Stepping into the late afternoon sun at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Braves outfielder Dale Murphy starts his short walk to the batting cage for a few pre-game practice swings. This may be the toughest distance he travels today. Television crews and newspaper reporters suddenly appear at his side, along with a young college student who has just won a contest to meet Murphy. In the stands nearby, early-arriving fans are shouting his name, scores of autograph-hungry kids are waving programs and pennants, and some middle-aged women are trying to unfurl a bedsheet hand-lettered with the slogan, “Murph’s bat is where it’s at.” Murphy beams his best aw-shucks smile and gracefully makes his way through the fray, somehow managing to leave no one offended, no one feeling ignored. Moments later, his 6’5″ frame poised at the plate in the batting cage, he finally starts doing what he does best—batting baseballs into oblivion.
Last year the 29-year-old Atlanta center fielder hit .290 and blasted a league-high 36 home runs (he tied with the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt). This year, off to his fastest start despite his slumping team, he leads the league in home runs(12) and slugging percentage (.603) and is third in runs batted in (34). Former Atlanta hero Hank Aaron figures “there’s no player in the game today who is as complete a player: base-stealing, hitting with power, catching, all of it.” And Chuck Tanner, manager of the rival Pittsburgh Pirates, says, “Dale Murphy is the best player in baseball. Hands down, no question, no discussion.”
In a world where baseball drug busts can overshadow box scores, Murphy’s style seems no less distinguished. A converted Mormon, he doesn’t drink, smoke, snort, chew tobacco or even imbibe coffee or tea. He’s the kind of guy “who goes out and paints the town beige,” as one reporter cracked after Murphy earned his second straight National League Most Valuable Player award in 1983. “When you come right down to it,” concedes the star, “I guess I really am pretty bland.”
The younger of two children born to Charles Murphy, a retired G.E. engineer, and Betty, a housewife, Dale grew up in a leafy section of Portland, Oreg. Drafted in the first round by the Braves right out of high school, he began his pro career in 1974 as a catcher. But Murphy’s gun of an arm proved scattershot at best, and even his father once joshed him, “Don’t worry, Dale. If they’d been trying to steal center field, you’d have thrown ’em out every time.”
It was during grueling minor-league bus rides that he became friendly with Barry Bonnell, a Mormon who now plays for Seattle. The two talked late into the night and, at 19, Murphy, born a Presbyterian, decided to convert. He now gives the church 12 percent of his $1.6 million annual salary. Murphy says earnestly that “the church is everything to me,” but shies away from crediting his faith for success on the field. “I don’t really think the Lord is concerned with batting averages,” he says simply.
In 1978, following his first full year in the majors, Murphy enrolled for a semester at Brigham Young University. His roommate, basketball player Steve Craig, was dating a cheerleader named Nancy Thomas, the daughter of a California physician. In what finally became known as the “Mormon Celebrity Soap Opera,” Craig and Nancy broke up. Dale married Nancy. Craig married Marie Osmond.
Although the Craig-Osmond union is now on the rocks, the Murphy marriage produced three children in the first three years (Chad, 4, Travis, 3, and Shawn, 2), and a fourth is expected New Year’s Eve. The family has settled into a brand-new, 10,000-sq.-ft. English country-style house on 10 acres in Roswell, Ga. “We have this little pond,” says Murphy happily. “I’ve been down there fishing with Chad and Shawn. I go around with them exploring the new place, watching them ride their tricycles.”
Murphy’s own set of wheels belongs to a gleaming, gray 1983 Corvette. “I always said I’d never spend that kind of money on a car, but, well, it just seemed to find me,” he says somewhat apologetically. Perhaps to pay for gas money, he has recently filmed some TV endorsements for a Georgia company. The products? Milk and ice cream. But of course.