His number hangs on the façade at Turner Field. Should it hang in Cooperstown?

Marvelous Murphy: Too Good to Ignore

This article was written by Dan Schlossberg

This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the Peach State (Atlanta, 2010)

His number hangs on the façade at Turner Field. Should it hang in Cooperstown? The yardstick for enshrinement in Cooperstown is generally determined by a player’s ability to dominate a decade. Dale Murphy more than met that standard.

Crippled by recurring knee problems that required mid-career surgery, Murphy retired with 398 home runs—one fewer than first-ballot inductee Al Kaline and 16 more than 2009 inductee Jim Rice. When he retired in 1993, the long-time Atlanta stalwart ranked 27th on the lifetime home-run list. Before Dale Murphy, only Ken Williams, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays had a season that included 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases, and a .300 batting average.

Blessed with a keen batting eye, Murphy had more total bases during the ’80s than any other player— including George Brett, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Dave Winfield. He also ranked first in extra-base hits and runs scored, and he placed second to Mike Schmidt in home runs and second to Eddie Murray in runs batted in.

He was both durable, playing in 740 consecutive games while not missing a game from 1982 to 1985, and devastating, intimidating National League pitchers with his ability to hit with power to the opposite field. That skill, instilled by then-Braves manager Joe Torre, earned Murphy Most Valuable Player awards in 1982 and 1983 and a strong bid for a then-unprecedented third MVP in a row in 1984, when he led the league in home runs, slugging, and total bases.

The only other back-to-back MVP winner eligible for election but still outside of Cooperstown is Roger Maris, remembered mostly for a 61-homer season in the first year in modern times that pitching staffs were diluted by expansion.

Playing in a decade dominated by pitching, Murphy had one of five 40-homer seasons produced by National League hitters. From 1982 to 1985, he reached triple digits in RBI four years in a row, twice as often as any other hitter. In three of those four years, the Oregon native also scored at least 100 times. Even after cleanup man Bob Horner was sidelined with a broken wrist for the last month of the 1983 campaign, Murphy couldn’t be stopped: from September 1 until the end of the season on October 2, he hit .327 with 10 homers and 29 RBI as the Braves made a valiant late run at the front-running Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. [EDITORS’ NOTE: Atlanta moved to the NL East in 1994.]

During his decade of dominance, Murphy not only finished second in both home runs (308) and RBI (929) but placed fifth in hits (1,553), made seven All-Star teams, and won five Gold Gloves—not bad for a scatter-armed catcher who moved to first base briefly before finding a home in the Atlanta outfield.

Murph’s misfortune was spending most of his career in obscurity playing for attendance-afflicted Atlanta teams more popular outside of Georgia because games were televised nationally via superstation WTBS. The Bad-News Braves of that era never made the World Series and reached the postseason only in 1982, when they went 0–3 in the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro, Murphy’s Atlanta teammate through the MVP years, pledges to vote for Murphy as a Veterans Committee member—assuming the Baseball Writers Association of America continues to overlook his candidacy. “The Hall of Fame is looking for stars who were role models,” Niekro said last September.[fn]Interview by the author, September 2009.[/fn] “They couldn’t find anybody better than Dale.”

The National League’s answer to Cal Ripken Jr., Murphy had a crystal-clear reputation for integrity and an uncanny ability to command respect from both teammates and opponents, without braggadocio. A devout Mormon and devoted family man, he never drank, smoked, or swore. His only bad habit was ordering everything on a restaurant menu except “thank you for dining with us,” according to former teammate Jerry Royster. There were times, Royster said, when Murphy boarded the team bus to the ballpark with a box of Dunkin’ Donuts and ate them all during the short ride.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

Unlike dozens of stars during the steroids era that followed, Dale Murphy eschewed artificial means of inflating his natural ability. He also countered the prevailing clubhouse practice of blowing off requests from reporters and fans.

Murphy’s managers loved him. Joe Torre, who succeeded Bobby Cox as Atlanta pilot in 1982, just wrote his name into the lineup and let him play. “If you’re a coach, you want him as a player,” Torre once said. “If you’re a father, you want him as a son. If you’re a woman, you want him as a husband. If you’re a kid, you want him as a father. What else can you say about the guy?”[fn]“Quotes about Dale Murphy,” on the player page for Murphy at www.TheBaseballPage.com.[/fn]

On the field, Murphy’s record speaks for itself, especially when compared with incumbent Hall of Famers. He won two RBI crowns (two more than Willie Mays), back-to-back home-run titles (two more than Stan Musial), and a pair of MVP trophies—twice as many as Hank Aaron or Jim Rice. He led the NL in slugging two years in a row and also led his league in runs and walks.

Murphy’s five Gold Gloves all came after Cox, in his first term as Atlanta manager, moved him out from behind the plate. (Although he once caught a one-hitter for the knuckleballing Niekro, Murphy developed a strange case of Steve Blass disease that prevented him from throwing the ball back to the pitcher.)

