Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
Dale Murphy was dangerous.
As friendly and accommodating as
he could be off the field, Murphy was a terror when he stepped up to the plate.
The young Atlanta Braves star scorched National League pitchers from 1982 to
1987, scoring back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards (1982, 1983) and six
straight All-Star appearances in the process of winning two NL home run titles
(1984, 1985) and leading the Senior Circuit in everything from slugging (1983,
1984), and on-base plus slugging (1983) to runs batted in (1982, 1983). No NL
player, including Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, hit more RBI or gained more total
bases in the decade from 1980 to 1989.
One of the great ‘What if’s’ of
the era came from the fact that Murphy played his last healthy season at age 34.
Could he have made it to the Hall of Fame if he’d managed to avoid the knee
problems that curtailed his later career? We’ll never know for certain, but
there’s every reason to believe it would have happened - from age 28 on, his
career statistics closely resembled those of Reggie Jackson. Even as it was, in
2000, Murphy joined Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron as the only Braves hitters ever
honored with a retired number.
Injuries effectively cut off Dale
Murphy’s Hall of Fame chances, but not before he established himself as one of
the most dangerous power hitters of his time. Recently, he discussed how he did
What did baseball mean to you when
you were growing up?
It was just another sport, really.
I didn’t get started until I was eight years old. I enjoyed it but I played a
lot of football and basketball, too. For the longest time, baseball was just
When did that begin to
I was fortunate enough to meet
with a great coach in Jack Dunn, and he helped me learn more about the
intricacies involved in the game. I’d compare baseball to chess in that, the
more you learn about it, the more interesting it gets. In my teenage years,
that’s when I started picking up on the subtleties, and the more I participated,
the more I grew to like it.
When did you get a feeling that
you might have a future in the Major Leagues?
Oh, pretty early in high school,
back in Portland
[Oregon]. By my senior year, the scouts
were coming around and talking to Coach Dunn.
At 6’5”, 215, you were a big guy
by any standard. Do you believe size generally helps in the development of power
It’s funny. It’s both an advantage
and a disadvantage. There are pro’s and con’s.
The good news is that longer arms
and legs help you generate more leverage than a smaller guy. The bad news is in
the bigger strike zone and the longer swing, in the greater coordination needed
to put together consistent mechanics. Basically, a big guy can hit the ball
farther, but he can get fooled more often.
Personally, I think my size helped
at the end of the day, in that it forced me to bear down on eyesight, hand-eye
coordination, bat speed, knowledge of the pitchers.
You struggled to hit home runs in
your first couple of years in the Minor Leagues. Why do you suppose that was the
I hit some home runs in high
school, but I took a big step back in the low Minors and it took me some time to
get back to a good level. It was a matter of confidence and physical
development, more than anything else. I tried to abide by the old cliché - ‘Don’t think about home runs. Think
about hitting the ball hard’. Once I did that, my [batting] average went up and,
in time, so did my home runs.
When you first entered the Braves
organization in 1974, you were a catcher. When you developed throwing problems
from behind the plate, did that hurt your confidence as a home run
Not really. The beauty of baseball
is in overcoming failures with your best mental and emotional resources. No
one’s immune from that, including Ted Williams and Hank Aaron. If anything, the
Minors weed out those that have athletic skills but not quite enough mental
toughness to acknowledge their failures without getting too down on themselves.
The throwing thing wasn’t
particularly hard; at least, it wasn’t any harder than any other aspect in
playing a very, very tough game. I
just saw that as another challenge, same as a hitting slump. I was glad to find
a new position, eventually, in center field, and just worked to make the most of
From what I understand, even in
those early years, you were incredibly respected and well-liked on a personal
level. Do you think the Braves were more willing to stick with you for that
It was great to have guys like
[Scouting Director] Paul Snyder and [General Manager] Bill Lucas pulling for me
in those days. I knew that the Atlanta Braves wanted quality people, the kind
they wanted to invest in. I appreciated that they saw me that way and I
certainly saw Paul in Bill and many others in those terms. They were great
baseball men and great men.
