Flashback: Even before bronze likeness, “Steady Eddie” was larger than life

Of all the Orioles I’ve covered over the years, few of them spoke as little as Eddie Murray. You can debate the reasons - run-ins with and distrust of the media, the fact that he didn’t crave the spotlight, the fact that there were other players willing to take center stage. But the fact remains that Murray wasn’t talkative when the media approached.

The routine was, well, routine.

Reporter: “Hey, Eddie - got a minute?”

Murray: “No, thank you.”

And that was that.

That’s not to say that Murray, who hit 343 of his 504 career homers in parts of 13 seasons in orange and black, wasn’t willing to chat a reporter up. It was just on his terms. Put your notebook down and your tape recorder in your pocket and there was a much better chance Murray would be at least a little bit conversational.

In formal interviews, usually postgame after he’d done something noteworthy, Murray was almost always evasive, keeping his answers short and cliche. He always got lucky, saw a good pitch and hit it, or benefited from an opposing pitcher’s mistake. One notable exception was Sept. 6, 1996, the night he hit his 500th career home run off Detroit’s Felipe Lira, a solo shot to the seats in right-center. It came in the seventh inning in a game that had been delayed by rain, so there were precious few fans in the stands when Murray made history, unleashing torrents of confetti and streamers in celebration. After the game, a humbled Murray spoke softly of joining Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only members of the 500-homer, 3,000-hit fraternity.

DobsonMurrayLira.jpgThat game holds a special memory, one of two 500th homers I’ve witnessed in person (Boston’s Manny Ramirez at Camden Yards was the other). As Murray approached No. 500, The Associated Press had freelancers at the stadium where the Orioles were playing call in each time Murray batted. His 499th came Aug. 30 at Seattle, so almost a week had passed - and many toll-free calls had been made to AP headquarters in New York City in preparation for the inevitability of a cherished baseball hallmark.

That night, it was my duty to make the call to AP each time Murray hit. The woman from the baseball desk on the other end of the phone had taken many such calls over the previous week, so she and I had some fun on the seventh-inning at-bat that was about to go into the record books. She suggested on our fourth-inning call that some play-by-play might break up the monotony. On the seventh-inning call, it went something like this:

Me: “Here’s Murray, who’s walked in the second and grounded into a fielder’s choice in the fourth. Very few fans still left in Camden Yards, most of the crowd having been chased home by the long rain delay. One out in the seventh. Here’s Lira with the wind and the pitch. Murray swings, it’s a long fly, deep to right center, and ... it’s gone. No. 500 for Eddie Murray and the celebration has begun at Camden Yards. Streamers are shooting out atop the dugouts, confetti is raining on home plate and the Orioles are congratulating the newest member of the 500-homer club at home plate.”

AP girl: “Great call, you should think about doing radio.”

Me: “No, for real. He just hit it. Dave Ginsburg is adding color to the story and you’ll have it pronto.”

I remember thinking how cheated those fans who hadn’t weathered the rain delay would be when they found out they missed history. I remember seeing a combination of relief and pride as Murray crossed home plate into a mass of congratulatory handshakes and back-pats. Afterward, during the press conference, I remember an obviously moved Murray, a far departure from the stoic, often standoffish guy who’d eschewed interviews so many times. Maybe the difference was that this time he couldn’t just escape the attention.

By pure chance, the pitcher that gave up Murray’s first home run was also in at Camden Yards that night. Pat Dobson was the pitching coach during Davey Johnson’s first season at the O’s helm. Dobson was in the last season of an 11-year major league career with the Indians when he yielded Murray’s first career homer, a sixth-inning solo shot at Memorial Stadium, on April 18, 1977 (ironically, Murray’s second homer also came against an ex-Oriole, Don Hood, two days later). The day after No. 500, Dobson and Lira posed with Murray, as the above photo from the Orioles archive shows. It was a rare moment, Murray the masher with the pitchers he abused for his first and 500th homers.

Murray was sometimes misunderstood as an Oriole. When he played every inning of every game, no one seemed to notice as they did later with Cal Ripken Jr. When he blew out his hamstring overextending his rehabilitation routine, he drew scorn instead of recognition for trying to return to the field as quickly as possible. His silence was often misread. All he wanted to do was play ball - not speak to reporters, engage fans or opine on the state of the club.

But when he went into the Hall of Fame in 2003, garnering 85.3 percent of the vote in his first try, he went into Cooperstown as an Oriole. He gave a heartfelt speech that reminded me of the “Steady Eddie” that made such a splash in those early years in Baltimore, when he burst on the scene. Murray provided a power bat in the middle of the lineup beginning in his 1977 Rookie of the Year campaign and Gold Glove defense at first base long before Rawlngs finally recognized him for the first time in 1982.

Now, a statue of perhaps the greatest power-hitter ever produced by the organization will be unveiled this afternoon in Legends Park, the new picnic area in center field at Camden Yards. It’s hard to think of Murray’s bronze likeness as larger than life. Truth be told, he already was.

Photos used in the Flashback feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.

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