Changing defensive positions at the Major League level is often easier said than done.
Evan Gattis, Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones are among the many Atlanta Braves sluggers who the club at one time or another tried unsuccessfully to convert to the outfield. Gattis and Klesko lacked the agility for the defensive nuances of the position, while Jones suffered a series of foot and leg injuries that temporarily endangered his Hall-of-Fame career.
But perhaps the most famous position-switch in Braves history was an overwhelming success. Forty-one years ago, Dale Murphy — a 24-year-old former catcher and first baseman — moved to the outfield despite not having played the position since his junior year of high school.
Murphy took to the outfield like a natural in 1980, first playing left field before moving to right and then center. He enjoyed the best season of his young career, making the National League All-Star team for the first of seven times and setting (to that point) personal highs in nearly every offensive category.
The Braves also finished 81-80 that season, their first winning record in six years. Murphy held down a spot in the outfield and in the middle of the Atlanta order for the next decade, winning a pair of NL Most Valuable Player Awards, leading the league in home runs twice and RBIs twice, and becoming an icon to baseball fans all over the Southeast.
But in the middle of the 1979 season, Murphy’s baseball career was at a bit of a crossroads.
An Oregon native, Murphy was the No. 5 overall pick in the 1974 June draft out of Wilson High School in Portland. A 6-foot-4, rifle-armed catcher, he turned down an offer to attend Arizona State, signing with the Braves for a bonus of $43,740 two weeks after the draft.
Murphy hit 16 homers and drove in 63 runs between Double-A Savannah and Triple-A Richmond in 1976, earning a September call-up to the big-league club. He batted just .262/.333/.354 without a homer in 19 games, but was behind the plate Oct. 2 when Phil Niekro took a no-hitter into the ninth inning before Cincinnati’s Cesar Geronimo broke it up with a one-out double to left field.
Murphy was been considered a candidate to make the Braves’ big-league roster in spring training 1977, but developed a curious throwing problem, missing his target high and wide and even occasionally bouncing the ball in front of the pitcher’s mound. Unable to solve his defensive issues expediently enough, Murphy was sent back to Richmond to start the season.
Murphy terrorized the International League in his second go-round, batting .305/.349/.544 with 33 doubles, 22 homers and 90 RBIs and earning another September call-up to Atlanta. His throwing problems behind him, Murphy was back behind the plate for the big-league Braves, and went 3-for-6 with a double and a triple in his first game, an 8-7 loss in San Francisco on Sept. 13.
He connected for the first two home runs of his career in San Diego two days, the second a game-winner off future Hall-of-Famer Rollie Fingers in the top of the 10th inning. In 18 games in Atlanta in 1977, all at catcher, Murphy batted .316 with eight doubles, those two home runs and 14 RBIs.
Bobby Cox took over as Braves manager in 1978, and for the first time (but obviously not the last), Murphy changed positions. With Biff Pocoroba — who’d batted .290 with eight homers in a part-time role in 1977 — available to catch, Murphy moved to first base. (Pocoroba would go on to be an All-Star in 1978 before a shoulder injury effectively ended his days as a full-time catcher.)
Murphy still occasionally caught during the next two seasons (appearing in a total of 48 games behind the plate) but was more or less a full-time first baseman. He hit 23 home runs as a rookie in 1978, but batted just .226 and led the league with 145 strikeouts for a Braves team that finished 69-93 and in last place for the third straight season.
Murphy broke out offensively in 1979, including his only career three-homer game on May 18 vs. San Francisco at Fulton County Stadium. Through 39 games, he was batting .348/.421/.660 with 13 homers and a league-best 36 RBIs.
Murphy was behind the plate for a 7-5 victory over Houston three days later, which would be his last career game at catcher and his last game period for nearly two months. He injured his left knee chasing a Niekro knuckleball, and ended up needing surgery for a torn meniscus.
Murphy returned to the lineup July 19, though he cooled off considerably at the plate after his injury. Playing exclusively first base the remainder of the year, he finished with a line of .276/.340/.469 (an OPS+ of 113) with 21 homers, 57 RBIs in 104 games as Atlanta finished 66-94 and in last place again.
