Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Random Thursday: Red Murff

This week’s lucky random man is Red Murff, a relief pitcher at the major league level who got into 26 games for the Milwaukee Braves from 1956-1957. Murff was a minor league legend in the Texas League in the early 1950s, and compiled a 114-71 record across six minor league seasons before being called up in ’56. In 1955, Murff was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year, after going 27-11 for the Dallas Eagles, with a 1.99 ERA in 303 IP (including a 19.7 of those innings in a single game, a 3-2 loss to the Texarcana Bears). The next year, the Braves purchased him from the New York Giants and made him a rookie at 35 years old. He worked as a mop-up man (the team was 1-13 in games in which Murff appeared), and rarely pitched in any meaningful situations. The next year, Red was used heavily in the early goings, getting into 14 games before the end of May. In his last 6 outings, however, Murff gave up 12 runs and was sent back to the minors from whence he came. Pitching for the Witchita Braves that year, Red went 11-9 with a 3.63 ERA. But his former club went on to best the Yankees in the World Series, behind the amazing performance of Lew Burdette (3-0, 3 CGs (games 2, 5, 7), 0.27 ERA). Murff would never get back, and never really contributed meaningfully during his playing career at all. But what sets Murff apart is what he did after his career was over.

For without Murff, two of the greatest hurlers in baseball's great history may not have even made it to the big stage. After his playing days were done, Murff became a well-respected minor-league coach and manager, and is generally credited (according to his obituaries, anyway) with giving Phil Niekro the confidence to throw his knuckleball in game situations. Knucksie, of course, won 318 games in his Hall of Fame career, and his success inspired his brother to follow suit and win 221. Of course, it's difficult to know exactly what kind of role Murff actually played in Niekro's career (without reading Phil's biography Knuckle Balls, which you can buy online for as little as $.72, that is), but for now The Common Man will take that at face value (until his copy of the book gets here).

After coaching, Murff went into scouting, where he discovered and signed a young Texas right-hander named Nolan Ryan. In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Ryan singled the former pitcher out, saying "He thought when he saw me at 6-foot-2 and 140 pounds, he wasn't discouraged by my build and by the way I threw the baseball as many other scouts were. And I appreciate the fact that Red spent so much time with me and worked to help me become a better pitcher. Thank you, Red." The Ryan Express finished up with 324 wins, 5714 strikeouts, and 7 no-hitters.

So, while Red Murff may not have done much worth noting while he played the game, he is proof positive that even the shortest careers can leave an indelible mark on baseball, forever altering its history. Indeed, while Murff was only directly responsible for a 2-2 record and 31 strikeouts in 50.3 innings of work (and a 4.65 ERA), if we look at his larger impact, we can indirectly credit him with 644 wins and 9087 strikeouts in 10,840.7 innings in 53 seasons (and a 3.27 ERA). Indeed, if we generously credit him for Joe Niekro's work as well, he's good for 865 wins and 10,834 strikeouts in 14,424.7 innings pitched in 75 seasons (and a 3.35 ERA). Not to mention any additional innings, wins, and Ks that come out of Lance Niekro, who's getting the chance to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer just because he's Joe's son and Phil's nephew. Not a bad legacy.

Sadly, John Robert "Red" Murff passed away in November of last year at the age of 87. But his stamp on the game endures.

1 comment:

lar said...

Another good one, TCM.

And, just as you say that Murff "is proof positive that even the shortest careers can leave an indelible mark on baseball", I think this little random excursion through baseball history proves that there really are a lot of interesting people and stories in baseball, even when you're not looking at the Babe Ruths and Ted Williams and Pete Roses of the world. Good stuff.