Most of all, a hit man Murray: Home runs never have been his main goal when he steps to the plate.

September 10, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Babe Ruth, who knew something about hitting home runs, once explained how.

"I swing as hard as I can," he said. "The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I got. I hit big or I miss big."

If The Babe was right, how did Eddie Murray hit 500 homers?

Grip the bat hard? Murray cradles his bat like he would hold a cricket -- don't crush it, got to give it room to breathe.

Swing big? Murray flicks his wrists at two-strike breaking balls to foul them off or to drop bloopers over the infield, flicks his wrists as a trout fisherman would cast his fly at a swirling pool. But then, Babe Ruth did love deep-sea fishing.

Hit big or miss big? Wouldn't that be counterproductive with a runner at third and less than two outs, when your team needs a run? Murray always has figured that as his job description: driving in runs. Not hitting big or missing big or hitting homers, but producing runs.

Ruth hit 60 homers in 1927. Mickey Mantle, the other switch-hitter before Murray to hit 500 homers, smacked 54 in 1961. Henry Aaron, the greatest home run hitter in major-league history, hammered 40 or more homers eight times. Frank Robinson hit 49 homers in 1966.

Murray never has hit more than 33 homers in a season. But Ruth didn't drive in at least 75 runs for 19 straight years. Mantle didn't do that, either. Neither did Robinson. Aaron did it, but not starting with his first major-league season, as Murray did.

No, Murray never equated good hitting with hitting home runs. Good hitting means hitting the ball hard when you can or merely hitting it when the situation calls for contact.

"I don't complicate things: Hit the ball hard," Murray said recently. "If they elevate it, it can go out of the park. . . . In the approach of trying to hit the ball hard, you give yourself a chance [for homers]. I'm strong enough where, when I hit it hard, things like that will happen."

Hit big or miss big? You couldn't do that in the Murrays' backyard in Los Angeles when Eddie and his four brothers were growing up. You had to adjust your swing to the situation, and the situation was this: If somebody hit a ball hard enough and long enough to crash into the kitchen and hit the clock, the game stopped. Somebody had to be punished; the penalty would be chores.

Hitting the clock with a baseball was easy, so the Murray brothers tried to find something that wouldn't travel very far when they hit it hard. They used a doll's head for a while, but then they got bigger and the doll's head flew farther, somebody hit the clock and they found something else. A rolled-up sock, wrapped with tape, a wonderful invention.

But to Eddie Murray, the greatest improvisation was a plastic lid from a Crisco can. About a quarter-inch wide, it could be thrown with tremendous velocity, and the pitcher could make it curve and dart. The challenge to the hitter -- and the Murrays used regular bats, not plastic bats -- was immense: He had to hit the lid squarely to maintain the flattened plane and make it fly farther. The farther you hit it, the more value the hit possessed.

A big uppercut was useless in this game; Babe Ruth would've been a bust in the Murrays' backyard. You won this game by swinging hard and level. "It was a good way to learn how to hit a curveball," Murray said.

The Murrays would assume the identity of major-league teams in their backyard games, and were required to use that team's lineup and bat as the players did. If Eddie Murray was going to be the Orioles, for instance, he would have to bat right-handed to be Frank Robinson or Brooks Robinson and left-handed to be Boog Powell. Eddie Murray, a right-handed hitter, tried to pick teams loaded with right-handed hitters.

But Murray swung left-handed often enough to feel comfortable doing so. He would get three or four hits in a Little League game, or later, in high school, and would hit left-handed in his final at-bat.

The Orioles drafted Murray as a right-handed hitter in 1973, and in the instructional league that fall or in 1974 -- he can't remember which year -- Murray watched another team use a defensive shift against another strong, right-handed hitter. "The

only infielder on the right side of second base," Murray remembered, "was the first baseman."

Three times, the slugger tried bashing the ball through the left side of the infield, and three times the third baseman fielded the ball and threw him out. "He hit the ball hard every time," Murray said, "and had nothing to show for it."

After the game, an Orioles instructor -- it might've been Cal Ripken Sr. -- asked the players if they intended to hit in this manner, constantly trying to pull the ball. Hit the ball the other way, he said, to where the fielders are not positioned. "What they were saying to me made sense," Murray said. "Why limit yourself to half the field?"

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