Current Atlanta slugger Chipper Jones, often compared to Murphy, wonders what’s keeping the softspoken icon out of Cooperstown. If Jones had a Hall of Fame vote, Murphy would get it. “Dale was a dominant force in the game. He won the MVP two years in a row, won Gold Gloves in the outfield, and was an icon in Atlanta,” said the switch-hitting third baseman. “He was the total package: he was among the leaders in home runs every year, he could run, and he was a sparkling defensive player. When you look at his career, certainly he’s a guy who should be considered very, very hard for the Hall of Fame. I only hope I set the same kind of example and play as hard as Murphy did. When anybody compares me to Dale Murphy, I take that as a tremendous compliment and hope I can carry the torch he passed along.”[fn]Interview by the author, July 2007.[/fn]

Missing the World Series might have hurt Murph in the minds of Hall of Fame electors, according to veteran baseball author David Vincent. Except for 1982, when Torre took his team to the playoffs in his first year at the helm, Murphy was marooned on also-rans. For most of his career, he and Niekro were the only members of the Braves even resembling big-leaguers.

“People might think Dale wasn’t a winner, but Ernie Banks and Phil Niekro didn’t get to the World Series either,” said Vincent, author of The Home Run Encyclopedia.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] “There are a lot of guys who didn’t play in the World Series, but there aren’t many of them who made seven All-Star teams and played so well for so many years. Murph wasn’t one of those guys who sat down for a split fingernail. He’d go out and play every day, and there aren’t many of those guys around anymore.”

Missing the 400-homer plateau might also have hurt Murphy’s chances, said the SABR home-run guru. “Is 400 the magic number?” he asked. “Everybody talks about 500 being automatic and 400 being a good indicator. At the very end, Dale was struggling, trying to get to 400. Willie Mays struggled at the end, playing longer than he should have. Lots of guys don’t want to give it up. But when you think about the ’80s, Dale Murphy was one of the top players of the decade, regardless of numbers. He was always there, doing something to help the Braves when they weren’t very good.”

Murphy’s shot at Cooperstown may have been compromised when he first became eligible in 1999. Also on that ballot were Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount, and George Brett, all of whom garnered the necessary 75 percent of the vote. Murphy didn’t mind, remembering that Niekro was a nominee four times before finally hurdling the three-quarters barrier. But his percentage has never exceeded 24 percent, although such writers as Jayson Stark and Phil Pepe are recent converts to his cause.

“I don’t understand why he hasn’t gotten more respect from the voters,” said Pete van Wieren, the long-time Braves broadcaster who retired after the 2008 season. “He certainly deserves it.”[fn]Mark Bowman, MLB.com (25 December 2006).[/fn] Team president John Schuerholz seconded the motion. “I hope he gets in,” said Schuerholz, architect of the Atlanta teams that captured 14 straight division titles from 1991 to 2005. “He is a very deserving candidate and would be a wonderful recipient.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

A final batting average of .265—the result of recurring knee problems late in his career—gave some voters pause. But Murphy’s mark was better than Harmon Killebrew’s .256, Bill Mazeroski’s .260, or Reggie Jackson’s .262, and just a shade under Mike Schmidt’s .267.

When healthy, Murphy did hit for average. The 6′ 5″ right-handed hitter compiled a .289 mark from 1982 to 1987 before the knee problems—probably the result of playing every day—held him to a .234 mark from 1988 until the end of his career.

“I would love to see Dale in the Hall of Fame,” said Bobby Cox, the man whose foresight in moving the young catcher saved wear and tear on his knees and allowed him to concentrate on his offense. “He went from catcher to first base to left field to center field and became a Gold Glove winner. He was MVP twice. And his character, what he does for communities and all that, has to add in somewhere.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]

Ironically, that character could have contributed to his exclusion from Cooperstown. As a religious man reserving his right to privacy, he regarded the locker room as his sanctuary—and campaigned against its invasion by media members of the opposite sex. That stand may have aggravated some beat writers, leading them to withhold Hall of Fame votes.

As both a man and an athlete, Dale Murphy had few peers.

By the time he retired, Murphy had more home runs than Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, nearly twice as many as Kirby Puckett, and more than Ralph Kiner and Jim Rice. Yet all but Murphy found their way to Cooperstown, as did seven of the ten men besides Murphy who won consecutive MVPs. (Two of these, Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds, are not yet eligible.)

Murphy’s supporters also insist that Dale’s defensive skills should boost his candidacy for Cooperstown—especially since Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski were one-dimensional stars enshrined primarily for their fielding skills. “If you put Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson [now in the Hall] in the same outfield,” said the late Philadelphia manager Danny Ozark, “you wouldn’t need a third outfielder.”[fn]Dan Schlossberg, “Dale Murphy: One of the Nicest Guys in Baseball,” World of Sport (August 1984).[/fn]

Murphy had the arm for right and the range for center, playing both positions flawlessly.

