Thursday, December 5, 2002
Hall of a player
By By Tim Kurkjian
Eddie Murray had supplied another late-inning, game-winning hit, his specialty. It was 1982, perhaps his best season, though there were so many. Earl Weaver, then the Orioles manager, was asked if he was amazed at how often his young first baseman had delivered when it counted most. Weaver, without hesitation, said, "No. That's what Hall of Famers do."
As always, Weaver was right. Twenty years later, Murray is on his way to Cooperstown. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and anything short of that will require an explanation from the voters. His numbers are undeniable: 504 home runs, 3,255 hits and 1,917 RBI. Only Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Murray hit 500 homers and had 3,000 hits. Only six players in the history of the game drove in more runs than Murray. He had 14 more RBI than Mays, 408 more than Mickey Mantle and 503 more than Mark McGwire.
It is important to understand that most of Murray's numbers were assembled before this juiced-ball era, which began in 1993. He never hit more than 33 home runs in a season, but he hit at least 17 for 20 years in a row -- only Aaron, with 20, had a streak that long. Murray drove in at least 75 runs in 20 straight seasons -- the longest such streak in the history of the game. He hit 30 homers and drove in 100 runs when it really meant something, not like today. Jim Thome, for instance, is a terrific power hitter. He hit 52 home runs in 2002. He's going to hit 500 in his career. But on the field, Jim Thome is no Eddie Murray.
Murray never won an MVP, but neither did Mel Ott, Dave Winfield, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn, Tony Gwynn or Paul Molitor -- they're in the Hall of Fame, or soon to be enshrined. And none of them did what Murray did from 1980-85: He finished sixth or higher in the MVP balloting every year, including second in 1982 and '83. Even Joe DiMaggio didn't finish sixth or higher for six straight years. In those six years, Murray received 1,088 MVP votes, 469 more than the next most in the American League, George Brett. Ask Brett about Murray. Ask anyone who played against him. They'll tell you the same thing: He was the last guy we wanted to face with game on the line. He was the best clutch hitter of the 1980's, and his 996 RBI in the decade led the major leagues.
Murray was also a marvelous defensive first baseman, especially in his 20s.
"No first baseman," former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer once said, "has ever thrown better than a young Eddie Murray."
He didn't dive for balls, he didn't like to get his uniform dirty, but his range was tremendous. In 1992, he passed Keith Hernandez for the all-time lead in assists by a first baseman. Plus, he was durable. For an eight-year stretch, he missed just 29 games.
Murray's only drawback was his relationship with the press, which, to be kind, was churlish. But we're talking about the Hall of Fame here. Punishing a player for that would be unfair. It certainly didn't hurt Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams or Steve Carlton, and it shouldn't work against Murray. So we didn't get to know him the way we would have liked. That's the way he wanted it. He used to wear a necklace with the words Just Regular. He attended Clippers games, not Lakers games. He used to send annual Christmas cards to Orioles employees, most of which were signed, Love, Eddie.
There may not be much love for Eddie among the sporting press, the guys who vote for the Hall of Fame. But this isn't about love, it's about production, it's about consistent greatness. Murray was all that. In January, he should be rewarded with a spot in Cooperstown.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.