Eddie Is A Handy Dandy

Eddie Murray has a special touch with the bat and glove, even if his necklace says he is 'Just Regular'
June 20, 1982

Eddie Murray has hands. That may not seem like a particularly brilliant observation, but on the Baltimore Orioles "to have hands" is the ultimate compliment for a batter. "Singles hitters have baby hands," says Murray, "and a hitter in a slump, his hands are on vacation." Eddie Murray has hands.

To be precise, he has soft hands. In baseball, a fielder with soft hands is a very good one—and Murray is among the very best first basemen. But his hands are also soft in a literal sense. Baltimore Coach Elrod Hendricks calls them "dishpan hands." They blister easily, and Murray tries to avoid swinging a bat in the off-season and early in spring training.

But those hands have made Murray, at 26, the most dreaded hitter in the American League. Teammate Terry Crowley says, "This is Eddie's league. We're just members of it." He is, without much argument, the best switch hitter with power since Mickey Mantle. In his first five seasons (even counting stricken 1981), he averaged 26.6 home runs, 95.2 RBIs and batted .291. Red Sox Manager Ralph Houk recently told a writer assigned to a story on Murray, "If you find out a way to pitch to him, let me know."

For a good while the line on Murray was, ad nauseam, "Nobody knows how good he can be." Well, people found out how good he could be from May 9 of last year until May 2 of '82. In that 114-game period, Murray batted .348 with 27 homers, 92 RBIs and a .644 slugging percentage. As for his fielding, he made one error in '81 for a percentage of .999, and since his major league debut in 1977 he has had errorless streaks of 61, 80 and 113 games. He has hands, all right.

What finally stopped Murray in May was a nagging case of tendinitis in his left hand. For more than a week he insisted upon playing with the pain, until Manager Earl Weaver finally ordered him out of the lineup. "Frank was like that," says Weaver. "He'd literally limp up to the plate. Couldn't make him sit, either." When Weaver talks about Murray, a favorite topic, he often invokes Robinson.

Murray grew up in East Los Angeles, one of 12 children in a baseball-crazy family. Leon, one of Eddie's older brothers, likes to tell about the time Eddie and brother Venice, eight and nine, respectively, were playing ball behind the Murray home. They were always playing ball. On this occasion they lost the tennis ball they were utilizing as a baseball in a nearby canal, and Eddie decided to retrieve it, as well as all the other balls they had lost. "There was maybe a 30-foot drop down into this concrete ditch filled with dirty water," says Leon. "They tied a rope around Eddie's waist, and Venice lowered him into the canal. Venice began to pull Eddie up, but just as he got to the top, Venice couldn't hold him any longer, and Eddie fell to the bottom. Hit his head. After a lot of noise, Dad came out of the house and had to pull Eddie up with the garden hose. Everybody was scared. When Eddie got back up, all he wanted to do was play ball."

Murray is as careful with his heart as he is with his hands. He feels he was burned badly once by someone he trusted. It happened after the second game of the 1979 World Series against Pittsburgh. New York columnist Dick Young interviewed Ray Poitevint, the Oriole scout who signed Murray in 1973. Referring to Poitevint, Young wrote, "He offers $20,000. 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. In the space of five weeks, Ray Poitevint pays 16 visits to the Murray household, and goes away empty." Young quotes Poitevint as saying that one of the brothers tried to run him over in the yard with his car and that the scout's "black" associate, Willie Moore, was called an Uncle Tom. (In fact, Moore is white.) On the 17th visit, Murray signed for the $20,000.

Eddie Murray read that and got very upset, as did his whole family. Charles, the eldest son, admits the brothers gave Poitevint a hard time about the money the Orioles were offering. "But I don't come from a family of barbarians," he says. "None of us harassed him." Poitevint, a very decent man, deeply regrets the rift that developed between him and Eddie. "I would much rather have his respect back than have anybody know I signed Eddie Murray," says Poitevint, who is now the director of player procurement for the Milwaukee Brewers. But he refuses to knock Young, saying the story is basically true. "It was just exaggerated and very badly timed," he says. Certainly for the Orioles, who watched Murray go 0-21 the rest of the Series, as they lost in seven games to the Pirates.