While Murphy was shelved with his injury, the Braves had moved their other young slugging phenom — Bob Horner, who hit .314 with 33 homers that season — from third base to first base in order to improve the infield defense. Glenn Hubbard took over full-time at second, with Jerry Royster moving from second to third.
But Atlanta also had a logjam in the outfield, with 1979 All-Star Gary Matthews in right, promising speedster Ed Miller in center and Murphy’s close friend Barry Bonnell in left (it was Bonnell who had first introduced Murphy, who had grown up a Presbyterian, to the Mormon faith during their days as minor-league teammates). Temperamental slugger Jeff Burroughs — a former American League MVP who had bashed 41 homers for the Braves in 1977 and led the league in walks in 1978 — was also still around, though in Cox’s doghouse after batting .224 with only 11 homers in 1979.
Nevertheless, Braves beat writer Ken Picking of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated in a late-season report that general manager John Mullen had “put to rest speculation that Dale Murphy might be tested in the outfield.” Picking or Mullen (or perhaps both) proved to be ill-informed.
On Dec. 6, 1979, the Braves traded Bonnell, reliever Joey McLaughlin and back-up shortstop Pat Rockett to the Toronto Blue Jays for first baseman Chris Chambliss and shortstop Luis Gomez. Chambliss had only five weeks earlier before been traded to Toronto from the New York Yankees, where he’d been a mainstay on consecutive AL pennant winners in 1976, 1977 and 1978.
Ostensibly, Chambliss was acquired to be a left-handed bat the Braves could slot between Murphy and Horner, both of whom swung from the right side (Burroughs, Matthews, Bonnell, Royster and Hubbard were also all right-handed). But his arrival also displaced both young sluggers from first base, while also creating an opening for Murphy in the outfield.
The 1979-80 offseason had already been a busy one for Murphy, who got married in Salt Lake City that October. He’d met the former Nancy Thomas while attending classes at BYU in the fall of 1978.
Murphy said he’d last played the outfield in high school, but only temporarily after undergoing knee surgery. After another round of knee problems early in his career with the Braves, he was off to “the pasture” again.
“Maybe I had a premonition that I was going to the outfield,” Murphy told the AJC, while also pronouncing his surgically-repaired knee 100 percent healthy. “… Because of all the rumors, I’ve been thinking about the outfield for quite a while.
“But it is going to be another adjustment, and like I maintained when I went to first base, it’s going to take some time. But if that’s what they want me to do, that’s what we will do.”
Cox had little doubt the athletically gifted Murphy would be able to handle his third different position in three big-league seasons. He noted several other less agile players who held down every-day jobs in the outfield.
“Murph is an athlete and an athlete can play left field,” Cox told the AJC. “Greg Luzinski plays left, Dave Kingman plays left, Jeff Burroughs plays left. Dale Murphy can play left or just about anywhere.”
Cox told reporters shortly after the trade that he envisioned Murphy in left, Miller in center and Matthews in right as his starting outfield for 1980. The least-established player of the three was Miller, a 5-foot-9 Californian who’d been acquired by Atlanta in 1977 from the Rangers as part of a complicated four-team trade that sent first baseman Willie Montanez to the Mets.
Unlike the other outfield options for that Braves heading into 1980, Miller was a true center fielder. He’d batted .310 with a .350 on-base percentage and 15 steals in 27 games following a call-up to the Braves in September 1979.
That left Burroughs, the highest-paid Braves position player at $350,000 per year, as the odd man out. Though he had a no-trade clause in his contract, Atlanta was hoping he’d eventually acquiesce to a change-of-scenery.
“He may be on our team next year, but I’m planning my starting lineup without him,” Cox told the AJC. “Unless one of them gets hurt, I don’t see how Jeff can play. And I just don’t think Jeff will be happy sitting on the bench.”
Indeed he was not, though he had no intention of leaving Atlanta. Instead, he vetoed trades to Toronto and Texas and began to wage war against the Braves’ front office.
