Apple Pie, Motherhood And Dale Murphy This New Phillie Doesn't Drink, Smoke, Curse Or Kiss Strangers. He Devotes Hours To Charity. He's So Nice, It Sometimes Makes His Wife Mad.

Posted: September 04, 1990

ATLANTA — Under a fierce noonday sun, a priest walks across a parking lot to the rim of a great Roman-style coliseum. The baseball stadium's 52,000 seats are empty, the grass is browning and bare, the worst team in the big leagues is on the road and losing again, no one is buying tickets to welcome it home and, as the priest says sadly, "Dale Murphy is gone."

The most popular athlete in Georgia, the most beloved public figure in Atlanta, is gone. The Gary Cooper of modern baseball, some say the nicest guy in all of sports, was traded in August to the Phillies.

So the priest buys exhibition football tickets.

And, the next day, Mary Cobb, who works at a hospital here, gasps, "Oh, my God! Dale's gone to Philadelphia, where they boo their mothers! We miss him so much."

High above the field, in the executive offices of the Atlanta Braves, the

halls are lined with photographs and posters of Murphy, the shelves are stacked with 8-by-10s signed Best Wishes, Dale Murphy.

"The PR staff has never been less busy," moans public relations director Jim Schultz, who keeps Murphy's photographs in the "Current Braves" file as if the old filing cabinet were a talisman to bring him back.

"Why did you trade him?" an old woman sobs inconsolably to a Braves secretary. An enraged caller says that she was planning to name her daughter Murphy Elizabeth, but that now it's time to rip up the nursery, done in Braves' red-white-and-blue.

And in the downtown office of the telephone company, executive Guy Arledge says, "When I heard he was going to Philadelphia, it was like a death in the family."

Heartsick is a city that loses its hero, and lucky is the metropolis that lands Dale Bryan Murphy, Atlantans say. So give a welcome to this tireless charity volunteer, 34-year-old philanthropist, religion-class teacher, Mormon church official, devoted husband and family man, father of six boys and, the last of Murphy's priorities (though hardly unimportant), since Aug. 3 the Phillies' new rightfielder.

Consider, for a brief and shining moment, the reputation that Philadelphia's No. 3 brought with him from the city where he lived for 12 years.

"I don't want to make him sound like a saint," says Arledge. "The ballplayers say he's just Murph. But you folks in Philadelphia are lucky to have this guy and his family. What he does goes well beyond baseball. There aren't many athletes I would point my 13-year-old son to and say, 'I want you to be like him.'

"Dale Murphy is a legitimate hero."

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Though he stands a perfectly proportioned 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with pale blue eyes, curly brown hair and a face cut from Michelangelo's David, Dale Murphy makes himself look smaller, wedged low into a lobby chair in a hotel near Philadelphia International Airport.

It's Thursday afternoon, the day after he hit his second home run for the Phillies, but Murphy deflects any praise, in a soft, gentle voice. "We lost, that's what matters."

When he stops to sign an autograph for a 12-year-old boy, someone points out that the baseball looks like a golf ball in his huge hands, and he laughs and says in a gentle, self-effacing tone, "My hands need to be twice as big to hit a baseball."

In fact, only Mike Schmidt hit more home runs in the 1980s than Murphy. But Murphy's humility is legend.

In 1982 and 1983, he was the Most Valuable Player in the National League, the youngest in the league's history to win the award in consecutive years, but he kept insisting, to "absurd" lengths, Atlanta sportswriters say, that he didn't deserve the awards.

TOO NICE?

Sport magazine once ran a hard-edged story revealing that Murphy was too nice - a boring, unmarketable anachronism in this age of hip, materialistic, self-centered antiheroes. "Dale Murphy," the headline blared, accusingly. ''Too Nice for His Own Good."

Even family members say he's simply too good to be true. "Dale is like you're supposed to be in the storybooks, and you can't quite believe it," his father-in-law, Dr. Claude Thomas, says in the biography Murph. "It's even hard for us to believe it, even after all these years."

His wife, Nancy, said the other day, "Sometimes I get mad at Dale, because I can never be as nice as him."

Dale Murphy, a Mormon, doesn't smoke or drink alcohol or beverages with caffeine. The Braves' public relations office never sent a Murphy photograph to a bar, out of respect for him. Murphy's best-known local product endorsement was milk.

