No. 64: Eddie Murray
Here’s a question: How good was Los Angeles’ Locke High School baseball team in 1973? Eddie Murray was the first baseman. Ozzie Smith was the shortstop.
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In 1979, during the Baltimore-Pittsburgh World Series, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young wrote a column that changed Eddie Murray’s life. Young was the sort of newspaper sports columnist that doesn’t probably doesn’t exist anymore, a lot like the Robert Duvall character in “The Natural.” He began as a baseball writer and there he changed the rules by being one of the first to go to the clubhouse, to get inside dirt, to challenge convention.
“You’re gonna write the games most of the time,” he told Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer. “Nothing you can do about that, and it ain’t bad. But anytime, you hear me, ANYTIME you can get your story off the game you got to do it. Because that’s unusual and people read unusual things. Fights. Bean balls. Whatever. Write them, not the game.”
It’s as if, in 1952, Dick Young already understood the Internet.
But most people remember him after his baseball days, as a general sports columnist. He was abrasive and arrogant, relentless and provocative, nasty and driven, loud and certain … and above all, powerful. When he was on the side of the right — as in his support for Jackie Robinson or his devotion to equality for women sportswriters — he could be downright heroic.
But at other times — like when he ran Tom Seaver out of New York or viciously attacked players he didn’t like with innuendo and smears — he was a destructive force. He was the most read sports columnist in America. And for Game 2 of the 1979 World Series, he decided to write about Ed Murray, who had gone three-for-three a homer in that game.
The bulk of the column about Murray was positive. It doesn’t seem to have been written as a hit piece — a Dick Young hit piece is hard to misidentify. But there was a section in there about Murray’s family and how they treated Orioles scout Ray Poitevint.
“(Poitevint) offers $20,000,” Young wrote. “He gets cursed at. He leaves. He goes back. He is called a thief, kicked out. This was by Ed Murray’s older brothers. They and Ed Murray’s mother do all the talking. Ed Murray, 17, just sits there, listening, not saying a word.” Then Poitevint is quoted saying that one of Murray’s brothers tried to run Poitevint over with his car.
Murray was devastated by the article. One, he said it wasn’t true. Two, he could not believe Poitevint would allow himself to be quoted saying those sorts of things about his family — to Dick Young no less, during the World Series no less. Three, he thought Young should have at least asked him about it before he printed a story like that. He felt utterly blindsided.
In truth, Murray’s thoughts were probably not that well organized at the time. All of it just seemed wrong, horribly wrong, and though he’d already been in the big leagues for three years this was an arctic blast into his face. He was already quiet, somewhat withdrawn, but he came to understand something that would guide him for the rest of his career: The writers will hurt you, if they get the chance.
Murray had been driven to play major league baseball going back to his earliest memories. He was nine years old and living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles when the riots erupted in 1965. What he would remember most about that time was that his little league team, the Chiefs, had to find a new place to practice.
Baseball was everywhere for a kid in Los Angeles then. Murray was surrounded by fantastic baseball players, including his oldest brother Charlie, who made it to Class AAA, and his young brother Rich, who would play briefly for the Giants. But there were all sorts of future (and present) major leaguers. He played on a youth team with Chet Lemon, a wonderful player in his time. Dan Ford, who was a notable player for a decade, was there. Big leaguers George Hendrick and Bob Watson and Bobby Tolan were a bit older but would be around the neighborhood. And, as mentioned, he played on a high school team with Ozzie Smith. Two Hall of Famers in the same high school infield.
Murray, from his youngest days, had a reputation among them as the serious one, the hardest working one, the player who would have to get pushed out of the batter’s box or he would stay and hit forever.