With just 90 minutes to go before their game with the Angels, the Orioles are milling about the clubhouse, waiting for the clubhouse door to open. Murray is supposed to be bringing ribs. Whenever the Orioles go to Anaheim, Eddie's father stays up all night to make a batch of barbecued ribs. "They're said to have magical powers," says Pitching Coach Ray Miller. "We always seem to go on a winning streak after we eat them. Psychologists call that non-contingent reinforcement. They're also delicious."

Some of the players are worried that if Eddie doesn't get there soon, they'll be eating ribs during the national anthem. "It doesn't look good on TV, barbecue sauce all over your uniform," says Pitcher Mike Flanagan. Eddie finally arrives, and after taking special care of the Orioles' rotund trainer, Ralph Salvon, he hands out the ribs. The Orioles lose 7-2, probably because they were too busy flossing between innings.

Charles and Carrie Murray moved the family from Cary, Miss, to East Los Angeles 36 years ago. "We thought we'd have two or three kids," says Mom. They had Louise, Charles, Leola, Lucilla, Leon, Viola, Venice, Eddie, Richard, Helen, Joyce and Tanja. "I always did like a big family," says Charles. Eddie must also lead the league in aunts and uncles, because his father is one of 11 children and his mother is one of 10. Charles Murray's father had 21 siblings. "Three more and they would have had a roster," says Eddie.

Except for one year, the Murrays have lived on the same lot all this time, although in two different houses. The lot is right next to a water and power plant, and it provided the kids with ample room to play. Although the house is in East L.A., the riots in Watts in 1965 were so close that bullets ricocheted off the water tower next door. "I was too young to be scared," says Eddie, "but I remember the look in my parents' eyes."

Charles worked for the Ludlow Rug Company as a mechanic for more than 30 years, and the children never wanted for anything. He's still working today, at a local feed company, even though his millionaire son, Eddie, has tried to talk him out of it. Carrie ruled the house. "She was very strict with us," says son Charles, "but we're very thankful now."

"If I were to write a story about my family," says Tanja, 17 and the editor of the Locke High School newspaper, "it would be about love."

The first East L.A. house the Murrays lived in was wood-framed, with a big garage in back. The boys—and girls—used to play a game they called Strikeouts inside the garage. The batter would stand at the back of the garage, and the pitcher would throw him a tennis ball. In order to get a hit, the batter had to drive the ball out of the garage through a door opening that was about 10 feet high, 12 feet wide and 20 feet away. So the batter couldn't pull the ball or hit it in the air. No wonder Eddie is a line-drive hitter.

They played so many games of Strikeouts that the back wall of the garage had to be replaced. The Murrays also had a makeshift diamond in the yard. "The telephone pole was first, this hole was second, the clothesline was third and this spot of cement was home," says Leon.

Sometimes the Murrays played ball without a ball. "The girls would get dolls for Christmas, and by Valentine's Day the heads would fall off," says Leon.

"Yeah, they fell off," adds Eddie, pantomiming a doll decapitation. "But we'd hit anything—bottle caps, the plastic lids off Crisco cans. We'd be standing around in the yard with bats in our hand and see something on the ground. We'd say, 'I wonder if we can hit this?'

"The Crisco lids you'd throw like a Frisbee, only over the top. Right side up and it was a curveball, upside down it was a screwball. Once you've hit a Crisco lid, baseballs seem easy."

Carrie Murray wouldn't let Charles play high school baseball until his senior year, but he did so well he was signed as an outfielder by the Houston Colt .45s—two years before another kid from the neighborhood, Bob Watson. In 1964, Charles hit 37 homers and drove in 119 runs for Modesto in the Class A California League. He spent six years in the minors, interrupted by two years in the service, and made it as high as Triple-A. "He was the best of us all," says Eddie.

