The year was 1978. I was only eight years old, and I started watching the Atlanta Braves that year. Three players intrigued me: Phil Niekro, Bob Horner, and Dale Murphy. Niekro would have intrigued anyone, since he was practically our only real pitcher at the time. Horner was fun since he had come out of nowhere (actually Arizona State) and hit a home run in his first big league at bat. And Murphy, well, he was just plain good.
Dale Brian Murphy was Atlanta's first round pick in the 1974 draft, the fifth pick overall. He was a lanky, awkward catcher out of Oregon. At first, he was a homesick kid oblivious to the pressures of being a first rounder. He even had thoughts of packing up and going home, weary after playing in small towns like Kingsport, Tennessee, Greenwood, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. But after encouragement from Braves' executives, especially Farm Director Paul Snyder, Murphy stuck it out.
The Braves told Murphy that his catching troubles would subside. You see, Murphy had this little problem as a catcher. He would usually reach the centerfielder with his throws to second base to try and throw out a runner. They knew that no matter where he played, he was eventually going to hit. It wasn't until 1977, when Murphy was a 21-year-old playing in the International League at Richmond, that he did start to show why the Braves had so much confidence in him all along.
He would get a cup of coffee with the big league team that September, and the Braves thought he was ready to take a more significant role in 1978, the same year I started watching the team. I only remember a few games with him at catcher, since by then the Braves had realized he had to play elsewhere on the diamond. First base was his other spot, but it was obvious his arm was being wasted over there and he needed to be moved once again.
After the 1979 season the Braves acquired veteran Chris Chambliss from the New York Yankees. He was a first baseman that Braves' Manager Bobby Cox (yes the same Bobby Cox - hard to believe he was the manager in an entire different era, huh?) had been around during his days as a Yankee coach. Cox wanted a veteran with good defensive skills at first, but he also wanted to move Dale Murphy to the outfield.
In 1980, now playing the outfield, Murphy busted out offensively. He went from 21 home runs in 1979 to 33 home runs the next season. It was also obvious that he had found a home in the outfield. Finally, at the age of 24, the kid that almost went home when he was in rookie ball had established himself as a big league star.
Murphy would reach new heights in 1982. The Braves had been taken over by Joe Torre, after that Cox fellow had been shown the door. Torre had been a catcher back in his playing days as well, only to be moved to another position. He had also been a league MVP, and believed his young star Murphy could also reach that level of stardom.
Torre worked relentlessly with Murphy, and in that same first year of Torre's reign, the Braves would also reach new heights. The managerial change sparked the team, and Murphy, Horner, Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez, and other young players would finally reach their potential. The Atlanta Braves set the baseball world on fire that year, winning thirteen in a row to start the season and winning the division by one game over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Murphy was the primary reason for the team's success. He was spectacular, regularly making great diving catches in centerfield, and robbing home runs over the short fence in the old Fulton-County Stadium. And at the plate? Well, Murphy hit 36 home runs and drove in 109, and at 26 years old he was the National League's Most Valuable Player.
Torre wanted Murphy to do more. After the Braves were eliminated from the National League playoffs by the Cardinals, Torre asked Murphy to go down to the Instructional League to work with him and his brother Frank Torre, himself a former major leaguer. Now here's a kid that had just completed a fantastic season, weeks from being named the MVP, and yet his manager wanted him to go to the Instructional League, the same league he had been in back when he was a 19-year-old, to get even better.
And Murphy went.
He would repeat as MVP the next season, having an even better year and rewarding Torre for his confidence in him. Over the next five years Murphy would establish himself as the face of the franchise and one of the best players in the league. But he was more than that. Before there was any great young pitcher, and before their was Chipper Jones or Jeff Francoeur, Dale Murphy was the face of the Braves' franchise.
When the team blasted into first place in 1982, Murphy became a star. His games were on a national cable network all over the country, and he found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Fans paid attention to the Braves again, and what they saw was this young kid that you couldn't help but root for. He was not a loud, gaudy sports figure. Instead, he was a quiet kid with tremendous faith. This wasn't someone shooting up in the bathroom or going out guzzling shots of tequila at night. Instead, this was a kid doing milk commercials.
Murphy couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. He and his wife Nancy found themselves in the middle of a firestorm. If you think Chipper Jones is popular now, Murphy dwarfed that twenty years ago. The Braves weren't as successful then as they are now, so when you had a player like Murphy playing for a team that would struggle most seasons, he was even more in the limelight. After Niekro and Horner had left the team, Murphy was the sole face of the club.
The Braves would fall back into baseball oblivion again in 1987. After being competitive for five of the past six seasons, the team would start a string of four horrific seasons that year. Murphy found himself in the middle of a rebuilding franchise, and in 1990, when he was 34 years old, he was no longer important to the Braves. So on August 3, 1990, the Atlanta Braves traded their face to the Philadelphia Phillies. Even though it was inevitable, and probably even necessary, it was a tough day for the franchise and its fans.
The next season, of course, would start a new era of Braves' baseball. 1991 was the start of a dream that is still in progress, one we never want to be awaken from. But Dale Murphy was with the Braves for parts of fifteen seasons, and at that point the team had only been in Atlanta for 25 years. He was so important to this franchise. Murphy was an All-American boy, one that every fan loved and adored. And for a team in search of anything positive for most of those fifteen years, he was a bright, shining light.
At the age of 37, Murphy would retire in 1993, just two home runs shy of 400 career bombs. Hopefully one day he'll be rewarded for his fine career and go into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he will always be special to Braves' fans who were around back in the 1970s and 1980s, two decades that were not very kind to us.
This is not an obituary. Dale Murphy still has plenty of work to do at his home in Utah. He works with kids through speaking engagements and recently put out a book to try to help young baseball players. And maybe, just maybe, one day he'll get back into baseball.
This is, instead, simply an appreciation. It seems that most fans believe the history of the Atlanta Braves began in 1991, the year this fantastic run started. But, in fact, there was Braves' Baseball before that, and no one represented the pre-John Schuerholz era of this franchise more than Dale Murphy.
Oh, and there's another reason for this article. Today, March 12th, Dale Murphy turns 50 years old. Happy Birthday Murph! It's hard to believe you've reached the big 5-0!
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies, which includes a chapter on Dale Murphy. You can reach Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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