But anyone who saw him catch could not have imagined the remarkable transition. “I couldn’t throw, and it was very frustrating,” admitted Murphy, who once beaned his own pitcher while trying to nail a potential basestealer at second. “I had all this God-given talent, and all of a sudden I couldn’t play. I tried to keep it in perspective and not let it affect my relationships with people.

“I found myself much more relaxed in the outfield because I didn’t get such tough defensive plays. Maybe the length of the throw compensated for my lack of accuracy. If you throw the ball 300 feet and you’re off a little bit, the distance compensates. But if you throw it 90 feet to second and you’re off four or five feet, you’re in trouble.”[fn]Dan Schlossberg, “Dale Murphy,” Baseball Stars of 1985 (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1985).[/fn] A psychological ploy helped settle him down: Murphy’s dad once told him nobody would steal center field on him.

Although Bobby Cox was the man who moved Murphy around the diamond like a chess piece, it was Joe Torre who finished the game. A former Braves catcher who won an MVP award himself, Torre convinced Murphy to stop pulling every pitch. “I told him not to pull the ball, just to hit it,” Torre remembered.

“Dale was not a home-run hitter but a good hitter who happened to hit home runs. I didn’t want him to look at pitchers as faceless people but to recognize that each pitcher has his own style.”[fn]Interview by the author, December 2008.[/fn]

Dale Murphy: an all-time fan favorite in Atlanta.Once an All-Star catcher in the Southern League, Murphy became an All-Star outfielder in the National League by 1980. Fans elected him to the starting lineup in both 1982, when he became the first Braves player to win a league MVP trophy since Hank Aaron in 1957, and in 1983, when he became the first Brave to win the award twice. Mike Schmidt had won the trophy two years in succession before Murphy stopped his streak and started one of his own.

“I saw Murphy win games every possible way,” said veteran pitching coach Billy Connors.[fn]Bob Klapisch and Pete Van Wieren, The Braves: An Illustrated History of America’s Team (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995).[/fn] “I saw base hits in the ninth, home runs, great catches, and many times when he beat throws to first on potential double plays. I never saw anything like him before, and I saw Willie Mays play.”

Hank Aaron, a larger-than-life legend in Atlanta, agreed. “One thing that always told me a lot about a ballplayer was how he ran the bases,” said Aaron, the career home-run leader for 33 years.[fn]Interview by the author, March 2001.[/fn] “One of the most valuable things a player can do for a team is go from first to third on a single. Murphy did that. He almost never got thrown out. When he saw a ball hit, he just knew he was going to get to third base. He had that baseball instinct you can’t teach.”

That instinct also helped Murphy at the plate, where he showed surprising discipline for a slugger prone to strikeouts. In 1987, his last great season, he reached career peaks with 44 home runs and a .417 on-base percentage.

Three years later, with his skills and knees in rapid decline, Murphy was traded to the Phillies in a five-man swap that brought relief pitcher Jeff Parrett to the Braves. He spent the next two years with the Phils before finishing up with the 1993 Colorado Rockies, an expansion team that signed him as a free agent because they needed a big-name player. After going six-for-42 and failing to produce the two home runs he needed for 400 lifetime, Murphy retired.

His number, 3, is also retired, joined on the Turner Field facade by numerals worn by fellow Braves greats Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Phil Niekro (35), Greg Maddux (31), and Warren Spahn (21).[fn]Tom Glavine (47) will join this elite group in 2010.[/fn] Only a call from Cooperstown would be a greater honor.

The youngest man to win consecutive National League MVP awards, Murphy has been enshrined in the Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame for ten years. Cooperstown could be next—especially if electors pay attention to Baseball-Reference.com statistics that place Murphy higher than the average Hall of Famer in three of four comparative categories.

There’s little doubt that he dominated his contemporaries. During the 10-year span from 1981 to 1990, he led his league in total bases, games, at bats, and plate appearances. The sixth man to produce a 30/30 season, he was also the first to finish a season with a .300 average, 30 homers, 30 steals, 120 runs batted in, 130 runs scored, and 90 walks, while getting caught stealing fewer than 10 times. Not bad for a guy who suffered a serious knee injury in a home-plate collision with an incoming runner!

Despite the bad knees, Murphy was bad news to opposing pitchers long enough to leave an indelible mark in baseball history. At the time he retired, he was considered a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame.

Someone obviously dropped the key.

DAN SCHLOSSBERG, a former sportswriter for the Associated Press is author or coauthor of 35 books, including this year’s “The 300 Club: Have We Seen the Last of Baseball’s 300-Game Winners?” (Ascend Books, 2010). He is managing editor of the syndicated BallTalk Radio and the founder and president emeritus of the North American Travel Journalists Association.