Dale Murphy may not make it into Cooperstown. But his kids will tell you he's still playing the hero.
By ZACH DILLARDFS South
On a Friday afternoon, a nondescript December day in State College, Pa., Chad Murphy sat down at his desk in a two-person office on Penn State's campus and began to write about character clauses and legacies and his father.
For a university PhD candidate, it was an eccentric task, taking time away from his pending dissertation to discuss the inner workings of baseball's most prestigious and contentious honor. He jotted down his thoughts on integrity and psychology, on memberships and statistics. He wrote into the evening. When the letter was finished he contacted his father and a family friend, both of whom helped piece together a mailing list. The process was quick and efficient; multiple letters were in the mail the following morning.
Destination: The Baseball Writers Association of America.
For Chad Murphy, it was a labor of love. His seven siblings agree. Their father, Dale Murphy, an
Atlanta Braves favorite and two-time National League MVP, is in his 15th and final season of eligibility to be elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame — a once-believed surefire recognition that has slipped farther and farther away as Father Time continues his march. So the Murphy children, all eight of them, chose to piece together a personal campaign for their father's candidacy, a family-centric appeal to the masses, exemplified when the eldest mailed his letter to the BBWAA.
"I wanted it to be sort of engaging and I wanted people to read it. And that's a big reason why I tried to make it kind of, you know, there's some satire there taking a few jabs," Chad said. "I think it worked. Some people were upset by that, but a lot of people understood it wasn't mean-spirited in any way. It was meant to provoke a discussion."
Upon receiving the argument, baseball writers began disseminating the evidence. There was push-back, namely for calling sabermetric types "nerds" — humorous irony from someone with a master's degree in literary theory and the humanities, but a good-natured insult that was lost on the statistically minded. But the overall goal was reached. A conversation sparked, both the negatives and positives. In as star-studded and controversial a Hall of Fame ballot as history has ever seen, many more folks are discussing Dale Murphy's credentials than were one month prior.
In that regard, the campaign is working.
Before Chad's letter came a Murphy-to-the-Hall petition from Taylor, the entire operation's ringleader and Dale's fifth-oldest child, and an appearance on the MLB Network. Madison, the youngest of the bunch, wrote a column, titling it, "My Dad is a Super Hero." Another son created a cartoon illustration depicting Murphy's heroics off the field. They interact and share content on social media. They keep an open group text message on their iPhones to brainstorm ideas and joke about what does and does not work.
"I can't remember how exactly they let me know. But they said, 'Hey, here's what we're doing and we need your help with some retweets and things like that. It just kinda grew from there," said Murphy, who retired in 1993 with 398 career home runs and five Gold Gloves. "I'm always hopeful, but I also understand that it would be unprecedented."
* * *
Taylor Murphy remembers digging through boxes and foraging cabinet space as a kid, trying to discover remnants of his father's glory days.
Framed jerseys do not hang on the walls of the Murphy household; trophies and awards decorate shadows in storage. The home is not a shrine. To this day, Taylor swears, he would not even know where to begin the search of his parent's home.
"I remember being a little kid and actually trying to discover all of these things I read about my dad and people tell me about my dad because I never heard him talk about a good game he had," Taylor said. "That's the truth. I never heard him say, 'We were down and I hit a home run.' Nothing. People tell me what they saw and what they felt and how they were inspired by him. It's almost hard to believe, I would think, for some people. But that's who he is."
So Taylor, the family's preeminent baseball enthusiast, searched for his own answers.
While attending Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, where the family moved following Murphy's retirement, statistics and magazine features were not enough for Taylor. He wanted to see it. He took to YouTube for video evidence, but could not find a significant highlight reel (due to MLB's stringent video rights ownership). Murphy coached him in baseball and offered positive reinforcement, but Taylor wanted more. He wanted to do film study. How did Dad actually do it?
"I remember we had a DVD of his highlights, but we only had one because I could never find it," he said. "I definitely sought that out and tried to figure out how good he was for myself."
