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From start, kid had clout

He hustled up to the plate, as always, waggled his bat once and locked onto the pitcher. There 10-year-old Eddie Murray stood, stock-still, eyes fixed on the baseball headed his way.

This day, Murray connected big time, whacking the ball on a line toward right field and a sandbox more than 200 feet away. Toddlers thought it safe to play there when grade-schoolers like Murray were batting. But his drive landed in that sand - a prodigious prepubescent poke.

Of such feats are legends made.

The year was 1966. Ted Williams entered Cooperstown, John met Yoko and transistors blared "Summer In The City." On the hardscrabble diamonds of South Central Los Angeles, a pint-sized kid with a pipsqueak voice began carving his niche. Though built like television's Eddie Munster, he hit like Eddie Monster.

Every time up, it was the same picture: the eager apprentice, coiled to attack. "He looked like a cobra, ready to strike," recalled Clifford Prelow, Murray's first coach. "I was amazed at how he took charge in the box at that age."

Soon after the sandbox blast, Prelow says, the playground rules changed at Will Rogers Park: "During every game, either a parent stood watch in that sand pile, or else everyone vacated the lot."

'Let's go practice'

The field where Murray played was in Watts, an enclave scarred from riots of the year before. Baseball had stopped there in August 1965, when National Guard troops bivouacked in Will Rogers Park to quell the six-day firestorm that killed 34 people.

Undeterred, Murray's rec league team, the Chiefs, left Watts during the violence to practice on other city lots. "We had to get ready for the [9-10] playoffs," Prelow said.

That's how much the neighborhood cared about baseball at the time.

For a quarter-century (1955 to 1980), the playgrounds and parks of inner-city L.A. teemed with a multi-generation tribute to the game: kids bent on following Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron; semipro players aching for one last chance; and artful codgers keen on flaunting the skills they'd learned in the Negro leagues.

Baseball offered relief from the streets and a way out of town for the likes of Reggie Smith, Roy White and George Hendrick. One school, Fremont High, sent 18 players to the big leagues, including Eric Davis and Chet Lemon, Dan Ford and Bobby Tolan.

"As kids, we were always saying, 'Hey, whatcha doin'? Let's go practice,' " said Tolan, a star outfielder in Cincinnati. "Given a choice between going to a party or a game, we'd play ball ... and hope the party was still going on when the game was over."

This was Eddie Murray's world. The eighth of 12 children, he tagged after his siblings, mimicking their baseball ways and taking cuts at makeshift balls. He hit rolled-up socks, dolls' heads, bottle caps and even the plastic lids off Crisco cans.

"We'd eat cherries, then spit the pits out of our mouths and swing at them," Murray said in an interview this month. "Did the same thing with the shells of sunflower seeds. We swung at everything, even butterflies."

At 7, he was batboy of a sandlot team led by future major leaguers Tolan, Dock Ellis, Bob Watson and Dave Nelson and Murray's oldest brother, Charles, whose slugging would carry him as far as Triple-A.

"Eddie studied us all," Nelson said. "He watched. He learned."

"You wanted to absorb everything," Murray said. "Watching your older brothers, and those other guys, was like watching major leaguers play. And you got paid for it - 50 cents a game [as batboy] and a dime for every foul ball you brought back."

After practice, the players let the tyke take a few licks himself.

"He had these big ol' eyes, man, that just opened wide when he swung," Nelson recalled. "His bat was too big; we thought he'd get hurt. But Eddie wouldn't leave [the box].

"The only one he'd listen to was Charlie. If he told Eddie to put the bat down, then Eddie would do it. It was a tight family. Eddie did everything Charlie said."

Eddie hit right-handed, Charles left. When he started playing rec ball, an 8-year-old competing in a 9-10 league, Eddie began to switch-hit.

"He was so eager to get to the plate, and so confident, that it surprised him when somebody struck him out [right-handed]," said Prelow, the coach. "When that happened, the next time up, Eddie would hit from the left."

A fence made of tires

Hitting was Prelow's obsession. An ex-Dodgers farmhand, the coach stressed the muscle missing from his own game, determined that Murray and others would go farther than he, a city meter reader, had.

