An Experiment In Greatness: Third Baseman Eddie Murray
This year, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles are unveiling in their new Legends Garden six larger-than-life statues of the greatest Orioles of all time. I’ve been fortunate to attend the ceremonies. Having already honored Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer, and with Cal Ripken, Junior and Brooks Robinson yet to come, this past Saturday night the fans got to recognize the man they called ‘Steady Eddie,” Eddie Murray, whom Master of Ceremonies Jim Hunter, the team’s pre- and post-game studio television host, called, the “greatest first baseman in team history.”
At each of the ceremonies, five seats are reserved in the front row of the VIP section; they are for the other five of the six Orioles honorees, as each legend supports the others by attending all six unveilings. Of course, many other Orioles greats attend as well; they are scattered throughout the VIP section. One of those other great players, a hulking man, arrived late Saturday, just as the festivities got underway, and the ushers quickly grabbed a chair and put it at the end of the front row, right next to Weaver. The giant man sat down almost simultaneously as Hunter intoned the “greatest first baseman” line when introducing Murray. It was, ironically, Boog Powell. I’m sure I saw a momentary wince pass across his face… but, back to our tale.
As Murray graciously thanked family, friends, teammates and fans for his special night, speaking from the dais next to his new bronze statue that will forever portray the great switch-hitter in his memorable crouched batting stance (hitting from the left side, by the way), I couldn’t help but be a little impatient for that night’s game to begin. For on Thursday, the Orioles called-up their phenom, Manny Machado, and installed the 20-year old as their starting third baseman. I was anxious to get my first look at the rising young star. And yet, as Murray spoke, I remembered another young slugger whom the Orioles once installed at third base, and I couldn’t help but wonder how differently things might have turned out.
It was the opening series of the 1978 season. The Orioles were in Milwaukee to play the Brewers, who were then in the American League. The previous season had been relatively successful for Baltimore. In those pre-Wild Card days the Orioles spent 32 days in first place that year and won 97 games, yet ultimately fell short of the pennant , finishing second, just 2 ½ games behind the eventual world champion Yankees.
That season, though, had announced Murray, a rookie, as one of the game’s next great sluggers. With a batting line of .283/.333/.470, Eddie, who served that first year almost exclusively as the Orioles designated hitter, blasted 28 home runs and drove in 88, and was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year. His success may have caught some by surprise, but ever since the Orioles had drafted Murray as a 17-year old catcher in the third round of the 1973 amateur draft out of Los Angeles’s Locke High School (Murray’s high school teammate, Ozzie Smith, spoke at Eddie’s ceremony Saturday night), Eddie had shown tremendous promise.
A natural right-handed swinger, he’d been encouraged in the minors to try switch-hitting, and as his rookie campaign showed, he possessed tremendous power from either side of the plate. Indeed, Murray appeared to be the cornerstone around whom the franchise’s storied history would continue to be written.
In 1978 Murray was too young and talented to be used as just a hitter. Where would he play, though? The quiet leader, Lee May, whom Murray came to idolize (May was one of two men, along with Cal Ripken, Sr., whom Eddie singled out on Saturday night with special affection), was entrenched at first base, so Weaver was reluctant to play Murray there. Eddie had played a few games in the outfield in 1977, but the team was loaded with talent at all three outfield positions, so he wasn’t going to be a regular there, either. So, Weaver got creative.
Perhaps Rich Dauer had something to do with Weaver’s solution. In 1976, Dauer, the team’s second baseman of the future, had produced a monster season at Triple-A Rochester, batting .336/.391/.460. After a call-up to Baltimore at the end of the season, however, he had been a bust, producing just 4 singles in 39 at-bats (.103). As 1977 got underway, he continued to struggle. Installed as the Opening Day starter at second base, Dauer went hitless through his first 24 at-bats, finally collected a single in his twelfth game of the season, then went hitless in another fourteen at-bats, to leave him batting .024, 1 for 41. When he subsequently went on a 13 for 25 tear, Dauer raised his average to .206, but nonetheless ended the season with a dismal line of .243/.294/.349. Clearly, Dauer’s big year in Triple-A seemed little more than a mirage.
With second base seemingly an offensive question mark, then, in 1978 Weaver made a bold adjustment. He installed his experimental lineup with four games remaining in the exhibition season, and when Opening Day arrived in Milwaukee, again penciled in the surprising defensive alignment. Thus did Eddie Murray, one of the greatest first baseman of his generation, play the only three games of his career at third base. Seeking more punch, Weaver moved incumbent third baseman, Doug DeCinces, the man who replaced the legendary Brooks Robinson, to second base, and installed the reigning Rookie of the Year at third base, leaving the veteran May at first.
The lineup was short-lived, however. After Milwaukee easily swept the Orioles in the three-game series by a combined score of 40-11, for the next series Weaver returned DeCinces to third, moved Murray permanently to first, and made May the full-time designated hitter. (In his three games, Murray handled nine of ten chances flawlessly, compiling a lifetime fielding average at the hot corner of .900.) While the Orioles slumped to a fourth place finish that season, in 1979, of course, that core group took the team to the World Series.
Funny, as he relived his career on Saturday night, those three games must have slipped Eddie’s mind.