Dale Murphy—MVP


Murphy the Magnificent. Murphy the Mormon. Murphy the Brave. Dale Murphy—Most Valuable Player in U.S. baseball’s National League two years running (1982, 1983), the youngest of only five players to ever accomplish this feat.

And the best is yet to come. That seems to be the consensus, at least, of those who know 29-year-old Dale Murphy best—his teammates, his family, his friends.

Sports Illustrated, in a 4 July 1983 cover story, said, “Here’s a guy who doesn’t drink, smoke, chew or cuss. Here’s a guy who has time for everyone, a guy who’s slow to anger and eager to please, a guy whose agent’s name is Church. His favorite movie is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s a wonderful ball player.”

Jack Dunn, his baseball coach in high school, says he knew something special was in store for Dale Murphy. Jack Dunn was right.

Born 12 March 1956 in Portland, Oregon, to Charles and Betty Murphy, Dale played baseball and other sports in high school, signed a letter of intent to play for Arizona State University, but decided to go pro when the Atlanta Braves picked him in the first round of the 1974 draft.

What makes a person special? Is it an eight-million-dollar, five-year contract to play for a top baseball team, with a $100,000 bonus for making MVP? Is it the adulation of millions of fans? Is it a batting average of .29, 100 RBIs (runs batted in), 19 stolen bases, or 36 home runs, all in one year? Is it, as the Atlanta Journal and Constitution observes, “more interviews, more banquets, more fans, more everything”? It’s all of these things, to be sure. But in Dale Murphy’s life, it’s something more.

Nancy, his wife, suggests part of that “something more”: his priorities are right. “Family and church first. He is my closest friend,” she says, “and he is genuinely kind to people. He really cares. People say to me, ‘This guy couldn’t be that nice.’ But he really is.”

It’s unusual for a sports star to receive almost universal approval from those in his profession, to be uncontroversial and popular at the same time. They respect him for his integrity. And when it comes to baseball …

Hank Aaron, baseball’s home-run king and a former MVP himself, says Dale Murphy is probably the best all-around player in either league. Dale’s teammate, Bob Watson, concurs: “What a ball player. He plays defense, he gives you offense, he steals bases, he sells peanuts and popcorn between innings. The man is a complete player.” Joe Torre, Atlanta Braves’ manager, adds: “To the purist, to the person who looks at all the little things he does, he is special. All he does is play baseball better than anyone else.” (See Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 4 June 1983; Sports Illustrated, 4 July 1983.)

But he didn’t always play baseball that well. He had only one hit his first season of Little League. With his second throw as pitcher, he hit a good friend in the back. He broke another friend’s thumb because he threw the ball too hard. As a youth, he was notorious for the wild things a ball would do when it left his hand. His coach used to holler to his teammates, “Look out—all of you—Murph’s got the ball!”

Even as he began his professional career, inaccuracy was a major problem. As a catcher he would try to pick a runner off at second base. But more often than not the ball wound up in center field, or hit the runner, or decked his own pitcher.

He was moved from catcher to first base, but couldn’t throw well from there either. Then he moved to left field, and his throwing problems seemed to disappear. He has been in the outfield ever since. “I think they put me in center field,” he recalls, “because that’s as far from home plate they could put me and still keep me in the same county.”

He holds one record he would rather forget—the record for more strikeouts than any Atlanta Braves player. “Yeah,” he says, “I’ve got to work on that.”

You learn a lot about Dale when you talk to his parents.

Betty Murphy’s philosophy of raising children, in her own words, “is very simple. They follow the examples that are set for them.”

“When we got Dale something for Christmas,” his dad says, “as long as it was a ball, he was happy.” Charles Murphy believed sports helped build character, so he spent days helping his son.

“I tried teaching him to throw a ball,” he remembers. “And he just couldn’t step and throw at the same time. It was either step and then throw, or throw and then step. I finally gave up and we went inside to watch TV. Just as Dale and I sat down to watch a ball game, Ted Williams caught a ball and made the throw. Dale said, ‘Like that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He went back outside and threw the ball just like he’d seen Ted Williams do.” His dad smiles. “I must have been a great teacher. I spent hours, Ted Williams a few seconds.”