What Taylor eventually found was this: The Braves' first pick in the 1974 draft, Murphy was one of the best players in baseball during the 1980s, winning back-to-back MVP honors in 1982 and '83. Once hyped as "the next Johnny Bench," he eventually moved from catcher to become an elite outfielder. At his peak — from 1980-87, The Murph was a seven-time All-Star hitting at a .284 clip — he was feared. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year in 1987. Joe Torre, his former manager, was reported as saying, "All he does is play baseball better than anyone else."
Murphy concluded the 1980s with the most total bases of any player (2,796), and most home runs (308) and RBI (929) among outfielders.
If dominance per decade counts for anything, Murphy has one notch on his belt.
However, due to chronic knee problems, his career was cut relatively short. He played just 351 games in the '90s before hanging up his spikes. Five years down the road, when players become eligible for Hall of Fame voting, the career numbers started raising some eyebrows.
"That's why they don't put you in the Hall of Fame right in the middle of your career. … And that's why it's a debate. It's subjective," Murphy said. "There's a lot that goes into it and a lot of pros and cons that people feel. I knew that going into retirement that that was going to be the case. Obviously, I have some people that are very supportive but so far I don't have enough. So it's one of those things I accept and understand."
Murphy has gone on the record many times saying he deserves a place in Cooperstown, but his detractors point to his career numbers and short peak as reasons to keep him out. So far, they've won. The sabermetrics crowd in particular, the one Chad pinpointed in his letter, is especially dismissive of Murphy earning a bust. A go-to rejection: Looking at his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers, the metric capturing a player's overall value, Murphy falls short — his WAR is 22.1 below the average Hall of Fame outfielder's career. Even his peak years fall well below average.
Since earning 23.2 percent of the vote on the 2000 ballot (a candidate needs 75 percent to be inducted) Murphy's percentage has steadily declined then held right around 12 percent. Needless to say, that's not even close. If Murphy is not voted in by the baseball writers on this time around, his last opportunity to earn the career's recognition he believes his accomplishments warrant would be the Veteran's Committee. BBWAA ballots are due Dec. 31. The results will be announced Jan. 9.
His family uses the word "unprecedented" a lot to describe the chances. Optimism becomes relative.
By most accounts, it would appear the Murphy War is all but over.
"My career is there," Murphy said. "It's not going anywhere."
For 14 years, he has fallen shy of voters' criteria. No. 15 looms. But what is that criteria, exactly?
* * *
For Chad Murphy, the campaign platform is as much departmental as it is familial.
Of all the major American sports, baseball lends itself most readily to academia, a minefield of statistics and logarithms and theories. Chad's academic department at Penn State is on board. Some colleagues have signed the family's petition, most of them baseball fans. A professor even pointed him toward a supporting study for his letter's argument.
"Sometimes, as academics, you do a lot of writing and nobody ever reads it," said Chad, who finished his undergrad work at BYU before earning his master's at the University of Chicago. "So they were glad, they were like, 'This is great you're putting some of this to practical use.'"
In his letter's most powerful point, Chad discusses the very definition of the voting criteria, which explicitly states: "Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." The so-called character clause would appear to apply to Murphy with room to spare, as he ran the table on almost every "good-guy" award available. His good deeds and big heart are well documented. But, referencing a 2001 case review by psychologist Roy Baumeister in which humans are drawn to recall negative memories more readily the positive ones, Chad stops traffic in the one-way street of voters who have kept guys like Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe Jackson and others on baseball's black list.
In other words: Baseball voters are applying the character clause only in terms of keeping players out of the Hall of Fame, not in allowing them in.
To Murphy's children, this seems like an outlandish concept, one that hypocritically hinders the chances Murphy has at seeing his likeness molded in bronze. Chad almost wrote a petition calling for the discharge of the character clause altogether. Instead, he made the case for his father within the same framework, taking jabs at Barry Bonds — the Murphy family pulls no punches when it comes to players linked to performance-enhancing drugs — Cap Anson and others along the way.
"I don't know if we want just to say players will be judged according to their playing ability. Period. I don't know if that's what we want the Hall of Fame to only be," Chad said. "Some people think it should be that way, and maybe they would argue that historically it has been that way, but if it came down to it, especially this year, it raises a bunch of interesting issues. The steroid issue brings that debate to a new level: When the character issues are so clearly connected to performance, they're hard to separate."
