One of the most productive and consistent hitters in baseball history, Eddie Murray’s daunting statistical resume doesn’t begin to describe the strange arc of a career which saw triumph and adoration dissolve into bitterness, acrimony, and eventually redemption.
For career offensive numbers, Murray had few peers in modern baseball. In 1996, he joined the legendary Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players to amass both 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. A switch-hitter who was perhaps the most feared clutch hitter of his generation, Murray drove in at least 75 runs for a major league record twenty consecutive seasons. At the close of his playing career in 1997, Murray had played more games at first base than anyone else in history. Only Mickey Mantle had hit more home runs as a switch-hitter than Murray and only six players had driven in more runs than his 1,917. Murray played in three World Series during his 21 seasons, winning the title in 1983 as the first baseman and cleanup hitter for the Baltimore Orioles.
Yet after years of affectionate reverence from Baltimore that began in his Rookie of the Year season in 1977 and lasted until midway through 1986, Murray’s relationship both to the fans and the media deteriorated rapidly. Before the 1989 season, the Orioles front office had little choice but to trade the man who held many of the offensive records for the only team he had ever played for. Throughout his post-Orioles career, the label of a selfish, lazy ballplayer with a bad attitude stuck to him as he played, always productively, for the Dodgers, Mets, and Indians. Not until 1996, when in mid-season Cleveland traded Murray back to Baltimore (where he hit his 500th homer and helped lead the Orioles to their first playoff appearance since the World Series of 1983) did he shake the negative perceptions that had trailed him for a decade.
Born in February 1956 in Los Angeles, Murray grew up in a family of twelve children. In high school, he excelled at both baseball and basketball, and in June of 1973, the Orioles selected him in the third round of the free agent draft. He progressed steadily through the minors, and after a torrid spring training in 1977, Murray won himself a spot on Baltimore’s opening day roster, where he quickly became a fixture as the team’s DH and first baseman, wearing the number 33 he would keep his whole career. En route to winning the Orioles’ fourth Rookie of the Year award, Murray smacked 27 home runs, batted .283 and drove in 88 runs, establishing a level of production that paced him throughout his career. The following year he virtually duplicated those numbers while moving to first base full-time and making the All-Star team for the first of eight occasions.
1979 saw Murray reach his first World Series, which the Orioles lost in heartbreaking fashion, dropping the final three games to the Pirates after leading three games to one. After a strong opening two games including first of his four career World Series home runs, Murray went hitless over the Series’ final five games, including lining out with the tying runs on base in the eighth inning of Game 7.
The frustration would continue in 1980 as the Orioles won 100 games but — thanks to a 103-win season by the New York Yankees — failed to reach the postseason. For Murray, however, the season was a breakthrough one. He batted an even .300 with 32 home runs and 116 RBIs. Murray had emerged as the Orioles biggest star and a beloved fan favorite who inspired chants of “Edd-ie! Edd-ie” to fill Memorial Stadium when he stood at the plate.
In the strike shortened 1981 season, Murray tied for the A.L. lead in home runs (22) with Bobby Grich, Dwight Evans and Tony Armas and led the league outright with 78 RBIs, which oddly enough would be the only time he would lead the league in a major offensive category besides bases on balls. Indeed, Murray never compiled the “monster season” that many always expected to come. To wit, he is the only member of the 500 HR club who never had a 40 HR season. He forged his awesome career numbers on steady production and phenomenal durability. In fact, when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig‘s consecutive games played record in 1995, Murray (who at one point played in 444 consecutive games himself) was one of four people he specifically thanked, saying it was his teammate’s professionalism which gave him the belief that one should be in the lineup every day without fail.
Murray concluded another brilliant but frustrating season in 1982, batting .316 with 32 homers and 110 RBIs, winning the first of three consecutive Gold Gloves for his defensive excellence at first base. However, the Orioles came up short again, losing the American League East title to Milwaukee on the last day of the season.
The following year, though, Murray and the Orioles ended their four-year tenure as bridesmaids, waltzing to the division title as Murray clubbed a career-high 33 homers. The club breezed through the playoffs and World Series to give Baltimore its first World Championship since 1970. Murray exorcised his own demons by blasting two homers in the Series-winning Game 5 victory against Philadelphia. For the second straight year he also finished second in the Most Valuable Player balloting, this time by a narrow 322 to 290 vote to his teammate Ripken.