When asked how he felt when his son joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dale’s father says, “Shocked! My grandfather told me there were four groups of people I should have nothing to do with. One was the Mormons.” Then he smiles. “Actually, my dad didn’t feel that way. And I’d known a few Mormons in Portland. They were honest, hard working, nice families—all the things you admire. It was, nevertheless, a shock.”

“That’s true,” Dale’s mother responds. “A shock, but not a total surprise. My dad had been baptized a Mormon when he was eight years old, but he was never active and drifted away from the Church. I grew up a Baptist. But you know, when we told Dad about Dale, he thought about it for a couple of weeks and then called to see if Dale could rebaptize him. Later, Dale did.”

Barry Bonnell, a former Braves teammate, got Dale interested in the Church. They were playing together on the Braves’ Greenwood, South Carolina, farm team. Barry asked some questions about the importance of baptism, eternal life—things Dale knew little about. “We had many long discussions and then got together with the missionaries,” Dale says. “And after receiving the lessons, I knew I wanted to be part of it. Barry baptized me after the 1975 season.”

In 1976, about a year after his baptism, Dale wanted to go on a mission. But several local Church leaders felt he could do a greater missionary work in baseball and encouraged him to remain. “If I’m called, I’ll go,” said Dale. “If I’m not called, I’ll stay and hopefully get a chance for a formal mission later.”

About this time, Dale’s father received a telephone call from Ted Turner, owner of the Atlanta Braves.

“What’s the matter with that kid of yours?” Turner wanted to know.

“What are you referring to?” asked Dale’s father.

“He hasn’t signed his contract. What’s he got? Girl problems?”

“No, he’s got a religious problem. He wants to go on a mission for his church. And he wants to play ball. He’ll do the right thing. But don’t push him; his religion means a great deal to him.”

“I’m going to call him,” said Turner, “and I’m going to tell him, if he’ll sign this contract—and he knows it is a good one—I’ll give him a chance to convert me, my wife and children, and my aunt to the Mormon church.” He paused. “Then I’m going to tell him, if he doesn’t sign, all these people, plus my mother, are going to commit suicide.”

Needless to say, Turner neither took his life nor talked Dale out of a mission. And Dale is still looking forward to the time he and his wife, Nancy, may be called to fill a full-time mission.

Dale met Nancy at Brigham Young University in 1978, but they didn’t date while he was there. “Our dating was done by long distance,” Nancy recalls—“on the telephone. Or while I was visiting Barry Bonnell and his wife in Atlanta. Or while Dale was playing in California.” They were married 29 October 1979, in the Salt Lake Temple.

“Dale was more than sold on the Church,” says his mother, “so I wanted him to find a girl who was already secure in it. He found that girl in Nancy, while at BYU in his off-season.”

Dale’s father adds, “And they sure are good parents for our grandkids.” He pauses. “Kids, grandkids; that’s what life’s all about. You can enjoy material things—house, car, trips—but the children and grandchildren …”

Curtis Patton, Executive News Editor of the Atlanta Journal, met Dale in 1979 in the Atlanta Braves’ dressing room. He recalls a reporter asking Dale, among several questions, if he acted in private the way he pretended to act in public. “I thought the questions were out of line,” says Patton. “They were sarcastic and accusatory in tone. But they didn’t phase Dale a bit. He was polite and courteous in answering. That really impressed me.”

Dale and Curtis became close friends. They began talking about religion and Dale invited Curtis to attend church. Church started at 3:30 P.M., Dale said, and Curtis wondered what Latter-day Saints did on Saturday nights to make them sleep so late on Sundays. Dale baptized Curtis 12 October 1980.

Both Dale and Nancy recognize the responsibilities that go with their life-style. A few years ago they stopped for the night in Savannah, Georgia, at a little out-of-the-way inn. Even there Dale was recognized. When they went to their room, they noticed the sheets turned down and some candy and two glasses of cognac on the nightstand. They ate the candy but didn’t know what to do with the cognac, reasoning that if they poured it down the sink people would think they had drunk it. So they decided to leave it where it was. Before long the smell of the drinks began to bother them. Dale got up, put the drinks in the closet across the room, and went back to bed.