He began switch-hitting as a kid — on the rare occasions when he struck out right-handed he would show up for the next at-bat hitting lefty — and he always treated hitting like his life’s work. You know that term “professional hitter?” Murray was a professional hitter long before he was paid to do it. Hitting was something to be done right day after day after day. After he became a big leaguer, an Orioles publicity man named Charles Steinberg put a photograph of a smiling Eddie Murray on the scoreboard before his at-bats. Murray insisted he replace it with a different photo, one of a Murray grimacing. Hitting, you see, was serious business.
And because it was serious business, Murray hit every single year. It was a funny thing — teammate after teammate commented about how terrible he would look in batting practice every day. And then the games would begin. They called him Steady Eddie in those early year, and the uniformity of his numbers still boggles the mind.
In 1980, he hit .300 with 32 homers and 116 RBIs.
In 1981, the strike year, his pace was .294 with 34 homers and 119 RBIs.
In 1982, he hit .316 with 32 homers and 110 RBIs.
In 1983, he hit .306 with 33 homers and 111 RBIs.
In 1984, he hit .306 with 29 homers and 110 RBIs.
In 1986, he hit .297 with 31 homers and 124 RBIs.
Again and again and again, Murray put up those same great numbers. There was such a brutal honesty in the way he went about his work — you got the sense that not only would a bad year be anathema to him but that TOO GOOD a year — say a sudden 40-homer season — would also offend his sensibilities. His greatness did not make room for flukes, positive or negative. It was as if his thinking was: “Hey, if I could hit 40 home runs in a season, I’d have done that last year.” Go to work, help the team, go home. Come back tomorrow and do the same.
Murray’s simmering feud with the media never cooled. He went 0-for-21 after that Dick Young story appeared in the World Series, and he heard people question his heart, and I guess he didn’t see any value in opening himself up to that world. He did not entirely shut off the media the way Steve Carlton did, but he rarely talked, and when he did he rarely said anything, and some reporters responded by describing him as surly and angry. This made him talk less, which made them write about his surliness more, which made him talk less.
In 1986, according to Cal Ripken’s book “The Only Way I Know,” Murray was upset when the team made it public that he was buying seats for kids as a way to give back to the community. He had wanted that (and all his generosity) kept quiet. Then he was upset when a private conversation he’d had with GM Hank Peters about getting contact lenses made it into the papers. This led to a lot of people making a lot of jokes about Eddie Murray’s eyesight.
“I found out,” Murray would say, “there are a lot of ugly people out there.”
Things were simmering. Then they boiled over. Owner Edward Bennett Williams was quoted saying that Murray needed to get in better shape. This was a direct shot at his professionalism, and that was too much. Williams apologized, and Ripken says the quotes were made off-the-record. But Murray wanted out of Baltimore. And soon after, he was traded to his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers.
Murray was a different player after he left Baltimore, more up and down. He hit just .247 and slugged .401 for the Dodgers his first year. The next, he hit .330, almost won his first batting title and slugged .520. He hit 27 homers and drove in 100 RBIs for the Mets in 1993, then had a .302 on-base percentage the next year for Cleveland, then hit .323/.375/.516 as a 39-year-old for the first Indians team in 40 years to reach the World Series.
But even if age and weariness made him less steady, he kept producing, kept adding to those career totals, and when he finished his career he had 504 home runs, 3,255 hits, more RBis (1,917) than any switch-hitter, more games played (3,026) than any first baseman and more sacrifice flies (128) than any player since they’ve began counting them in 1954.
He did all this even though he never hit more than 33 homers in a season, never approached 200 hits in a season, never drove in 125 RBis and never actually led the league in sacrifice flies. Murray’s great career was done day-by-day, waves beating against the shore, never a moment of celebration for himself. He never won an MVP but was an MVP candidate annually.
His public silence lasted his whole career and left many with the impression that Eddie Murray was hard to deal with. This is how too many people filled the silence. Murray he was almost universally loved and admired and even held in awe by his teammates.
“He didn’t care to give up his little secrets,” Mike Flanagan would say about him. “He was the best clutch hitter that I saw during the decade we played together.”