July 27, 2003
WHEN Eddie Murray is inducted into the Hall of Fame today, Major League Baseball will show an appreciation of the superstar that he didn't receive as a player, either nationally or in Baltimore.
Even though Murray was one of the sport's best clutch hitters and switch-hitters, and the best hitter to wear an Orioles uniform, his departure from Baltimore in 1988 was one of the lowest moments in this city's sports history, as sad as the Colts leaving for Indianapolis, and as embarrassing as Colts officials allowing quarterback John Unitas to wear a San Diego Chargers uniform.
Murray's critics will say that injuries, mistrust of the media and his moody personality contributed to his leaving Baltimore, but Murray was also run out of town by racism, some blatant, some discreet.
Was some criticism of Murray warranted? Absolutely. But no one deserves to have racial slurs hurled at him, which Murray heard at home games. Could he hold a grudge? Yes, almost as long as the media. Did he have a charming personality? No, but he wasn't a cancer in the locker room. His teammates admired his leadership.
Murray wasn't perfect, but he didn't warrant the abuse that he received in the mid 1980s. Leaders of the African-American community will never forget how Murray was treated.
"How can a ballplayer who consistently produced as a superstar, who hit a record number of home runs and RBIs, who could carry a team on his back when his bat was hot for 17 games, who was the greatest clutch hitter in baseball, get run out of town by predominantly white fans?" asked prominent Baltimore attorney Billy Murphy Jr.
"No black baseball fans wanted him to leave," Murphy said. "No black baseball fans expressed outrage at his demeanor. No black baseball fans expressed outrage at his unwillingness to run out a meaningless ground ball. But they will express gratitude when he goes into the Hall of Fame. This city owes a lot to Eddie Murray.
"How many more pennants did we lose when we lost him? How many more World Series did we lose over such trivial matters as a man's personality? This goes to show that as people, we have to strive to get over the racial barriers, if not for people like Eddie Murray, for the sake of society."
Baltimore wasn't and still may not be ready for an African-American superstar with Murray's personality. Baltimore has always been a blue-collar town. Fans here love the Charlie Hustle, All-American type. They want their heroes to be accessible, and they want them to smile all the time.
Murray wasn't the smiling Negro type. He didn't dance or crack jokes. He didn't wear flashy suits or have an engaging personality like Deion Sanders.
Murray was a big-money player and his own man. He was an introvert before he came to Baltimore, and he is that way today.
"I never had trouble interviewing him when I was a reporter for WBAL," said Curt Anderson, a former state delegate who now practices law in Baltimore. "Part of Eddie's problem was perception, the way they wrote about him and talked about him on television and on the radio. They painted him as an irascible man."
Oh, the media wouldn't do that, would they?
Murray's media troubles began with a column written by Dick Young of the New York Daily News in October 1979. Murray wasn't happy about some things written about his family. From then on, he mistrusted reporters and turned down a lot of interview requests.
No big deal, huh?
Black superstars, though, can't be snippy. Just ask San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds. They can't be intelligent or articulate, like former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, or they are accused of being too soft. They all have to be happy-go-lucky, entertaining types, or mouthy and obnoxious, like Dennis Rodman.
Bonds and Murray don't like the media. They don't like our questions and the dumb, little games we sometimes play. Here's one of our little games: We keep asking for interviews even though we know we're not going to get one, sometimes to provoke a response.
With each denied request, Murray's reputation for a sour demeanor grew, perpetuated mostly by an unhappy media. But eventually, the media always get their revenge because a player might need a Hall of Fame vote, or they zero in when a player becomes old and his skills start to fade.
That time came for Murray after an August 1986 news conference in which then-owner Edward Bennett Williams said Murray needed to stay in better shape and produce more, which could easily be interpreted as Williams calling Murray lazy.
Then his critics started suggesting Murray needed glasses. He didn't hustle enough. He didn't slide enough. Back then, it was so Baltimore.
It was all kind of ironic because Murray was actually the team's iron man before Cal Ripken, and Ripken used Murray's work ethic as the model. Ripken could have been just as easy a target as Murray because they were the top two players on a team that had gone south after a world championship in 1983.
But Ripken was everything Murray wasn't. He was accessible. He was local. He had the bloodlines. He had the golden smile. He drank milk.
And he was white.
"I don't think the city embraced Eddie Murray like it embraced other superstars in the past from football, basketball and baseball," said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "It was at a time when you didn't see a lot of black faces at the ballpark.
"Baseball leagues in the city were starting to disappear, and if they still existed, there were fewer black players," he said. "Major League Baseball kind of priced itself out with inner-city youth. In terms of just Baltimore, the team did promotions of players who were deeply rooted in the community, but for whatever reasons, left some of them out."
Murray was left out, even robbed of the American League Most Valuable Player award when Ripken won it in 1983. Murray's critics will point to a day in 1987 when Murray suggested in an interview that it might be time to move on.
Who could blame him?
It's one thing to be booed, another when fans insult your family and slam you with racial insults. That crosses the line.
Murray deserved better. It never should have reached that point. Basic nitpicking by an owner, media and a group of fans forced a Hall of Famer out of town.
But those things won't be in the way today. Murray has been judged more on his production throughout his 21-year career than his personality, more on his ability to hit in the clutch than to run out a routine grounder. A man who could hit for power and average, who had more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, who had 1,917 RBIs and was underrated in the field as a first baseman, can take his rightful place in Cooperstown.
And finally get the appreciation he's due.
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