The next morning as they were leaving, Nancy said, “What did you do with those drinks?”

“I left them in the closet.”

“You can’t do that,” said Nancy. “Put them back where we found them. That closet door may not be opened for days. The workers might think we not only drank the stuff, but stole their glasses as well.”

Dale and Nancy have three boys—Chad, Travis, and Shawn. They lost a fourth child they were expecting last summer. Their middle child, Travis, has Rubenstein Syndrome, a rare malady that pulls his thumbs out of shape and causes other problems. “I’m grateful to Heavenly Father,” says Dale with an outpouring of love, “that if Travis had to be born with this problem, he came to us so we could give him the medical help he needs.”

Dale writes for the Atlantic Journal and Constitution a column for young people. He has the freedom to write about anything he chooses—how to work with an umpire, how to deal with slumps in baseball and in life, how to avoid the problems of drugs. In lieu of payment, Dale has the newspaper make four-year scholarships available to deserving students.

“I’m excited about trying to reach young people,” he says. “I want to help. Kids inside the Church will understand what I’m talking about when I remind them of the importance of their bodies, of keeping them clean. With kids outside the Church I’d like to help them understand that our bodies are sacred, that we have more freedom to think and walk and talk if we keep ourselves clean—in mind and body.

“Young people today feel they are making their own choices when they decide to take drugs or drink alcohol. What they don’t understand is that those things severely limit their freedom. Not only do they become slaves to their habit, they find they can’t walk and talk and think properly. And it gets worse. It brings tragedy into the family. It brings misery, loss of self-respect, even death.

“But we must have a higher reason for avoiding those things than just knowing they are not good for us. The Church gives us that reason—the sacredness of the body, and our eternal nature. I’d like to help change attitudes in kids, to help them respect themselves more.”

“Suppose you were asked to write only one article, or give one short three-minute talk, kind of a last-lecture,” he was asked. “What would you say?”

Without hesitation, he replies, “First, I’d talk about my testimony. It wouldn’t matter if I was talking to people inside or outside the Church. I’d bear my testimony that the gospel has been restored, that there’s a prophet on the earth, that the Savior lives. I would bear my testimony because it is the most precious thing I have—everything from the Hill Cumorah to temple marriage to my family. I would let them know that work is important—nothing is going to come easy—and that circumstances in life do not dictate happiness. Happiness is an attitude. And the best attitude and philosophy of life you can have is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I guess I should say something about baseball. I would counsel young people to have fun playing the game. Some days you’re going to get a hit, and some days you’re going to strike out. Don’t let your success days or your failure days, either one, determine your attitude toward the game.

“Baseball is not the most important thing to me, but it has a high priority. I need to work to become better. For some reason, the Lord has given me some athletic ability, and I need to use it in his service.”

Can a baseball career be compatible with family life? It’s not easy, says Dale. Nancy agrees.

“Sometimes I feel everyone wants a part of Dale, that there is little left for me and the boys. If Dale was a different type of person, I’m not sure I could live a baseball life. If he wanted to, he could be away every day in the winter as well as during the baseball season. But I know we come first, and that makes the difference. Even when he’s on the road he calls home. We talk at least once a day, sometimes three times a day.

“It’s not as easy as people think. Friends say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a nice house, nice cars. How could you ever be unhappy?’ That’s frustrating; everyone has problems. But I have never wondered if we are doing the right thing. I know baseball is where Dale and I are to be. I also know that it won’t be forever, but that our family life will.

“I’ll always be grateful for our temple marriage,” she continues. “It has developed trust between us, not just because we love each other, but because we know the other person loves the Lord. Having that third party in our marriage makes all the difference.”

There is also the Sunday work problem. “I don’t like it,” says Dale. “I wish there were no games on Sunday.”

He attends all Church meetings possible and is often late getting to the ballpark. “Murph’s late. It must be Sunday,” his teammates say.

His professional associates know he and Nancy will not appear at Sunday social gatherings. “I’ll play the games I’m contracted for,” he says. “But nothing more. I know where I belong on Sunday—in church and with my family. And that’s where I want to be.”