Whenever Charles came home, he would bring broken bats and used gloves for his younger brothers. "They were crazy, those kids," says Charles, now 38 and a prison guard. "They were nuts about baseball. That's all they ever did, play ball and eat, play ball and eat." Charles always knew they would be professional ballplayers. "We'd play Strikeouts and they'd embarrass me. And they were little kids, swinging big bats."

At 6'5", Leon, 32, is the tallest in a tall family; Eddie stands 6'2". He may also be the world's most intimidating hair stylist; he gives some of the Orioles haircuts when they get to California. He, too, was a prospect, signed by the Giants as a first baseman. He lasted just a year, partly because he hurt his arm. When he was growing up his closest friend was George Hendrick.

Over the years an incredible array of talent came from the area. In addition to the Murrays, Watson and Hendrick, there were Reggie Smith, Bobby Tolan, Willie Crawford, Dave Nelson, Dock Ellis, Don Wilson, Bobby Darwin and Eddie's teammates on the Locke High team, Ozzie Smith and Darrell Jackson.

Venice and Eddie were a tandem. Both played for Locke, which was only two blocks from the house. In the summers the brothers would play in several leagues. "We were always pulling off one uniform and putting on another," says Eddie. "We couldn't have done it if it wasn't for our parents. They drove us everywhere. I hope I'm half as good to my kids as they were to us."

Venice signed with the Giants out of college, but he tore up a knee, and after a year at Cedar Rapids in 1978 he was released. He's now a postal clerk in Los Angeles. The youngest Murray brother, Richard, 24, also signed with the Giants, and in 1980 he was called up to the major league team. He was so promising that Willie McCovey said the Giants finally had a first baseman who could replace him. Unfortunately, Rich came up too soon and batted .216 in 53 games, with four homers and 24 RBIs. Last year the Indians drafted him from the Giants. He now plays for Charleston, W. Va. in the International League.

Inside the second Murray house, a comfortable stucco that went up in 1970, are no fewer than 21 scrapbooks filled with the exploits of the children. One photograph from 18 years ago shows Venice, Eddie and Richard all dressed up and full of themselves, as if they were about to embark on a major league road trip.

"I don't know why I'm the only one who made it," says Eddie. "I think I was just in the right place at the right time."

Before Eddie even played a game in the Oriole organization, he took a 190-question psychological test designed to measure attributes like "emotional control" and "desire." More than 1,000 players were tested, and he scored in the 99th percentile in control and in the 93rd percentile in drive. Murray batted .287 at Bluefield, W. Va. in the Appalachian League in his first year and was already labeled as "can't miss."

In 1975 at Asheville, N.C. in the Southern League, the Orioles decided to make Murray a switch hitter by teaching him to bat from the left side. Actually, switch-hitting was nothing new to him. "In the yard, we'd pretend to be different players in major league lineups and bat righty or lefty, depending on who they were," Murray says. His first time up lefthanded, he hit a double.

At spring training in '76, Murray was just a kid the Orioles wanted to take a look at. "He wasn't in our winter book," says Weaver. "But the first thing I noticed about him was the sound his bat made. I had to turn around and see who was in the cage." Even so, Murray was sent back down to the minors, where he played so well that he became one of the 15 players the Orioles protected in the expansion draft at the end of the season. After another good showing in the spring of 77, Murray made the big club.

With Lee May already at first, Weaver used Murray mostly as a DH that rookie year. Although he did it to protect Murray from making a big error that might hurt his concentration and confidence, it led some people to believe that Murray couldn't field.

This wasn't the case. His only real problem was that his throws tended to sail because his right index finger is shorter than normal. He has since learned to throw in a way that keeps the ball from curving, and now so astute a judge as Brooks Robinson says Murray is the best first baseman he's ever seen at making the 3-6-3 double play.

