During the early to mid 1980’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a column called “Ask Dale Murphy”, in which kids wrote in with questions for their hero. Murphy would answer maybe four or five of these letters in each column. Most of these were related to some aspect of baseball—-pointers on hitting or fielding, etc. Kids still followed baseball in those days. And what kid growing up in the South wasn’t an Atlanta Braves fan? And if they were Braves fans in those days, Dale Murphy was their hero.
I lived in Moreland, Georgia during this time and each Sunday after church we would go over to my grandparents’ house for lunch. After the meal, while waiting for my grandfather to finish the funny papers (or fall asleep– whichever came first), I would peruse the sports pages and read “Ask Dale Murphy”.
I had picked Dale Murphy out as my favorite player in 1978, while he was still a catcher, a couple of years before his breakout season of 1980, when he hit 33 home runs and made the All-Star team. I loved Dale Murphy. I pretended to be him while playing ball by myself in the yard. I adopted his batting stance, the long, smooth flick of his bat just before the pitch. I drew and painted pictures of him. I sat riveted in front of WTBS’s broadcast of the game each time Murph came up to bat or when he made a diving catch in the outfield. I saved up money to buy a T-shirt with Murphy’s face on the front. I plastered my bedroom walls with photos cut from sports magazines and posters, including the famous “Power Alley” poster featuring Murph brandishing a glowing bat like a light saber.
In those days Braves tickets were cheap. I mean really cheap. The Coweta County school system gave away nosebleed seats to Braves games for kids who got good grades. Occasionally, even I could score some of these tickets. Sometimes my stepfather, Joe, would take my best friend Kevin and I to the game with tickets the company he worked for supplied him.
Moreland was about 45 minutes from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. It was a short drive up I-85 but it seemed like an eternity to a 13 year old kid going to see his hero in action. My favorite moment of the trip was rounding that big curve, seeing the Atlanta skyline in the distance, and all of a sudden there was Atlanta-Fulton County stadium on the right. Parking was always an adventure. When we finally found a spot in the furthest parking lot, we had to dodge panhandlers, drug dealers, winos, and ticket scalpers on our seven mile hike to the stadium.
Once inside, if we arrived early enough, we could take in batting practice and lined up with the throngs of kids jockeying for position behind the Braves dugout to get any player to sign our hats, gloves, balls, programs, or anything else we could thrust in front of them. I never had much luck at this game. You had to be willing to punch someone in the privates or trample a few 6 year olds to get to the railing at the field’s edge to actually get an autograph. But, it was a big thrill to get that close to the players.
We’d grab a program, a hot dog, and a Coke and take our seats in the upper deck way out in right field, about as far away as anyone could get from the action, even though 2/3 of the stadium was empty. But, we were there. On rare occasion the Braves even rewarded our dedication with a win. Whether the Braves won or not we cheered for the good guys in red, white, and blue.
In those days the Braves players parked beneath Atlanta-Fulton County stadium and after the game you could line up along the edge of the tunnel from which they drove up out of the bowels of the stadium to catch a glimpse of them as they sped by in a blur. If you were lucky, you could make out a vague silhouette behind their tinted car windows.
On one occasion, Kevin and I convinced Joe, with more than a little help from my mother, to let us go watch the players drive out of the tunnel after the game. So, we took our time exiting the stadium and made our way outside to the tunnel while the players showered, changed, and answered reporters’ questions about fielding errors and the dominance of the opposing pitchers. Eventually we took our positions at the end of the tunnel as the players began driving out.
I don’t recall how many players we saw but I remember every detail about one player’s exit from the stadium with astonishing clarity. As we stood gawking, out drove a silver 1984 corvette with a Gwinnett County tag. Through the rolled down window, Dale Murphy waved to the crowd. It was really him. The man himself. My hero, Dale Murphy! We cheered along with the rest of the crowd, hollering “Muuuuuurph!” We were satisfied then and started to walk toward our car way off in the distance.
All of a sudden, we noticed the silver corvette stuck in the line of traffic trying to navigate out of the parking lot toward the freedom of I-75/I-85 coursing north and south out of downtown Atlanta. My stepfather looked at us and said, “Well, go over there and see if you can get an autograph”. I was a quiet, introverted kid from a broken home and I was scared to death. My stepfather then said, “When are you gonna have this chance again”?