Burroughs and agent Dick Moss accused the Braves of “breaking promises” in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. General manager John Mullen claimed he had no idea to what Burroughs and his camp were referring.
Nevertheless, the Braves began spring training in West Palm Beach in February 1980 with four outfielders for three spots. Murphy was among the first to arrive, working with long-time coach Bobby Dews on various outfield drills early in camp.
Murphy was troubled somewhat that spring by a left shoulder injury, which he told The Sporting News he’d incurred “fooling around” lifting weights. But when the Braves opened the season April 9 in Cincinnati, Murphy was in the lineup batting sixth and playing left field. (He went 0-for-3 as Reds starter Frank Pastore whitewashed Atlanta 9-0 on three hits.)
That lineup lasted all of four games — all Atlanta losses, three by shutout. Miller began the season 3-for-16 and was benched in favor of Brian Asselstine, a former first-round pick who had missed much of the previous two seasons due to injury.
Cox also flip-flopped his corner outfielders, with Matthews moving to left and the stronger-armed Murphy going to right. He said he’d been considering the switch for some time, but wanted to make sure Murphy could handle the outfield first.
Murphy began the season 0-for-13, finally snapping his funk with a fourth-inning single off Houston’s J.R. Richard on April 14. But the Braves continued to slide, losing their first seven games and nine of their first 10.
Murphy homered for the first time in 1980 in the Braves’ first victory, a solo shot off Cincinnati’s Charlie Leibrandt on April 18. By the end of April, he was hitting .267/.362/.450 with three homers and seven RBIs in 17 games.
Murphy also handled 38 chances in the outfield in April 1980 without making an error. He’d put any concerns about his throwing to rest, totaling five outfield assists.
Things weren’t going anywhere near as well for the Braves, who were 6-11 and in fifth place in the NL West as May 1980 began. Late in April, an already contentious relationship between the Braves and another one of their star players exploded once again.
Horner began the season even more slowly than Murphy, standing at 2-for-34 with no extra-base hits or RBIs and six errors at third base after 10 games. The Braves tried to option him to Triple-A Richmond on April 21, but Horner — who’d successfully taken the Atlanta front office to arbitration when it tried to cut his salary the previous year — flatly refused, and filed a grievance with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“Nuts,” came owner Ted Turner’s famous reply. “Bobby [Horner] can sit out the next four years.”
With relations between players and owners already on the brink (a situation that would result in a season-halting strike in 1981), the MLBPA threatened to take Horner’s grievance to arbitration and try to make him a free agent. Perhaps smarting from Horner’s successful gambit against the club the previous year — he’d been awarded a salary of $130,000 for 1979 after sitting out 33 games in April and May — the Braves backed down and instead sent down Miller, who was just 3-for-19 at the plate and hadn’t started a game since April 20.
After first saying he’d never play for the Braves again and that he wanted to be traded, Horner was back in the lineup on May 11, and hit his first home run of the season three days later. By that time, Murphy had changed positions yet again.
Murphy started in center field May 13 in Atlanta, hitting a solo home run as part of a 7-3 victory over Philadelphia. Matthews was back in right with Burroughs — finally out of moth balls after the Miller experiment flopped — in left.
Cox told the AJC he’d continue to juggle Murphy, Matthews, Burroughs and Asselstine the remainder of the season, “depending on who’s pitching, which park, and who’s hot and who’s not.” In reality, however, Burroughs and Asselstine platooned in left and Matthews stayed in right.
That left center field to Murphy, who played the position in all but one game for the remainder of 1980 (he played first base on the final day of the season). He’d stay in center almost exclusively for the next six years, save for part of the 1982 and 1983 seasons, when he played left while youngster Brett Butler was given a trial in center (Butler, who was faster than Murphy but had a weak throwing arm, eventually settled in left).
As the lineup solidified and Doyle Alexander and Tommy Boggs joined with Niekro to give Atlanta a solid 1-2-3 at the head of the starting rotation, the Braves began to win.
