- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Eddie Murray will be relieved when his induction speech is over Sunday, when the handshakes end and his membership into the Hall of Fame becomes old news. It was never his aim to make himself the center of attention -- Murray would've talked to more reporters during his career if that was the case -- but he was too great of a player for anyone to ignore.
So he has been politely accepting congratulations since he was elected into the Hall of Fame, while pining for the days he can talk about something else. He gladly chats about hitting or basketball or the inability of young players to listen, but he does not like talking about Eddie Murray. Never has. But this weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., he must endure a full ration of himself: Murray and Gary Carter will be the guests of honor, as the newest inductees into the Hall.
"You go through moments when you're tired of it," Murray said last week, sitting on the steps of the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium. "You go through moments when you can't wait, and you go through moments when you wish it was already over with. There are a lot of people coming up, meaning well, congratulating you, and honestly, it's embarrassing half the time. You've just got people coming at you, saying congratulations, and that's not what I've always been about."
He remained true to himself throughout his career, and yet there were two distinct perceptions of Murray during his 21 years as a player. Teammates adored the switch-hitter, admired him for how he played, for his sense of humor, and for his ability. Murray would finish his career with 504 homers, 3,255 hits, 1,917 RBI, a .287 batting average, and six seasons of 100 or more RBI in an era when the club of 100-RBI hitters was much more exclusive than it is today. For many years, he was regarded as one of the best defensive first baseman in baseball.
For those outside the team, however, Murray seemed very hard and cold, a heavy presence. He had a strong belief in how he thought he should treat others and how others should treat him, and when reporters in Baltimore did not live up to his rigid standards, he mostly stopped talking to journalists. A reporter would approach Murray and ask for an interview, and Murray almost always responded, "No, thank you." Politely, firmly.
There was speculation in the midst of his career that Murray's reticence with reporters might affect his voting for the Hall of Fame, but he was too great of a player to be affected by any bias.
Murray was an extraordinary run-producer, a skill he worked to refine. Most great switch-hitters began hitting from both sides of the plate when they were children -- it was this way for Pete Rose, for example, and for Mickey Mantle -- but Murray started switch-hitting after he began playing professionally. When he was still solely a right-handed hitter in the minor leagues, Murray saw another team use a defensive shift against another strong right-handed hitter, and the hitter grounded out in each at-bat. "He hit the ball every time," Murray recalled, in an interview seven years ago, "and had nothing to show for it."
After that game, an Orioles instructor -- it might have been Cal Ripken, Sr. -- asked the players if their intention was to hit this way, always pulling the ball. If you use the whole field, the instructor continued, there is more room for hits. The words resonated with Murray, who started switch-hitting in 1975. The first time Murray batted left-handed, teammate Mike Flanagan thought he was kidding around. "He hit a home run," Flanagan said. "I remember it went to left-center field."
Murray also used batting practice to hone his ability to drive in runs. Murray figured that since the batting practice pitchers were throwing 25 or 30 mph slower than pitchers in games, it did not really serve a purpose to simply mash home runs. Murray, then, would hit as if he was behind in the count, or beaten by a pitch -- and swing late, or flick his wrists at a pitch just off the edge of the strike zone. Murray's batting practice sessions, Flanagan recalled, looked awful.
"Now that I think about it," Flanagan said, "he was probably taking the best batting practice, because he was practicing his swing to certain situations he would see in games. He would need to foul off a close pitch or just make contact. He had the uncanny ability to not hit dribblers fair, but to foul them off. That's because he worked at it ... He worked at driving in runs."
Murray practiced the more subtle parts of hitting even while growing up in Los Angeles. He and his four brothers played in their backyard, where you had to adjust your swing to the small dimensions. If somebody hit the ball too hard, too far, it would crash against the kitchen and hit a clock placed there. If somebody hit the clock, the batter would have to do chores as the penalty.
The Murray brothers, then, found alternatives to baseballs, items that would not travel as far when hit with a full swing -- a rolled up sock, a doll's head. The best improvisation, as far as Murray was concerned, was the plastic lid from a Crisco can. Only a quarter-inch wide, it could be thrown hard, and the pitcher could make it curve and dart. The challenge to the hitter -- and the Murrays used regular bats, not plastic bats -- was enormous: he had to hit the lid squarely to maintain the flattened plane and make if fly farther, like a Frisbee. A big uppercut was useless in this game. You won by swinging hard and level. It was a good way to learn how to hit a curveball, Murray thought.
He was, in Flanagan's mind, the greatest clutch hitter of his generation, maintaining his concentration when the game was on the line. "I wanted to be the guy in those situations," Murray once said during his career.
Murray was one of 11 children, and growing up in that circumstance, Murray said, you did not think about yourself as much. You thought about the whole group.
Murray will be the center of attention this weekend, with thousands of eyes upon him when he makes his acceptance speech. He will probably say something about his deceased parents, his Little League coach Clifford Prelow. Murray said he has no idea how he will react as he speaks, whether he will laugh or weep. He knows only that he wants the topic of conversation to change.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Eddie Murray punctuates his Hall of Fame career Sunday, but he'd much prefer someone else in the spotlight.