So, Kevin and I broke into a run, hoping against hope that we’d make it to the corvette before traffic started moving. Amazingly, no one else had noticed him yet so we would have Murph all to ourselves. Kevin was armed with his glove and a pen, while I held fast to Joe’s pen and the Braves painter’s hat I wore everywhere.
If you didn’t grow up in the 1980s you may not know what a painter’s hat is. Well, they were these dorky-looking hats that, oddly enough, painters wore. For some reason, they became popular in the early to mid-80s. They were sort of flat-topped and had a flimsy cardboard bill that had a waxy, gloss on top and dull but smooth cardboard on bottom. You could find painter’s hats everywhere emblazoned with the insignia of sports teams, corporate logos, or the names of corrupt politicians, among other things.
We reached Murph’s car winded, gasping for air, and not knowing what to do or say next. Fortunately, Murph rolled his window down because, well, that’s the kind of guy Dale Murphy is. Kevin handed Murph his glove and pen. Murph signed it and handed it back. I then shoved my sweaty Braves painter’s hat into Dale Murphy’s corvette window. Just then, traffic started moving.
By now, other kids had spotted us and were sprinting towards the car. In my star-struck delirium, I had failed to hand Dale Murphy the pen. Anxious at holding up traffic and with an army of sweaty kids storming toward his corvette like it was parked on the beaches of Normandy, Murph started yelling, “Gimme the pen , Gimme the pen!”. This broke me from my dumbfounded stupor. I fumbled around, handed Murph the pen, he signed my hat, handed it back to me and sped off in that silver corvette headed for Gwinnett County, leaving us standing in a cloud of dust just as the throng of kids arrived.
I can’t tell you what this meant to me. I wasn’t the sort of kid something like this happened to. I was usually the kid left choking in the dust. But, this time I triumphantly held in my hand a sweaty painter’s hat with Dale Murphy’s autograph on the bill. And what’s more, Dale Murphy had actually spoken to me, even if he was yelling at me. It was the happiest moment of my young life. When we got back to my mother and stepfather, all Joe could say was, “Where’s my pen?”. I had left it with Murph in the confusion and supernatural glow of the moment. But, I walked on clouds all the way to our car parked miles in the distance.
That wasn’t the only Dale Murphy autograph I got during that time. The second is less memorable but I still cherish it. After reading “Ask Dale Murphy” in the paper one Sunday afternoon, I sat down and wrote a letter to Murph. I don’t remember the question I asked. Probably some lame question about hitting or fielding. I remember trying to think up something clever to catch his attention. Anything to get a response. When I finished I sealed the letter in an envelope and wrote out the address in the paper, pedaled my bicycle down the street to the Moreland post office, and dropped the letter in the mail, never really expecting to see my question printed and answered by Dale Murphy in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I continued to open the Sunday sports page with increased urgency each week but never found my question there. One day, I got an envelope in the mail bearing the insignia of the Atlanta Braves, the old screaming Indian logo.
I gingerly opened the envelope to find a letter. It was addressed “Dear Baseball Fan”— a chain letter I am sure, thanking me for writing and telling me how much my support was appreciated. At the bottom of the letter was a small printed image of a batter in full swing with “Dale Murphy ‘3’” printed next to it. The letter was signed in blue ink by Dale Murphy and inside the letter was an autographed photo of my hero to boot.
Skeptics will say, “How do you know that’s a real autograph? Players have people who are paid to forge their autograph on stuff like that.” To those skeptics I respond that I know Dale Murphy signed that letter and photo because I know Dale Murphy is that kind of guy. The kind of guy who rolls his window down in traffic after a game to sign a sweaty painter’s hat for a kid who really needed that at the time. I just have one question to ask Dale Murphy now— “Where’s my pen?”
One thought on “Ask Dale Murphy”
Thank for taking me back to my childhood – Dale Murphy, Bruce Benedict, Bob Horner, Chris Chambliss- I still have my Bob Watson edition Louisville Slugger. I grew in the Rome/Cedartown area, so the Braves were a big deal, win or lose. Having moved away long ago( first to New York, where no one cared the Braves won the World Series in ‘95, now to East Texas where my lovely wife is from but it isn’t Braves country), it was nice to share a memory that you have to be from the southeast in the ‘80 and 90’s to understand. I enjoy your all posts but this brought a real smile to my face . If Dale Murphy had spoken a word to me, I would have( as they say in East Texas) peed down both britches legs. Thanks and keep up the good work.