That being said, I’m not sure that
the personal relationships were the deciding factor in my career development. I
always asked the team to judge me based on performance. Baseball is a tough,
tough game, and I always concentrated on being the best possible ball player. I
always saw the off-field or character stuff was a plus for that foundation.
Well, within a few years, you were
winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Then, immediately
after the 1982 season, you went down to the instructional league to work on your
You realize you’ll always be
famous for that.
I did win the MVP, but that wasn’t
announced for a few weeks after the season. Sometimes I joke, ‘If I knew I was
going to win, maybe I wouldn’t have gone’!
Seriously, though, it was because
I wasn’t swinging the bat well in the last few weeks of the season. [Braves
manager] Joe Torre saw something I could work on and said, ‘We can erase some of
the negatives and work on some of the positives’. I was actually down there with
his brother, Frank.
And it was very helpful. It helped
reinforced the idea that I could hit to all fields.
Still - there was the sight of a
reigning MVP in the instructional league.
I guess we were in
Sarasota, at the instructional leagues’
fields, but they were more like tutoring sessions that happened to be at that
site. I was grateful for the work and the help. With the Torres’ good ideas and
good thoughts, I went and had a better year in ’83. The extra work helped me
gain the back-to-back MVP’s.
By that time you were, along with
Mike Schmidt, the premiere power hitter in the National League. Were you
consciously looking for home runs at that point in your
I once heard a story about Mickey
Mantle. Someone once asked him, ‘Did you ever go up to the plate trying to hit a
home run?’ And he turned around and said, ‘Every time’! (chuckles)
I know that other hitters have
gone up thinking ‘home run’, and that’s worked for them, but it wouldn’t have
worked for me. My approach was - get a good pitch to hit, make solid contact.
Joe Torre told me, I don’t know how many times, ‘Trust your mechanics. Trust the
process, and you’ll get the home runs’.
Did you usually go up to the plate
looking for particular pitches?
I didn’t consider myself a guess
hitter. I did, probably, the most common thing, which was to look for the faster
pitch, then adjust to the off-speed pitch as needed. To me, fastballs, no matter
what the speed, were easier to hit.
Another old quote I loved was when
someone once asked Willie Stargell how to hit the curveball. He said, ‘Hit the
fastball’! That made a lot of sense to me - you know, make sure that the pitcher
doesn’t get ahead [in the count] with fastballs. That’s what sets you up for
I know that Hank Aaron, for
example, always looked for the pitcher’s best pitch, whatever that might be,
then adjusted to everything else.
He was able to do that, and that’s
why he was Hank Aaron! (chuckles) No, I couldn’t do that. I had to do my best in
picking up the fastball, then did my best to adjust to off-speed pitches as
The other thing I focused on was
taking advantage of pitchers’ mistakes. No matter how good they are, they’ll
eventually slip up just enough to give you something to drive, usually once per
game. I worked to take full advantage.
At the plate, were you trying to
think along with a pitcher, or were you mostly just reacting at the plate?
Reacting. I wasn’t a detail guy. I
wasn’t. Looking back, I could have used more info, but my concern was in
cluttering my mind too much. I did use more video as my career went along but,
mostly, the simpler the better.
It’s funny, because you have so
guys that can think and anticipate - the Tony Gwynns - and others who mostly get
up there to react. It’s up to the individual hitter.
Did you make a lot of adjustments
to your stance, depending on your power results at a given moment?
I guess it’s relatively rare to
make drastic adjustments to your stance during the season, though it does
happen. One example was Cal Ripken, Jr., who was constantly shifting. You never
knew which stance he’d try next.
I didn’t make a lot of adjustments
to my stance during the season, no. If I’d do anything at all, I’d change my
crouch. I can still see pictures from my career and say, ‘Crouching again.
That’s when I thought I was too tall’.