"Swing the bat," Prelow told them. "Even if you swing at a bad pitch, you won't hear as much from me as if you don't swing at a good pitch."

And: "The more you bat, the better you get."

And: "If you can hit [in the pros], you'll play."

Murray watched. He learned. "He [Prelow] influenced me more than he knows," the Hall of Famer said. "He didn't realize someone was listening to his every word. He opened the door and taught me all I needed."

Prelow was always finding ways to juice up a humdrum practice, said Murray, who played for him for five years. One twist: Encircle the outfield with a row of automobile tires. Any ball hit over them was an automatic home run. As the hitters matured, the tire "fence" moved farther out.

"It seems like a little thing, but it was so-o-o big to us," Murray said. "We loved rolling those tires onto the field every day."

The coach drove them hard, too. Woe to the youngsters who laid down a bad bunt or took a fastball down the pipe for strike three. Their fate: a 100-yard sprint to the highway and back.

" 'Century Boulevard!' was all Coach Prelow would say," Murray remembered. "Guys had to run so far that when we looked at them in the distance, we could only see them from the waist up."

And Murray?

"He never had to run," said Prelow, 77. "He followed instructions real good. The Murray kids obeyed their parents; I guess that carried over to me."

The Murrays - all 14 of them - lived in a three-bedroom stucco home on 108th Street. Charles and Carrie Murray moved there from Mississippi in 1946 to start a family. "I didn't want any of my kids working in the field," the elder Murray once said.

Their lineup: Louise, Charles, Leola, Lucilla, Leon, Viola, Venice, Eddie, Richard, Helen, Joyce and Tanja.

"It wasn't a big house or nothing - just one happy home," said Ford, who later played with Murray on the Orioles' 1983 world championship team. "When you went over to Eddie's, balls were flying all over the lawn and driveway. And his mom or dad would say, 'Hey, what's goin' on? Come on in.' Everyone was one of their boys."

That house was a magnet for kids in the community, said Phil Pote, a Seattle Mariners scout who had coached two of Murray's older brothers at Fremont High. "Theirs was a strong, well-knit family. There was discipline. The kids had manners."

On game days, Charles Murray Sr. herded Eddie and the gang into a yellow Pontiac station wagon and headed to the park. There, he'd stand behind the backstop, inning after inning, urging batters on: "Come on now, you can do it, you can do it ... "

If Charles, a mechanic, was busy, his wife chauffeured the team. Carrie Murray was the louder of the two, said Prelow: "If the umpire made a questionable call on one of her boys, she'd let him know it."

"Little Eddie" could go to bat for himself.

"He was small in stature, but when he swung, the ball would jump off the bat," Prelow said. "That impressed me for an 8-year-old."

Though one of 12 kids, Murray never showed up for games rumpled, unlike others. "His uniform was pressed, and his socks ... well, his socks sparkled," the coach said.

Said Murray: "You couldn't walk out of the house dirty. Mom had things together."

Three games a day

By 10, foundation laid, he was competing in multiple summer leagues, routinely playing three or more games a day. "Three games was nothin'," Murray said. "That's what we were about."

Come 7:30 a.m., he'd be curbside, glove in tow, swatting pebbles and waiting for his ride. "We played [in leagues] all over L.A.," he said. "Technically, it was illegal to play on that many teams, but we wanted to get in as many games as we could."

One of those clubs was the Denker Park Giants, a 12-and-under juggernaut that featured four future major leaguers - Murray and his younger brother Richard, who would play for San Francisco; Chet Lemon, an All-Star for the Chicago White Sox and Detroit; and Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.

Those Giants never lost a game. They sailed through one tournament without giving up a run as each of the Fab Four pitched a shutout.

"I had to carry their birth certificates all the time because nobody believed, at that age, that they were that good," said Earl Brown Jr., the Giants' coach. "I still remember Eddie's birthday - Feb. 24, 1956."

The players blossomed under Brown, a railroad clerk and one-time Dodgers aspirant who drilled them endlessly in mechanics. In the National League, where L.A. won the flag in 1966, they called it learning baseball The Dodger Way. In the AL, where Baltimore ruled, it was The Oriole Way.

