Claim to fame: I’ll start by thanking broadcaster Len Berman for including a link to the BPP All-Time Dream Project in a recent mass email. The link led to votes from about 50 people, including the son of former New York Yankees pitcher Johnny Murphy who emailed and suggested I add a relief pitcher category. I’ve chosen not to do this for the same reason I don’t have a designated hitter or bench players in the project– I don’t want a way for people to jam extra players into their lineups, like sticking Willie Mays in center field and Mickey Mantle at DH. I want people having to make tough decisions. It’s a nine-player dream team for a reason.
That being said, I’m glad the email alerted me to Murphy, who pitched 13 years in the majors between 1932 and 1946, might have been baseball’s first great relief pitcher, and later was general manager of the New York Mets from 1964 until his death in 1970. I sent an email to Frank Graham Jr., whose father covered Murphy as a player. Graham has stories about being around those Bronx Bombers as a kid, and I asked if he’d crossed paths with Murphy. Graham replied:
No, I had no interaction with Fordham Johnny Murphy, though I do remember some of my dad’s ‘dugout’ columns where Lefty Gomez would make some wisecrack about how Murphy pulled him out of a jam so often that their names were being coupled like ham and eggs. That kind of connection was rare in those days, when relievers were often characterized as second-rate pitchers not good enough to make the starting rotation. Branch Rickey was one who thought the value of relief pitchers was overrated– in other words, good pitchers started a game and saved it as well.
Murphy tallied 107 saves in his playing career, similar to an early stolen base champ or Deadball Era home run leader in that he played in a time before his marquee stat was favored, and the more that saves aggregators like Lee Smith, Mariano Rivera, and Trevor Hoffman come to glut the Hall of Fame ballot, the more pioneering relievers like Murphy may be forgotten. That’s a shame, and there ought to be a way for Cooperstown to remedy this.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Under new voting rules that took effect prior to the 2011 election, Murphy can be considered for Cooperstown by the Pre-Integration Era section of the Veterans Committee. It meets once every three years and will convene at the Winter Meetings in December.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Lest there be any confusion, let me be clear: The point of this column isn’t too mount a case that Murphy needs to be enshrined. I’m a big Hall person, though to me, there are simply too many other players to be honored first, and that includes a couple early relievers. In general, I think Cooperstown has made incomplete note of pioneer closers, relying too much on career saves totals. It gives short shrift to greats like Sparky Lyle and Dan Quisenberry, both men who dominated in their day and would get my vote sooner than Smith.
I don’t feel as strongly about Murphy. Maybe it’s that he played in pinstripes, and plenty of very good Yankees are already enshrined from Waite Hoyt to Joe Gordon to Phil Rizzuto and others. Murphy’s stats also simply don’t beg a plaque, from a 3.50 lifetime ERA and 118 ERA+ to 14.7 career WAR and 1.367 WHIP. Lyle, Quisenberry, and a number of other closers trump those numbers. And I don’t know if Murphy was an executive long enough for it to matter for the Veterans Committee, which considers a man’s total contribution to baseball. I could be wrong here, and if there’s something I’m missing, I encourage comments from anyone reading, including anyone from Murphy’s family.
Do I mean to knock Murphy? Certainly not. Just getting to play an important role on the Yankees of the ’30s and ’40s is awesome. And while I wouldn’t necessarily enshrine pioneer relievers like Murphy, they belong somewhere in the museum, just as I’d highlight early stolen base kings like Maury Wills or Deadball home run hitters like Gavvy Cravath. They all figure notably in baseball’s history. Maybe there’s a relief pitchers exhibit that can include Murphy, if one doesn’t exist already.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a regular feature here.
Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Alan Trammell, Albert Belle, Albert Pujols, Allie Reynolds, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Bill King, Billy Martin, Bobby Grich, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Craig Biggio, Curt Flood, Dan Quisenberry, Darrell Evans, Dave Parker, Dick Allen, Don Mattingly,Don Newcombe,Dwight Evans, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Gus Greenlee, Harold Baines, Harry Dalton, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Edmonds, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Kevin Brown, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Moises Alou, Pete Browning,Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito,Roger Maris, Ron Cey, Ron Guidry, Ron Santo, Sammy Sosa, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey,Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Tony Oliva, Vince Coleman, Will Clark