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Sharing greatest stage

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Eddie Murray's first major league mentor had a seat close to the stage at yesterday's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. So did the guy who lost his position when Murray took over as Orioles first baseman late in his rookie season.

This wasn't some strange coincidence. This was actually the same person.

Lee May never resented Murray for taking his job. From the beginning, May tried to make the awkward situation easier, not harder.

"I was from a school," May said, "where you take care of the young kids."

The pupil blossomed into a superstar, and May couldn't wait to come to Cooperstown this weekend and join several former Orioles teammates in watching Murray take his place with baseball's greats.

May sat in a black-and-white-striped shirt underneath a cloudy sky at the Clark Sports Center, waiting for the ceremonies to begin. He recalled a time in 1977 when he walked past Murray's hotel room in Chicago and saw a room-service tray wit h some lettuce and a half-eaten hamburger bun.

"I told him, 'If you're going to hit home runs, you're going to have to get off that hamburger diet,'" May said. "So I took him out for a steak dinner.

"Then, when he got his first big contract, he couldn't wait to take me out to dinner."

Those things meant the world to Murray. After getting drafted in 1973, he had risen through the Orioles' farm system and arrived at spring training four years later as a long shot to make the big league team.

As the story goes, May was standing with Pat Kelly in the outfield early that spring, watching Murray take batting practice. Kelly turned to May and said, "Man, the ball is jumping off that kid's bat. Better hope he doesn't play first base."

Then May watched in horror as Murray put down his bat and picked up a first baseman's mitt.

It's a good story, but May said he had actually been charting Murray's progress in the minors through The Sporting News. May had been the Orioles' first baseman - and a productive one - the previous two seasons, hitting 45 home runs and driving in 208.

But he was 13 years older than Murray, and the transition seemed inevitable.

Both of them made the Opening Day roster, and manager Earl Weaver opened the season using May as the first baseman and Murray as the designated hitter.

Then, Murray started getting occasional chances to play first. Jim Palmer and some of the other pitchers started telling Weaver they preferred having Murray at first base.

By 1978, Murray was the everyday first baseman and May spent the next three seasons as the Orioles' designated hitter.

"Lee could still play," Murray said. "But it was awesome ho w he and his family never changed toward me. Even on bus rides, he was trying to teach you things about playing the game, about how to get ready to stay here now that you're here."

By the time May saw Murray take the podium yesterday, the crowd had wiped a lot of tears.

Hal McCoy, the longtime Cincinnati Reds beat writer for the Dayton Daily News who was elected to the Hall's writers' wing, spoke about how he'd overcome the urge to quit after strokes to both optic nerves left him legally blind.

Next, Hall of Famers such as George Brett and Kirby Puckett could be seen wiping away tears of laughter as Bob Uecker delivered his acceptance speech into the Hall's broadcasters' wing. "I, in deference to Hal, was asked to quit many times," Uecker said.

Then, it was the players' turns, and Gary Carter went first. Reading passages from the Bible and calling his wife "the wind beneath my wings," the smooth and polished Carter breezed his way through a 23-minute speech.

Finally, it was Murray's turn, and for the next 18 minutes, the man of few words made his way through the equivalent of a long, difficult at-bat that ends with an opposite-field single.

He started by imploring the crowd to hold off o n the "Ed-die! Ed-die!" chant until he was finished. He graciously went through a long list of people he wanted to thank.

"I learned the game from some good teachers; I learned life from some good teachers," Murray said. "No one was more important than my mom and dad. I know they're watching from a place up in heaven."

The only moment when it looked like Murray might lose it came next. One of 12 children, he started talking about his siblings, starting with h is oldest brother, Charles, who played six seasons in the Houston minor league system.

"All four brothers played professionally. Charlie ... " Murray said, taking a step back to pause and collect himself. "Charlie ... I'm going to take my time here. You inspired us all by signing that contract. That's what we all wanted to be. We wanted to be like you."

But this time there were no tears. Moisture came in the form of a light rain, as the crowd estimated at 18,000 started put ting up umbrellas.

"I thought he was going to break down when he said something about Mom and Dad," Charles Murray said. "After he got through that, I knew he was going to be OK. That's a very touchy subject for him and my sisters. T hey kind o f like to cry; I'm not the type."

Murray turned his attention to his teammates, starting with his mentor.

"Lee May, Al Bumbry, Elrod Hendricks. I tell you, the clubhouse was unbelievable," Murray said. "It was a place you wanted to be. It was a place you learned to play the game and learned the Oriole Way. I couldn't have asked for better teammates than Doug DeCinces and Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Flanagan, Mike Boddicker, Kenny Singleton, Scott McGregor. These guys were unbelievable to me."

By the time he was finished, Murray had thanked just about everybody, including Peter Angelos and his family for bringing him back to Baltimore in 1996.

A few seats over from May, another one of Murray's former teammates watched, perhaps making mental notes for his own induction speech in 2007.

"He stood up there, and I know that's not his thing, but he started to get really comfortable," Ripken said. "I think the hardest part is when you thank th e people closest to you, and that really started to bring some emotion out.

"But I thought he did a fabulous job. I was feeling for him at first, but it turned out OK. He always was a clutch hitter."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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