Going back to what I said before,
though, the simpler the better. Major League pitchers have too much velocity and
too much control and too much movement. If you, as a batter, are taking too much
time and energy wondering where your hands are, generally, you’re not going to
get the best results.
It’s funny that you mentioned Cal
Ripken just now, because you two were among the most durable players of the
1980’s. What drove you to play over 700 consecutive games at one point? Was that
more in your physical constitution, or in your
Well, no one ever sat down and
said, ‘Here’s what you do’. I can’t explain it any more than this - you’re paid
to contribute and win, and you can’t necessarily do that from the bench. If
you’re at all capable of contributing, you should play. Guys like Cal Ripken and
Steve Garvey felt that way, of course, but I believe that most top players
basically felt the same way.
Some can say that a consecutive
game streak can be counterproductive, and I hear that. It did get to the point
where I was really struggling and I needed a break. I was healthy enough, but I
felt I needed a bit of a mental downtime, so I went over to [Braves manager]
Chuck Tanner and said, ‘This thing might have to come to close. I might need a
Was it tougher to play for losing
teams in Atlanta?
I was grateful for the years in
the early ‘80’s, when we had success. Yeah, I suppose it was tougher when the
club was losing. It’s a challenge because, by definition, more guys are
struggling to get it going.
I have to laugh when I hear about
the pressure in playing for a winning, contending team. That’s the easiest way
to play - everyone’s motivated, everyone’s concentrating, the crowd’s into it.
Did numbers ever motivate you, in,
say, the difference between 29 and 30 home runs in the
Well, the better your numbers are,
the more you can help the team win, usually. It helps your salary. The catch is
this - playing for numbers creates a self-imposed pressure that can be
counterproductive. It was definitely more enjoyable for me to focus on winning,
first and foremost, and let the numbers take care of themselves in the end.
For a good portion of your career,
it looked like you might be on track for the Hall of Fame. How can account for struggling in the final
years of your career?
I thought I’d be around a little
bit longer, too. You know, when I was in my early 30’s, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll
be playing until I’m at least 40’.
One of the things was physical
breakdown in my knee. I only played something like 15, 20 games in ’92 and,
after that, I came back in 1993, but I wasn’t nearly 100%.
What it proved is - in baseball,
once you lose a little bit, you lose a lot. Just a half-step or a step are
enough for you to lose your effectiveness - you’re not quite legging out that
hit or quite reaching that line drive. And just a fraction of a second in timing
is enough for you to lose out on solid contact at the plate and then you see an
extra-base swing become a single and the singles become
In the years when you were among
the National League home run leaders, you had 36, 37 home runs on the year.
Nowadays, the equivalent position would be good for 50 or more. How do you feel
about the higher power numbers in the 1990’s and new
I’m asked about it a lot. I accept
it but, yeah, I guess it’s a little frustrating. There are a lot of reasons that
things are different, and we all know there’s been a steroids question. I just
hope we make progress on that and clean up the game as best we can.
I suppose I’d put a little more
emphasis on the positive. For instance, you just have to give worlds of credit
to Hank Aaron for hitting all those home runs in a pitcher’s era. He still
doesn’t get all the credit he deserves as far as that goes. On the other side,
when you’re watching one of today’s aces - a Roger Clemens or a Pedro Martinez -
hey, you’re watching a guy who really knows how to pitch.
Is baseball still a big part of
your life? Are you still a fan?
Oh, definitely. I’ll always be a
I think there’s a great place for
the game of baseball in our society, one that brings great values to the
forefront. I like a bunch of sports organizations, but one I really like is
called ‘Right to Play’, started by a gold-medal speed skater named Johann Koss. They go around to refugee camps throughout the world
and use sports participation to teach kids about immunization, AIDS awareness,
and health checkups. What a great idea. Kids don’t necessarily want to sit in a
classroom, but combined with the game, they can gain some life-saving benefits
in their development.
To me, that kind of
thing goes to the heart of baseball and other sports as well - it can teach
personal values. Baseball’s helped me get involved, and I hope that will
continue for many years to come.
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.