobby never was able to bring himself to re-write the book.
At the age of 84, Bobby Murray was admitted to a Nashua hospital with a urinary problem on January 2, 1979. He passed away two days later. In his final hours Bobby told Bill Twoomey that a lot of old-timers had died bitter, but he could die knowing that he had brought satisfaction to a lot of kids through baseball. After his death, the Nashua Little League named a field in his honor.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.