Church assignments could be a problem. It isn’t because Dale and Nancy are too busy for church work—they always hope they can be of service. But ward leaders are sometimes afraid the Murphys are too busy. However, as so often happens, when it is time, the Spirit intervenes. Dale and Nancy have recently moved from the Lawrenceville Ward (Tucker Georgia Stake) where Dale served in the elders quorum presidency and Nancy in the Relief Society presidency.

“Sometimes his service was unique,” says Pat Frailey, Dale’s former elders quorum president. “It was interesting to see the impact when he telephoned one of the elders. He may have been calling from Florida or California to check on their home teaching. It made the brethren realize that as busy as they were, somebody even busier had found time to carry out his priesthood responsibilities.

“He is a person of high ideals. He probably has developed himself physically as highly as he can. At the same time, he is working to mold himself spiritually into the same kind of excellence,” says Brother Frailey.

When Petra Gomez, Nancy’s former Relief Society president, was asked why she selected Nancy as one of her counselors, she replied, “Because I was guided to. It’s that simple. I was not even considering her. She was compassionate service leader, and doing an excellent job. But when I prayed about the calling, I knew who I should call. She performed an important part in Relief Society because the women looked up to her, saw her as genuine. She was always Nancy. She never changed.

“Her schedule became more hectic, but she managed to spend the time she needed with her family and on her Relief Society assignment.”

Much will be written about Dale Murphy in the years ahead. It is unlikely, however, that the press will mention the things that impress his friends and family most:

—Luis Gomez, Dale’s former teammate with the Braves and former roommate, an active member of the Church: “Dale reminds me of a little child—gentle, kind, generous, innocent, and pure. He’s childlike, but not childish. One day we were watching a TV program, something not in keeping with the spirit of the gospel. He changed the channel.”

—Lawrence Jordan, Dale’s former bishop: “What the world doesn’t know is that Dale Murphy is not only MVP in baseball, but in his personal life as well. He’s not perfect, but his life is in high order. He’s a good example to Church members. Very normal. A good, active Latter-day Saint.”

—Charles Murphy, Dale’s father: “What has Dale’s church done for him? It has been a dominant, positive force in Dale’s maturity. It has helped him over extremely difficult times. One day he said, ‘Dad, my church teaches us that if things aren’t going right, you’d better work to make them right. And if they’re going well, you’d better work to keep them that way.’ Oh, man, I wish I’d thought to tell him that.”

—Betty Murphy, Dale’s mother: “I told him I didn’t care that much if he was most valuable player in baseball. But when he works with Nancy to become another MVP—Most Valuable Parent—then he will really have achieved something.”

MVP. Most Valuable Player. Most Valuable Parent. Dale missed becoming the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1984 for a record third straight year. But those who know him and Nancy well say they are working hard to be good parents. With the “Most Valuable Parents award” as a steady goal, the best indeed is yet to come!

[photos] Dale Murphy, Atlanta Braves center fielder and twice National League Most Valuable Player, is a favorite of the fans. (Photos by Mickey Pfleger for Sports Illustrated.)

[photo] Bottom, courtesy of Atlanta Braves.

[photos] Dale spends a quiet moment with Shawn (top); the Murphys—Chad, Nancy, Travis, Dale, and Shawn—near their home in Roswell, Georgia (middle); Dale and Nancy met at Brigham Young University in 1978. They were married 29 October 1979 in the Salt Lake Temple. Photography by John Snyder.

[photos] Dale frequently speaks to Church youth groups and at firesides. “I’ll play the games I’m contracted for, but I know where I belong on Sunday,” he says. “In church and with my family. And that’s where I want to be.” Photography by Eldon Linschoten.

[photos] Above: A newspaper columnist for youth, Dale ponders his weekly column. Below: Dale and his home teaching companion, Dayton Kort, visit Bob and Pam Skalku and their sons Bryan and Jon of the Lawrenceville (Georgia) Ward. Photographs: Top, by Eldon Linschoten; bottom, by Gene Blythe.

Heber G. Wolsey, a professor of Communications at Brigham Young University, is a high priest in his Salem, Utah, ward. He and his wife, Fay, are the parents of nine children.