They went 15-13 in June, climbing out of last place for good. A 9-2 stretch carried the Braves into the All-Star break with a 37-40 record, in fourth place and only 7.5 games back of first.
Murphy batted a sizzling .317/.379/.567 with seven homers and 21 RBIs in June, then homered three more times in early July. He was Braves’ lone representative on the National League squad for the All-Star Game, which took place July 8 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
“Pinch me,” Murphy told the AJC’s Ken Picking for a column published on the day of the All-Star Game. “Nervous energy is the only thing that is keeping me going. … I haven’t been this thrilled since I got married.”
Murphy entered the game — a 4-2 NL win — as a defensive sub in the 8th inning, and grounded out to first off Goose Gossage in his lone plate appearance in the bottom of the frame.
Though a five-game losing streak immediately after the break effectively ended any hopes the Braves would challenge for the NL West title, they were clearly a team on the come in 1980. From Aug. 5 to the end of the season, Atlanta went 35-23 to finish 81-80 and in fourth place in the division.
The Braves clinched their first winning record since 1974 on the final Friday of the regular season, beating division champion Cincinnati 4-1. Fittingly, Murphy homered and stole a base in that game.
Murphy also drilled a two-run homer the following night in a 3-2 loss to the Reds, giving him a season-ending line of .281/.349/.510 with 33 homers, 89 RBIs and 98 runs scored (good for a 135 OPS+).
Horner also bounced back from his putrid start, ending the season with 35 homers and 89 RBIs. Chambliss was as good as advertised, posting a 114 OPS+ with 18 homers.
Like Chambliss, Matthews was his consistent self, hitting .278 with 19 homers despite being benched briefly in early May at Turner’s insistence. Even Burroughs had a solid season as a part-time player, posting an .800 OPS with 13 homers in 99 games.
So it appeared that the Braves were headed in the right direction after 1980. But as on so many occasions during that period, impatience got in the way of letting an improving young team come together.
Turner was determined to land a big-ticket free agent, and coveted San Diego superstar Dave Winfield. But when Winfield made it known he wasn’t interested, the Braves instead signed fellow outfielder Claudell Washington — who’d been traded three times in the previous four seasons — to a shocking five-year, $3.5 million contract.
Washington simply wasn’t a good enough player to merit such a salary, and moreover he was a poor fielder. His presence also made the Braves’ outfield picture crowded again.
In a three-week period during spring training in 1981, the Braves traded away both Burroughs and Matthews, both of whom were set to be free agents after the season. Burroughs — whose no-trade clause expired after 1980 — was swapped to Seattle for reliever prospect Carlos Diaz, while Matthews went to Philadelphia for pitcher Bob Walk.
The Braves thus began 1981 with Washington in right field, Murphy in center and rookie Rufino Linares in left. Miller and Asselstine both also saw outfield time that season, though neither performed well and weren’t back in 1982 (Butler made his Braves debut in August 1981 and the team would feature mostly a Butler-Murphy-Washington outfield alignment until Butler was traded to Cleveland in the infamous Len Barker deal of 1983.)
The Braves finished 50-56 in the season split in two by a 50-day strike, and Cox was fired at season’s end. Murphy never really got going at the plate, batting .247/.325/.390 with 13 homers and 50 RBIs in 104 games.
But as with the Braves, Murphy found another gear in 1982. At age 26, he played in all 162 games, batting .281/.378/.507 with 36 homers, a league-best 109 RBIs and 23 steals, winning his first Gold Glove and making the All-Star team for the second time in three years.
Atlanta won 89 games and the NL West title, getting swept by the eventual World Series champion St. Louis in the League Championship Series. Murphy won the NL MVP award, garnering 14 of 24 first-place votes (Cardinals outfielder Lonnie Smith got eight votes, while St. Louis closer Bruce Sutter got the other two.)
