The Atlanta Braves were in St. Louis, a month from the end of another losing season, and this would be their only Saturday night off in four weeks. That morning, the Braves' public relations director, Bob DiBiasio, got a call from a local hospital about two children from North Carolina whose parents had been killed in an automobile accident last May while the family was driving across the country. The children were still recuperating from their injuries. Would it be possible for Dale Murphy to stop by the hospital and see the kids? "I was contacted when we were last here, in May, and couldn't get over to visit because we had a day game and were flying out afterward," Murphy told DiBiasio. "I still feel badly about it." So Murphy spent his free Saturday evening at the hospital. Later that night, he spoke to a group of kids at a Mormon church.
"If you live what you believe, you will always have the respect of others," says Murphy, 31, an outfielder who's one of the best half dozen players in the major leagues.
Says Braves general manager Bobby Cox, "Murph gets as much respect as anyone I've ever known, because he lives his life the way we all wish we lived ours."
One day during 1987 spring training. Murphy and DiBiasio were going over a list of nearly 50 requests for Murphy to make public-service announcements, do fund-raising or help children. "Just say no to one," teammates Ted Simmons and Bruce Sutter kept telling him, until Murphy did turn one request down. Five minutes later he told DiBiasio he had changed his mind; he couldn't say no.
There are no press conferences to announce Murphy's good works, no plaques on the walls of his Roswell, Ga., house, no outward sign of his inward grace. "What I do is no big deal," he says. "I feel badly that I don't do more, and there are a lot more athletes who do contribute to society—look at Rick Sutcliffe or Don Baylor—than have off-field problems. It's just hard to do what I'd like to do and still raise my family and fulfill my responsibility to the Braves. But to serve one's fellow man is to serve the Lord, and to serve is perfect freedom. To work with children anywhere is just plain fun. To go to hospitals and see people fight and overcome cystic fibrosis or cancer or any number of illnesses is to see courage that is humbling. And athletes constantly need to be humbled."
A mere listing of Murphy's activities is humbling. He is the Atlanta representative for the 65 Roses Sports Clubs (the national program started by Baylor in 1978 that raises money for the treatment of cystic fibrosis); chairman of the Atlanta chapter of the Make-a-wish Foundation (which grants wishes to dying children); a member of the national board of the Huntington's Disease Society of America; a spokesman for the Georgia March of Dimes, the American Heart Association, the Georgia PTA, the Arthritis Foundation and the Atlanta school district's drives to encourage reading and summer school enrollment. He won the Lou Gehrig Award in 1985, given to the major league player who best represents the character and sportsmanship of Gehrig. He has appeared in promotional videotapes for the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, as well as before local schools and youth groups, and has appeared at countless Little League programs to raise money for children's hospitals.
Now he's looking forward to the day when his oldest son, Chad, 7, can join the Boy Scouts, so Murphy also can participate in the program. "What better recreation for a boy is there than scouting?" says Murphy. "I'll have as much fun as my boys."
He speaks regularly at a series of seminars on the family, called Family Fare. During the baseball season, he writes a weekly column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with Curtis Patton, a friend who has cerebral palsy. They answer children's questions about everything from which pitchers are the toughest to hit to how to cope with problems in school. "It gives me an opportunity to talk to a lot of them and say some things I believe in," Murphy says. He donates the money he is paid by the paper to a college scholarship fund.
Patton can tell you a little about Murphy. When Patton was seriously ill several years ago, Murphy visited him daily in the hospital, and after Patton was released, Murphy drove him wherever he had to go. "Curtis was the one who was extraordinary." Murphy says, characteristically deflecting any suggestion of praise.
He's a practicing Mormon and tithes—giving the church about 10% of his $2 million annual salary.
For a baseball player involved in a daily grind from February to October, money is easier to donate than time, and what distinguishes Murphy is the extent to which he gives of himself. Because his wife, Nancy, gave birth to their fifth son, Taylor, in August and he feels that he must devote more time to his family, Dale is cutting back just a little this winter: He's taking a break from the 6:30 a.m., five-days-a-week New Testament and church history courses that he has taught to teenagers in the off-season for the past two years. On the road during the baseball season he speaks at churches, always stressing this message: "We must have the courage and strength to stand up for standards, for standards are the essentials of success, and no apology should ever be made for living a good Christian life."
DiBiasio says he passes along as many as a dozen requests a day from parents with hospitalized children, and Murphy never fails to give every kid a call. "What's a three-minute call if for three minutes you can make a sick child forget where he is?" says Murphy.
Giving new meaning to the baseball term "service time" has never affected Murphy's on-field performance. For the years 1982-87, he had the most RBIs in the majors and was third in home runs. He's a two-time MVP, a seven-time All-Star and a five-time Gold Glove winner. His streak of 740 consecutive games that ran from 1981 through the middle of the 1986 season is the 12th-longest in baseball history.
"One of the most striking memories of my childhood is my mother going to school every day as a volunteer to teach handicapped children," Murphy says. "When I asked her why she did it, she replied, 'It's important.' Nothing more needed to be said. She could help someone, so she did. I was always taught that a 'meaningful life' is just that. Society is what we make of it, so we'd better try to make it the best we can."