In his rookie year, Murray came under the tutelage of May. "He was a great influence on Eddie," says Weaver. Says May, now with Kansas City, "He had the tools; it was just a matter of getting his confidence." Not only did May teach Murray the finer points of hitting and fielding, but he also taught him how to fend off reporters—by glowering. May was also the man who first said of Murray, "He has hands."

As a hitter, Murray showed hands right away, batting .283 with 27 homers and 88 RBIs while winning Rookie of the Year honors. His averages and RBI totals went up three straight years, and his strikeouts went down. At the end of last week he was batting .295 with seven homers and 28 RBIs, even though the tendinitis caused him to miss nine games.

Murray has learned to adjust to the way teams pitch him: fastball, curveball, inside, outside. "Scotty McGregor [the Oriole pitcher] says I have a floating zone," says Murray. "No two teams pitch me alike." When Murray is on a tear, as at the start of the season when he was 28 for 55, he's literally a one-man offense. "Some players say the ball is bigger when they're hitting well," says Murray. "When I'm hitting, the ball's no bigger, it's just that I have time to say, 'This ball is on the outside part of the plate. I'll hit it to the opposite field.' "

With Ken Singleton batting third and Murray cleanup for most of the last five years, the Orioles have had the best three-four combination of switch hitters in baseball history. In 1980 they became only the second pair of switch hitters on a team to drive in 100 runs apiece. (The Cardinals' Ted Simmons and Reggie Smith were first, in 1974.) After the 1980 season Murray signed a five-year, $5 million contract, making him the highest-paid Oriole ever and the youngest millionaire in baseball. When his agent, Ron Shapiro, phoned him with the news that December day, Murray celebrated by playing basketball with his brothers and eating Mom's home cooking. Around his neck he wears a necklace that reads JUST REGULAR.

The Orioles call Murray "Tired" because of the nonchalant way he goes about pregame practice. But once the game starts, Weaver looks at Murray and sees Frank—Robinson, that is. "He's just like Frank," says Weaver. "He leads by doing. Frank would go into second hard to break up a double play, and after seeing the highest-paid player on the team do that, how could the younger guys do anything else? You should've been in the dugout tonight. Eddie wasn't playing, but he was up and down the bench hollering, yelling for guys to get hits. I'm going to recommend to my successor that Eddie be named captain of the team next year."

According to Murray's best friend, Centerfielder Al Bumbry, "There's one Eddie in the clubhouse and another Eddie outside the clubhouse. He's suspicious of people, but if he knows you, there's nothing he wouldn't do for you." Shapiro has urged Murray to be more approachable, and Eddie has agreed the time has come. He's more open to outsiders than he used to be, but he certainly hasn't been transformed overnight into Reggie Jackson. "I don't need to see my name in the paper every day," he says. "I only care what the other players know of me. I let my baseball do my talking." It has spoken volumes in Baltimore. The first time Edward Bennett Williams came to Memorial Stadium as the owner of the Orioles, he was overjoyed to hear his name being shouted. Then he realized the fans were yelling "Ed-die, Ed-die" for his first baseman.

Murray's popularity may have something to do with the fact that he spends some $20,000 a year buying tickets for underprivileged children as part of Project 33, 33 being his uniform number and the number of the street where the stadium is situated. He also lends his money and time to the Park Heights Street Academy, a school for kids who wouldn't normally stay in school. And here's another nice thing about Eddie: He has a warm handshake. Soft, but warm.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSON PHOTORICHARD MACKSONWhen Eddie comes home, his family comes out: (bottom) Joyce, Helen, Viola; (top) Lucilla, Tanja, Leola, Venice, Carrie, Charles. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONIt is hard to hit 'em where Murray ain't. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONJust 26, Murray already has 140 homers, 504 RBIs, a .291 average and a rosy outlook.