“Red Murray was for years noted as one of the greatest outfielders in the National League,” wrote J.C. Kofoed in the April 1924 issue of Baseball Magazine. “His throwing arm was the best ever, his ground covering ability and sureness of eye were classic. Furthermore, he was remarkably fast as a base runner, and noted as a batter as well.” In his seven seasons as a regular, Murray led NL outfielders in home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, and assists a total of 16 times. Despite his impressive statistics in power hitting, baserunning, and fielding, he remains one of the least-recognized stars of the Deadball Era.
The son of Hanna (Sheehan) and William Maurice Murray, a coal miner originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, John Joseph Murray was born March 4, 1884, in the north central Pennsylvania town of Arnot, where Mother Jones led a famous strike of the United Mine Workers in 1899. After attending Arnot public schools, John (already known as “Red” for the color of his hair) played semi-pro baseball for the Father Mathew team in Elmira, New York, some 40 miles north of Arnot. There he met Joe “Dode” Birmingham, an Elmira native and future major leaguer who became a lifelong friend. Following two years at Lock Haven College (now Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania), where he played football, basketball, and baseball, Murray moved on to the University of Notre Dame in 1904. For two years Red was the catcher and batting star of a Fighting Irish baseball team that also included his friend Birmingham.
When the 1906 school year ended, Murray signed his first professional contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he batted .257 in seven games as a catcher and 34 in the outfield. The next year the Cardinals made him their regular left fielder and he began to display his trademark combination of power and speed, slugging seven homers (third in the NL) to go along with 23 stolen bases. On May 27 of that season, Murray hit a home run measured at 471 feet, then considered the longest blast in St. Louis history. Perhaps his greatest season came in 1908, when at age 24 he played in all 154 games and finished second in the NL in stolen bases (48) and third in hits (167), home runs (7), and total bases (237). That December the Cardinals traded him to the New York Giants in the deal for Roger Bresnahan, giving Bresnahan a chance to manage and Murray a chance to play for a winning team.
Red Murray became the cleanup hitter of John McGraw’s juggernaut Giants of 1911-13, winners of three consecutive NL pennants. From 1909-12 Murray ranked third in the NL in total RBIs, trailing only Honus Wagner and Sherry Magee. He and Wagner tied for the most home runs in the majors from 1907 through 1909 (21), and though his 1909 home-run title was achieved with just seven round-trippers, they accounted for 4.6% of the league’s 151 homersmuch higher than Barry Bonds’ 2.5% in 2001. On one home run, according to an oft-reported story, McGraw ordered Murray to lay down a sacrifice bunt but the independent-thinking slugger swung away instead. As the story goes, McGraw became so irate at Murray’s refusal to follow orders that he fined him $50.
Those Giants, of course, were known mainly for their speed. A 1976 book entitled A Baseball Century: The First Hundred Years of the National League states, “On the legs of Josh Devore, Buck Herzog, Fred Snodgrass, Arthur Fletcher, and ‘Laughing Larry’ Doyle, the Giants raced to pennants in those years.” Inexcusably, the author left out Murray and Fred Merkle even though they tied Snodgrass for the team lead in stolen bases from 1911 to 1913. Similarly, Lee Allen slighted Murray in his 1950 book 100 Years of Baseball. Allen wrote, “This [stolen-base] epoch extended roughly from 1910-1912,” then listed “greyhounds” Bob Bescher of the Reds, Max Carey of the Pirates, and Doyle, Snodgrass, and Devore of the Giants as the “creators of this terror on the paths.” Where was Red Murray? During that three-year span he pilfered 143 sacks, second only to Bescher’s 217 and far surpassing Allen’s other “greyhounds.”
Murray’s combination of power and speed places him in some heady company. Since 1900 only 13 players have finished in the top five in the major leagues in home runs and stolen bases during the same season. Willie Mays (1955) and Hank Aaron (1963) are the only players to accomplish this feat in the past 70 years. Only three men did it twice: Honus Wagner (1907-08); Red Murray (1908-09); and Ty Cobb (1909-10).
Murray was no slouch on defense, either. From his position in right field at the Polo Grounds, which the press often called “Murray Hill,” Red led all NL outfielders in assists in 1909 (30) and 1910 (26). He was the only outfielder in the majors to accumulate more than 100 assists during the period 1907-10. And on September 10, 1913, Murray threw out pitcher George McQuillen on what appeared to be a clean single to right field. In his 1924 article in Baseball Magazine, Kofoed wrote, “My general recollection of the powerful whipped National League outfields of the comparatively recent past was that [Mike] Mitchell, Murray, and Owen Chief Wilson were equipped with about as powerful arms as anyone in the league.”
As for his glove work, Murray made seven putouts in Game 7 of the 1912 World’s Series, including two that were described as “spectacular,” and his game-saving catch on August 16, 1909, has been called the greatest in the history of Forbes Field. Heavy thunderclouds threatened throughout the game, and at the moment of his leaping, fingertip catch, blinding lightning lit up the sky and “the accompanying crash of thunder fairly jarred the earth.” McGraw called it the “greatest and most dramatic” catch he ever saw, and it was later featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Lightning struck twice, as it were. On July 17, 1914, Murray was knocked unconscious by a bolt of lightning after catching a fly ball for the final out in a 21-inning contest.
During that 1914 season Murray slumped to a .223 batting average and lost his regular position in the Giants outfield, and the following year he was sent to the Chicago Cubs. In 1916 he was coaxed out of retirement to play for Toronto of the International League, managed by his childhood friend Dode Birmingham. Red ended his major league career with 22 at-bats for the Giants in 1917.
Murray subsequently returned to the Elmira area where he owned and operated a battery and tire store for two decades, served as a Democratic alderman for three years, and was Elmira’s recreation director for 18 years. On August 12, 1920, he married Beatrice Riley. In 1950 Murray was voted Elmira’s greatest baseball player of the half-century, and he and Birmingham were among the first group inducted into the Elmira Baseball Hall of Fame in a 1961 ceremony held at Dunn Field. Red died of leukemia on December 4, 1958, in Sayre, Pennsylvania, not far from his birthplace. His obituary ranked him “with Mel Ott as one of the two greatest right fielders in New York Giant history.”
Note: A slightly different version of this biography appeared in Tom Simon, ed., Deadball Stars of the National League (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004).
For this biography, the author used a number of contemporary sources, especially those found in the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.