The next two years saw Murray and Ripken put up big numbers (including a career-high 124 RBIs for Murray in 1985) on mediocre Orioles teams. On August 26th, 1985, Murray tied several Baltimore records by hitting three homers (one of three occasions he did so), collecting nine RBIs and 13 total bases against the California Angels. The final home run was one of the 19 grand slams that Murray would hit during his career, a total exceeded only by Lou Gehrig‘s 23.
In June 1986, however, Murray’s career changed drastically when a pulled hamstring placed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Unexpectedly, Murray found himself the very public target of critical remarks from Orioles owner Edward Bennet Williams about his conditioning and dedication to recovering from the injury. Ironically, his return coincided with a prolonged slump by the Orioles, which marked the start of a six-season slump during which the team had just one winning season. Almost overnight, Murray found himself held accountable for the club’s sudden turn of fortune and was tagged as a souring influence in the clubhouse and a player who never hustled.
Considering himself betrayed by the community to which he had given so much, including millions of dollars to improve Baltimore’s inner city, Murray worsened the situation by all but refusing to talk to the media. The decision was the beginning of a trend which would damage his public image for years to come. In Baltimore, he actually heard “boos” from the Memorial Stadium crowd, and openly asked to be traded. In December of 1988, after Baltimore had concluded an embarrassing 54-107 season, the Orioles granted him his wish, sending him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for pitchers Brian Holton, Ken Howell, and infielder Juan Bell.
Of his three seasons in L.A. the most notable was his 1990 campaign, where he batted a career-high .330. Although his average was the highest in all of baseball, he failed to win the batting title because St. Louis’ Willie McGee was traded to Oakland in August with his National League average frozen at .335. Although he was unable to keep up the torrid pace with the Athletics, McGee still had enough at-bats in the NL to win the batting crown. In 1992, Murray signed as a free agent with the New York Mets, where he had two solid years, including the sixth 100 RBI season of his career, but where his reputation and relationship to the media grew even worse.
In 1994, Murray returned to the American League, signing with Cleveland, where his veteran presence helped mold the talented but youthful Indians into a powerful team. On May 6th of that season, Murray played his first regular season game in Baltimore since October of 1988 — although coincidentally, as a Met in 1992 Murray had played in the first exhibition game in Baltimore’s new Camden Yards Stadium and actually driven in the first run in the stadium’s history with a first-inning sacrifice fly. Greeted by a smattering of both “boos” and applause, Murray hit a fourth-inning homer which hit the rightfield foul pole, the same foul pole which had been transplanted to Camden Yards from Murray’s old Memorial Stadium home.
The following year, the 39-year-old Murray, in one of the best lineups baseball had seen in years, batted .323 with 21 home runs, and collected his 3,000th hit on June 30th at Minnesota. Murray also appeared in his third World Series, which the Indians lost in six games to Atlanta. On July 21, 1996 Murray returned to Baltimore in a trade for pitcher Kent Mercker. He promptly slammed a home run in his first game back. On September 6th, Murray hammered his 500th career homer into Camden Yards‘ right field bleachers, exactly one year to the day Ripken had surpassed Gehrig’s streak. Murray’s return turned the season around for the underachieving Orioles, who went on a second half tear to grab the American League‘s wildcard spot and upset the Indians in the playoffs before bowing out to the eventual World Champion Yankees. In his last at bat as an Oriole, Murray homered to left field against Andy Pettitte in Game Five.
Murray’s return had not only invigorated the Orioles, but had also finally rehabilitated his image. Many in the Orioles clubhouse credited Murray with teaching the Orioles how to win and pulling the disparate but talented elements of the team together. In addition, he had won back his place in Baltimore, restoring the mutual affection between himself and the fans. After a few last hurrahs playing for the Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers in 1997, Murray announced his retirement before the 1998 season and rejoined the Orioles as a bench coach. On May 31st, the Orioles, who had already quietly retired Murray’s number 33 following his trade to the Dodgers, held a formal ceremony to honor one of their greatest players, who was at long last back where he belonged.