In locker rooms famous for gutter language, Murphy doesn't swear, not ever. (Once, a fan was shouting from the box seats during a Braves game when Murphy approached the screen and said, "You can say what you want, but don't cuss.")

In a game notorious for lotharios, Murphy, out of loyalty to his wife, won't even have his picture taken with the many young women who just want a shoulder hug or a peck on the cheek. "I'm sorry," he says politely. "I just don't feel comfortable doing that."

Murphy is the kind of guy who married the first girl he met at college (Brigham Young), shyly promised a 6-year-old girl who lost both arms and a leg in a power-line accident that he'd try to hit a home run for her (and hit two), and once was the hero of a game in which a bird was struck by a line drive and died - and he felt bad for the bird.

When a stray dog was roaming outside the stadium a few years ago, Murphy adopted it and humbly named it "Slumper," for the batting slump he was mired in. Says his wife, "If Dale sees an insect, he picks it up and takes it outside. I'll always say, just step on it. No, he's very tender-hearted."

A devoted family man, with six boys ages 1 to 10, he still found time during several off-seasons to rise at 5:15 a.m. to teach religion classes.

In two 1987 polls by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Murphy was voted by fans as the most popular current and all-time Georgia athlete, trouncing basketball star Dominique Wilkins, golf great Bobby Jones and baseball hall- of-famer Ty Cobb.

"Older women loved him," said Charlie Anderson, a secretary who still opens Murphy fan mail in the Braves' office. "He was like the son they never had. Children wanted to be like him. Parents wanted their children to be like him. We got 50 calls a day for two weeks from people begging for the Braves not to trade him."

It was his charity work that won Atlanta's heart.

In the late 1970s, Arledge, now advertising manager for Bell South, was looking for a spokesman for the Georgia chapter of the Huntington's Disease Society of America. On a tip from a sportscaster, he asked Murphy, not yet a star, and Murphy said, "I haven't associated myself with any charities, and I think it's time to make that part of my life. I'll be glad to help you."

Murphy, one of two children of a Portland, Ore., Westinghouse executive and a homemaker, says it was his mother's example, such as teaching a handicapped child in their neighborhood to read, that inspired him to do volunteer work.

In the next 10 years in Atlanta, Murphy made a number of public service announcements for the Huntington's disease chapter on local TV and TBS, hosted outings to the ballpark and treated big donors to an annual party.

Arledge credits Murphy with almost single-handedly lifting an obscure charity from the rummage-sale circuit into the world of corporate foundation giving. As Huntington's became widely known as a uniformly fatal neurological disease, Arledge said, Murphy single-handedly brought in "around a quarter- million dollars to the charity."

Murphy also made "significant" contributions of his own money, Arledge said. (Arledge wouldn't say how much.)

"He was the first celebrity, nationally, who stepped forward to be their advocate," Arledge said. "It's very touching to see him sit down with children who never had a champion before. Here was this big guy, and these children who had never had a sense of hope, and he was a powerful symbol for them that someone cared."

WILL BE MISSED

Murphy's trade to Philadelphia was mourned in the offices of many an Atlanta charity.

"He was wonderful," recalled Alana Shepherd, founder of the Shepherd Foundation, which supports its own spinal center. "He was the spokesman for our annual appeal for two different years, and they were really two of the most successful we had, simply because everyone loved him. In the days of big salaries and flash and dash, he stood out - an image of apple pie and motherhood and everything fine. He spoke once at a grammar school graduation - sixth grade we're talking about - and he didn't do it for the publicity. He never said, 'I'm going to the spinal center.' He just went."

Murphy was also a frequent visitor to the area's children's hospitals. ''He was the most requested individual to come to this hospital of anybody, ever," said Mary Cobb of the Scottish Rite Children's Medical Center. ''Anytime anybody came to the hospital, they expected to see Dale Murphy looking up at them, and they were disappointed when they didn't. He was just worshipped in Atlanta, by adults as well as by children."

For three years, Murphy was Georgia state chairman of the Children's Miracle Network Telethon, a major benefit for Atlanta's two children's hospitals. Last year, the event raised a record $350,000.

This year, as Murphy struggled on the field, "they thought . . . they'd bypass Dale and find somebody else, but it just kept coming back to Dale," Cobb said. "No one was of comparative stature to Dale Murphy. (Georgia) Gov. Joe Frank Harris was co-chair with Murph, but he doesn't have the stature Murphy has.