Murphy claimed his second straight MVP award with an even better season in 1983 — again playing in 162 games, again winning a Gold Glove, and again leading the league in RBIs (121) while hitting 36 homers, batting .302/.393/.540 and stealing 30 bases to become the league’s first 30/30 man since Bobby Bonds 10 years earlier. (Though the Braves missed out on the postseason due to a late-season collapse, Murphy got 21 of 24 first-place votes for MVP, with Andre Dawson, Mike Schmidt and Pedro Guerrero each receiving one.)
On increasingly bad Atlanta teams from 1984-87, Murphy made the All-Star team each year and averaged .288/.388/.531 with 36 home runs and 100 RBIs (even though he’d slipped to 29 homers and 83 RBIs in 1986). He led the league in home runs in 1984 and 1985, won a Gold Glove every year from 1985-87 and set a career-high with 44 homers in 1987 (when he moved back to right field on a permanent basis).
Long noted for his charity work, Murphy was named one of several Sports Illustrated “Sportsmen of the Year” in 1987. He later picked up the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award, given to the game’s most sportsmanlike and community-minded player.
By 1988, Murphy was just 32 years old and appeared to be on a Hall-of-Fame track. He was also among the highest-paid players in the game, earning $2 million per year.
But just like that, his career fell off a cliff.
Murphy hit .226/.313/.421 with 24 homers in 1988 for a Braves team that started 0-10 and finished 54-106, the worst record in modern franchise history. He was even worse the following year for another bad Atlanta team, batting .228/.308/.361 with 20 homers.
Murphy bounced back slightly in 1990, batting .232 with 17 homers by early August. Having decided to test free agency after the season, Murphy asked to be traded provided the Braves found a taker who would sign him to a contract extension.
On Aug. 3, the Braves dealt their franchise icon along with a player to be named later (pitching prospect Tommy Greene) to the Philadelphia Phillies for a forgettable package of relief pitcher Jeff Parrett and a pair of rookies, outfielder Jim Vatcher and second baseman Victor Rosario. None made any sort of an impact with Atlanta, and all were gone by the middle of the 1991 season.
Murphy’s Braves career was done after 15 seasons, 1,926 games, 371 home runs and many more team losses than wins. He agreed to a two-year, $5 million extension with Philadelphia, and was essentially a league-average player for the Phillies at age 35 in 1991 (in a cruel twist, the Braves were finally starting to win again, executing the worst-to-first turnaround that took them all the way to Game 7 of the World Series).
Knee problems limited Murphy to just 18 games in 1992, when he batted .161 with two homers. He didn’t know it at the time, but Murphy now believes he contracted MRSA — a difficult-to-treat form of staph infection — at some point, hastening the deterioration of his knee and perhaps precipitating his decline.
Murphy stood two home runs short of 400 heading into 1993, and signed a minor-league contract with the Phillies, who waived him just prior to the start of the regular season. He signed on with the expansion Colorado Rockies, for whom he played 26 forgettable games before retiring in late May.
The Braves retired Murphy’s No. 3 in 1994, and he has maintained a near-constant presence around the organization since. He now splits his time between Utah and Atlanta, and owns Murph’s, a popular sports bar & grill near Truist Park where the namesake can often be found on hand to sign autographs and take photos with fans on Braves game days.
Murphy also maintains a strong online presence, operating his own website and remaining active on Twitter with the assistance of oldest son Chad. (The Murphys have eight children — seven sons and a daughter — and 12 grandchildren. Three of theirs sons — Shawn, Jake and McKay — played high-level college football and spent time in the NFL.)
Despite his dominance over nearly a decade with the Braves and his unimpeachable character credentials, Murphy has received only tepid support over the years for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He topped out at 23.2 percent during his 15 years on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot, and fell short of election by the Hall of Fame’s Modern Baseball Era Committee in 2019 (he’ll be eligible for consideration again in 2023).
But Murphy was still a baseball icon in his time, and it was 41 years ago this spring that he moved to the outfield and accelerated the path to superstardom. And on Friday, March 12 — brace yourselves, Braves fans of a certain age — Dale Murphy turns 65 years old.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: Newspapers.com; Sporting News archive (via Paper of Record); NewsBank.com; Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org