Murray batted cleanup, sculpted his line-drive swing and raised eyebrows with his taciturn work ethic. "All of the Murrays were quiet. You never got them to say anything," said Brown, now 60. "All they talked about was playing ball."

By 13, at Brown's urging, Murray joined a Sunday men's league where he held his own against players twice his age, a number of whom had tried the pros. At Locke High School, however, came a snag. The sophomore found himself playing on the jayvees. Alongside Ozzie Smith.

What a ballclub that was.

"I'm probably the only junior varsity coach ever to have two Hall of Famers on my team," said Herb Grays, 72, now retired.

Locke's varsity lineup was laden with seniors that year. The varsity coach, Art Webb, now deceased, sent Murray and Smith to JV so they could play regularly.

"He [Webb] didn't want me and Ozzie sitting on the [varsity] bench," said Murray, who took the demotion in stride: "We knew we were gonna run over whoever we played."

Twice that season, Locke's varsity played its JV team. The scrubs won both games.

"Eddie knew he could run circles around a lot of those guys, but he wasn't the type to go around talking about it," Grays said. "I had him pitch, catch and play the outfield. He wasn't a big guy, maybe 6 feet tall and 175 pounds, but he had those long muscles and that sweet swing.

"He didn't have much foot speed, but when you can hit the ball a mile, you don't have to run."

Hit, he did. At Locke High, Murray's slugging struck fear in opponents, said Michael Jackson, a year his senior.

"When he came to bat, everyone got real quiet, and all of the infielders moved back on the [outfield] grass," Jackson said. "His ground balls were like bullets. It was frightening."

As a senior, Murray batted .500, with 21 hits - 14 for extra bases. Some of those clouts struck the homes beyond left field. "We knocked on a few doors out there," he said. Other balls touched down on the tennis courts in center, 421 feet away.

Out past right field, anyone playing on the basketball courts stopped to watch - or take cover. "It was an unwritten law that you didn't park your car there during home games," Jackson said. "Guys would yell, 'Eddie's up, Eddie's up, look out!' "

Much like the sandbox at Will Rogers Park.

"One game, he was hitting the ball unbelievably hard," Jackson said. "Then Eddie came up again with the bases loaded and a 2-1 lead. They walked him intentionally."

'Eddie avoided that trap'

Pro scouts took note, especially the Orioles. (The team would sign him out of high school, dispatch him to Bluefield, W.Va., and move him up through the minors - Miami, Asheville, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Rochester, N.Y. - over the next 3 1/2 years. )

The scouts at Murray's high school games weren't always pros. During one playoff, he recalled, a scout dressed in a brown jacket approached between innings. Murray sidled over. What team did the man represent? Locke's next-round opponent.

"We're not going to pitch to you tomorrow," the man said. Then he left.

Sure enough, Murray walked every time up that game: "I didn't swing all day, and we lost, 4-3."

Academically, he prospered. Like his siblings, Murray went to class, studied and kept his nose clean.

"Eddie was the all-American boy," said Darrell Jackson, another Locke teammate who made it to the majors. But Jackson, who pitched briefly for Minnesota, burned out on the alcohol and drugs he'd begun using in high school.

"The temptations were strong, and I fell into them," said Darrell Jackson, now a drug counselor. "Eddie avoided that trap. Do anything unlawful and he'd shy away from you. He wasn't 'cool,' so to speak. We saw him as a square."

How square? "I never even saw him dancing or anything like that," said Michael Jackson (no relation to Darrell), now dean of discipline at Locke High.

"At that time, any family with that many boys usually had two or three go to jail. Not the Murrays. They all graduated and played pro ball."

Murray recalled his folks' certainty that their kids stayed out of scrapes.

"When someone knocked on our door and said, 'Your son is involved in this or that, and he's in trouble,' our parents would say, 'You must be mistaken.' They were confident enough to do that."

The Murray brothers' haven was the playground, not the streets.

"That's the way our mother and father raised us," Murray said. "You make choices. Ours was baseball."

Sun staff researchers Sarah Gehring, Jean Packard and Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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