MURPHY FOR GOVERNOR?

"If Dale Murphy ran for governor of Georgia, he'd win without a runoff." (Murphy did get some write-in votes for mayor in 1985.)

One day in 1978, when Murphy wasn't yet a star, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation asked him to pinch-hit for an advertisement with a poster child. Sure, he said. That began a decade-long association with the foundation through the '65 Roses Club, a national baseball players' charity of which Murphy was the Atlanta chairman.

He also served as honorary chairman of the American Cancer Society, and did work for the Georgia Special Olympics and the Make-a-Wish Foundation for dying children. He was a board member of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse; a spokesman for the Boys Club of Metro Atlanta, the Georgia March of Dimes, the American Heart Association, the Georgia PTA, the Arthritis Foundation and the American Red Cross, and led a campaign to get children to buckle their seat belts.

He also wrote a column for the Atlanta newspapers with a handicapped young man - "Ask Dale Murphy" - and donated proceeds from the column to a scholarship fund.

Years ago, lots of ballplayers stopped attending the winter banquet of the Braves 400 Club, the team's dwindling fan club, but Murphy was always there. Last year he made a speech to the Atlanta Boys Clubs, urging members "to work hard and never to quit," recalls fan club president Wayne Coleman. "Dale always told the boys mostly of his defects as a ballplayer."

In 1987, Sports Illustrated honored him as a "Sportsman of the Year" - one of eight athletes in the world, and the only baseball player, "who care the most."

Murphy cared even when it wasn't a charity with his name attached that was asking for help. "Dale loves children," Nancy says. "Once I was almost knocked down by kids surrounding him for autographs, we couldn't move an inch, and I said to Dale, 'How can you stand this!' And he said, 'You just have to look at the expressions on those kids' faces.' "

During every home stand in the 1980s, the Braves would receive requests for players to meet with young children, sick children, elderly people - and "90 percent of those requests were for Dale Murphy," says p.r. director Schultz. ''And he fulfilled 95 percent of them. Come to think of it, I can't think of the 5 percent he didn't. He is unique among athletes, competely without ego."

Bob DiBiasio, a former public relations director of the Braves, recalls an away game against the St. Louis Cardinals in August 1987. "I got a call from a hospital in St. Louis," he said. "A family of five from the South was traveling west, and had terrible tragedy: The parents were killed in a car accident, and the hospital wanted to know if Dale Murphy would visit the three children."

It was a Saturday night following an afternoon game, "which most players consider a vacation, a break, and get out on the town."

Murphy spent four hours with the children in the hospital.

Murphy remembers that night. "I had a chance to be with them a while," he says. "The thing I tried to keep in mind as a ballplayer is that nobody likes to be in a hospital, and I can make a child forget for 30 minutes, or a short while at least, where they are.

"I mean, some children have a dying wish to go to a game, or meet me or some of the ballplayers. I mean, it gives you perspective that there are more important things in life than baseball."

TO THE FULLEST

Night after night, the phone would ring at Murphy's eight-bedroom home in Roswell, 40 miles north of Atlanta.

"People will call here, their child is sick, has cancer, a boy's in a serious car accident, he'll go to the ballpark early just to stop at the hospital," Nancy Murphy says. "If it were me - that shows a flaw I have in my character - I'd just give them a call. But he treats a 5-year-old boy as he would the president of the United States. He makes an effort to the fullest."

One recent winter, Dale Murphy flew to Florida to make a speech to a large church group, and remembered meeting a boy named Cody. Later, he heard that Cody had been in a car accident, and was paralyzed, able to communicate only by blinking his eyelids. Murphy visited Cody many times and became friends with his family.

"What Cody and his family are going through, that's real strength," Murphy says. "It's not strength to hit a baseball over a fence. It's a different kind of strength, the kind Cody has, that I admire."

The other day in Philadelphia, Murphy said he was hoping to help out some local charities once he becomes settled. He said that people should not make too much of a fuss: "The good and the bad a ballplayer does gets magnified."

"I really don't do that much," he said. "I think most ballplayers are aware of what's going on in the world, and they have been set apart, and, as ballplayers, can help out. I'm not unusual. Some people think I'm always

helping out. But the truth is, I'm not doing all that I can. I want to do more."

And with that, Murphy rose to prepare for a baseball game.

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