The Murphy kids, with their iPhones out, shooting ideas back and forth, have even discussed plans of shooting a mini-documentary on the Hall of Fame voting process. Shawn, the third-oldest and a former NFL player, has plans to apply to film school at either UCLA or NYU after finishing up his degree at Utah State. The gears are turning.
There is a sense that they feel they owe it to their father.
"I think Joe Torre said something along the lines of, 'If you're a coach you want him as a player; if you're a son you want him as a dad; if you're a wife you want him as a husband.' I realize that we come across as kids praising our own father, but I have friends who have been impacted the same just from being around him," Taylor said. "He's on and off the field embodied everything I've looked up to my whole life."
* * *
A 4 a.m., alarm clock is ringing in Tyson Murphy's mind, as his father is once again taking him carp fishing on a Saturday. These are his cherished memories of Dale Murphy, the baseball star.
The self-proclaimed black sheep of the family, Tyson, the fourth-oldest, speaks in softer tones than his brothers. He was handed the paternal gift of modesty. He's an artist; the family creative. And when it comes to a Hall of Fame, baseball doesn't even enter the equation.
"I do have those memories of playing catch and playing whiffle ball and stuff, but my much more potent memories are going fishing with him," Tyson said. "I remember waking up and feeling terrible, but still remembering how special I felt that he would go fishing just with me. Those are just a lot more powerful to me."
Falling in line with the campaign's overall goal, Tyson, who works as a character artist for Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, Calif., decided to follow the lead of Taylor and Chad and Madison. But he played to his own strengths, as have all his siblings during this process. He began to sketch, to create.
The finished product was
a heart-warming cartoon depicting a father-son relationship that flourished far away from bright lights.
When I was younger
brought cities to their feet
he inspired millions
he was a hero
but he was more than that to me
he was my dad
In the final scene of the cartoon, Tyson draws Murphy and himself in the family art room, doodling and sketching. This is the man — he of magazine covers and 398 home runs — he calls father. When, as sophomore in high school, Tyson wanted to give up on baseball and football to pursue a career in art, people were surprised to hear that Murphy was his biggest advocate. Perhaps those in mild shock were unaware of Murphy's own artistic inclinations — "Even to this day he has a little art room in their household where he goes and does a little painting and little doodles." — or maybe it's just, due to some cultural stereotype, tough to picture an athlete embracing non-athletic endeavors.
Murphy rarely fit into molds, though.
"Well, I think the challenge for a parent is trying to help them have some self-discovery about things that they like to do and career paths they want to pursue. Or talent that they want to use and expand upon and learn about," Murphy said. "What's interesting is if you have athletic ability it doesn't necessarily mean it's something you want to pursue. I think that's the challenge for parents is when they see talents in their kids that parents want them to pursue."
Hall of Fame or no, his offspring's transcontinental crusade to bring his name back to the forefront, back to where it was 30 years ago, has meant the world to Murphy. He calls it all an early Christmas present. From the academic to the artist to the former NFL player, each child has played his or her part.
Does he belong in Cooperstown? The debate continues. Player campaigns have paid off in the past, though, as longtime Hall of Fame voter Hal McCoy pointed out the cases of Tony Perez and Andre Dawson, two 1980s contemporaries of Murphy. A financial adviser sent out T-shirts with Perez's statistics. Dawson's financial adviser distributed DVDs.
"I think, probably, he has a better chance of making it now with all the steroid and HGH players coming up on the ballot," said McCoy, who has voted for Murphy in the past based on his dominance of an era. "They might look back on a guy like Dale Murphy and say, 'Here's a guy that did it right.'"
Such decisions are to be made in the coming weeks. Needless to say, the 2012 Murphy Movement hits a little closer to home.
And it has verified one thing: Dale Murphy will always belong somewhere.
"It's hard to put into words how much it means," Murphy said. "Very tender and emotional when you see what the kids, Tyson visually and the other kids in their way" — here he pauses, searching for those words proud parents use — "the best way to put is it's a tender place in my heart and a very emotional feeling of gratitude to be a parent of great kids. I'm just very thankful."
Murphy was in New York when he saw Tyson's cartoon for the first time. Fittingly, Chad was with him.