By Pete Williams
I grew up a huge fan of Dale Murphy, the center fielder for the 1980s Atlanta Braves. On Friday night, Murphy was the featured speaker at a Hot Stove banquet on the campus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
The school’s baseball program shares a ballpark with the Class A Chaleston RiverDogs, who co-hosted the banquet. The team’s president (Mike Veeck) and I wrote a business motivational book several years ago and Mike gave me one of my biggest professional thrills by allowing me to introduce Murphy. Here’s what I said:
I might not be here were it not for Dale Murphy. Back in 1993, I was covering my second spring training, for USA Today’s Baseball Weekly. And if you’ve ever been to spring training, you know it’s a laidback time of year. That’s also true for the players and media, who have had a five-month break from each other. Players generally are more open to talking.
Unfortunately, one morning in the Phillies camp in Clearwater, I approached the wrong guy, an intense third baseman named Dave Hollins. It was still two hours before gametime and I asked Hollins if he had a minute. He glared at me, bat in hand, and told me where I could stick my tape recorder. I should add that tape recorders back then were much larger than today’s sleeker digital models.
Before this could escalate, Dale Murphy appeared out of nowhere, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Isn’t it time for us to talk?” There was no pre-arranged interview, of course, and Murph’s gesture may have saved my life. So on behalf of my wife and sons, Murph, I want to say ‘thank you.’
As I kid I’d often hear men of my father’s age talk in reverential terms about Mickey Mantle. They’d bring him up to refer to a more innocent time in baseball, a more innocent time in America. As a kid, I could never relate to those feelings.
My dad wasn’t a Mantle fan but he did grow up in New York – a fan of Gil Hodges, the classy first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1977, we were living in Richmond, Virginia, and Dad took me to my first baseball game, featuring the R-Braves at Parker Field. And there must have been something about a 21-year-old Braves catcher that reminded my dad of Gil Hodges because Dad handed me a pen along with this baseball (holding up ball) and pointed me in the direction of Dale Murphy.
The following season, the man known as The Murph made it to Atlanta for good and there he became the first star of cable television. These were memorable years for Braves owner Ted Turner, who launched TBS and CNN, won the America’s Cup, and was smart enough to send his sons to school here at The Citadel.
But for all of Ted’s success, he struggled with baseball. Within a three-year span, he fired two young managers by the names of Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
I wonder whatever happened to those guys.
Murph played parts of 18 seasons in the Majors, but only one of his teams reached the playoffs and only three posted winning records. Back then, some Braves fans thought WTBS stood for Where the Braves Struggle.
The exception, of course, was Dale Murphy. He won a pair of National League MVP Awards, five Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers and played in seven All-Star Games. He was one of the first members of the 30/30 club and hit 398 home runs back when that still was a huge number AND an honest accomplishment.
He played in 740 consecutive games before the streak was broken in 1986. The guy in second place at the time? Somebody by the name of Ripken.
But those numbers don’t begin to tell the story. Murph won baseball’s two most prestigious awards for community service – The Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig Awards – and also was honored with a share of Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year Award.
He set an unofficial Major League record for autographs, which is especially impressive considering he signs with his non-throwing hand. He served as a clean-living role model for a generation of us who grew up watching TBS. He did not smoke, drink, or swear and his only vice appeared to be eating lots of ice cream.
His teammates admired Murphy for his clean living philosophies, though not many shared them. Not long after The Murph was traded to the Phillies, John Kruk was asked to characterize the clubhouse. “It’s simple,” Kruk said. “We’re have twenty-four morons…and a Mormon.”
Like many kids, I wore Murphy’s Number 3 in Little League. Most of us never played beyond high school. Others, like Alex Rodriguez, made it a little further.
Watching The Murph on TV in the ‘80s, he seemed like a huge guy at 6-4 and 215 pounds. Watching that same footage today on ESPN Classic or The MLB Network, he seems almost skinny.
His career ended in 1993, the early days of the Steroid Era. At the time, his 398 home runs ranked among the top twenty-five all-time. Now, just 17 years later, it ranks forty-eighth.
In his second year on the Hall of Fame ballot, he received 23 percent of the vote. For some players, that’s been enough of a base to build upon to reach Cooperstown. Earlier this month, 10 years later, Murphy received less than 12 percent of the vote.
Three years ago, I actually got to see Murph become a Hall of Famer. It was the Ted Williams Hitters Hall of Fame, where Murph was inducted with Fred McGriff, another Braves slugger who did not use steroids.
But rather than campaign for Cooperstown or defend his numbers, Murph has spent his time doing more important work. He and his wife Nancy raised eight children. He oversaw Mormon missionary work in Boston and three years ago he launched the I Won’t Cheat Foundation, encouraging young people to avoid performance enhancing drugs.
At a time when many current and former players refuse to speak out against steroid use – If you believe Mark McGwire, they don’t make much difference anyway – Dale Murphy has campaigned against them. These days, steroid use is epidemic. We’ve grown accustomed to our sports figures cheating on and off the field, from baseball and football to cycling, track – even golf.
It’s tough to have a sports hero or even a sports role model but I’m glad mine has stood the test of time. He’s the same guy I got my first autograph from in 1977.
Even Mickey Mantle proved to be a tragic figure, though he redeemed himself later in life. ““Don’t be like me,” the Mick famously said.
As for me, I still want to be like Dale Murphy.
These days I find myself sounding a lot like those middle-aged guys who talked about Mantle when I was a kid. Like the previous generation, I find myself reminiscing about a more simple time in America, a more simple time in baseball. Now more than ever sports needs Dale Murphy.
Fortunately for us, we have him for this evening. Please join me in welcoming No.3 – Dale Murphy.