As his pain relents, Murray reflects

Hall finally in thoughts after family tragedy

January 17, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Former Orioles superstar Eddie Murray has had a week to digest the prospect of his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, and he still is trying to get his arms around it.

The announcement on Jan. 7 that he would be headed for Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility was never in serious doubt, but the circumstances that surrounded his notification made it impossible to do much with the moment.

Murray spent that afternoon at the funeral of his younger sister, Tanja, who died of kidney disease the previous week. What might have been one of the happiest days of his baseball career was instead one of the saddest days of his life.

"It was a tough time," Murray said yesterday. "I'm feeling a lot more comfortable with this now, but it was a very tough day that Tuesday."

Baseball immortality is nice, but it couldn't have seemed important when juxtaposed against the mortality of a family member.

To allow Murray time to be with his family, the Hall of Fame delayed its traditional post-announcement news conference for eight days, finally bringing Murray and fellow 2003 inductee Gary Carter together yesterday at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.

Murray isn't particularly comfortable with the media under the best of circumstances, but he used the opportunity to give credit to the large family that helped shape him into the steady first baseman who became the third player in major-league history to amass both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.

Murray paid his respects to the other two - legends Willie Mays and Hank Aaron - but it was his older brother, Charles, who served as the chief role model for the kid who would grow up to become one of the top offensive players of all time.

"My brother Charles was probably the best of all of us," Murray said. "Seeing him play was enough for me. That's what I wanted to do."

The picture he now paints of his childhood is idyllic. Murray spent his youth playing sandlot baseball in the reputedly hardscrabble neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles.

He was surrounded by seven brothers and four sisters - easily enough to get up a ballgame almost any day - and pushed toward greatness by a group of baseball-crazy boyhood friends that included 2002 Hall of Fame inductee Ozzie Smith and several other future major leaguers.

"South Central L.A., that's where we played ball," Murray said. "It ticked in us. It was the way that basketball is now, but we're going to get those kids back."

Never, he said, did he imagine he would someday be enshrined among the game's all-time greats, even though the promise he showed early in his career prompted others to imagine it for him.

"Charles Steinberg, who was with the Orioles [in public relations] and now works for the Boston Red Sox, he was talking numbers when I was halfway there," Murray said. "He's talking about 500 home runs when I didn't even have 250 yet. I used to look at him like he was crazy."

But the numbers kept piling up. He hit at least 25 home runs in eight of his first nine seasons, and certainly would have made it nine straight if not for the 50-day strike that held him to 22 homers in 1981. He drove in 100 or more runs six times and drove in more than 90 in 12 seasons.

They didn't call him "Steady Eddie" for nothing.

He ended up with 504 home runs and 1,917 RBIs. He owns more than his share of major- league records, including the all-time mark for games played at first base. There is no question he belongs in the impressive company he will keep in Cooperstown, but he still seems a little sheepish about it.

"You don't know if you should be mentioned with them, but it did happen," Murray said. "The 500 home runs, to me, is the most mind-boggling, because I didn't think I was strong enough. I never thought of myself as a home-run hitter. I take as much pride in beating you with a double in the eighth or ninth inning."

Murray played his first 12 seasons in Baltimore and might have spent his entire career here if his relationship with former Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams had not soured in the mid-1980s. The Orioles traded him to the Dodgers before the 1989 season, and he had several productive seasons in Los Angeles and Cleveland before returning to Baltimore for a half-season in 1996.

Murray hit his 500th home run on a rainy September night at Camden Yards to provide an upbeat end to his two-part Orioles playing career. He will go into the Hall as an Oriole, as if there were ever any doubt.

Teammates swore by his leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, but Murray's career also was defined by a difficult relationship with the media.

He never sought out the spotlight and became increasingly distrustful of reporters after feeling burned by a New York columnist early in his career.

"It's not just me," Murray said. "There were some things that were done that were awful and rotten."

Though most of those incidents were many years ago, Murray justifies a blanket indictment of the print media because he contends that many other reporters "piggybacked" the original negative accounts without checking to see if they were factual.

"I couldn't win that fight," he said. "It's not a level playing field. You can't pretend that it is."

Instead, he kept most reporters at arm's length and did not hide his disdain for the media in general. That difficult relationship almost certainly cost him Hall of Fame votes.

Murray was named on 85 percent of the ballots from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, easily exceeding the 75 percent required for induction, but his total was well below what other players of his stature have received in recent elections.

Regrets? Not really.

"The notoriety," he said. "is the one thing I never dreamed about as a kid."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.