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"Dale Murphy: Will He Win A 3rd Straight MVP Award?"

In his prime at 27, Braves outfielder ranks as strong candidate to earn honor in N.L. once again in 1984

By Wayne Stewart

In the history of the National League, there have have been 54 official Most Valuable Player awards given to the elite players of the game since 1931 when the baseball writers began voting for the winners. The MVP award, therefore is much rarer than an Oscar or an Emmy, and just as coveted. Naturally, winning an MVP is a prestigious accomplishment, hauling in more than one is a rather unusual feat and winning back-to-back MVPs is a colossal achievement, indicating a tremendous display of productivity.

Winning the trophy two consecutive seasons further indicates that, even though opposing pitchers knew of the star player's skill, they could not curtail his offensive outbursts. Little wonder then that only four National League players have ever won back-to-back MVP awards: Ernie Banks (Chicago Cubs, 1958 and 1959), Joe Morgan (Cincinnati Reds, 1975 and 1976), Mike Schmidt (Philadelphia Phillies, 1980 and 1981), and Dale Murphy (Atlanta Braves, 1982 and 1983).

At 27, Dale Murphy is the youngest of the quintet and has an excellent chance to win three MVP awards in a row! But the modest Murphy, ahec converted catcher, actually downplays his skills. Even though he corralled the '83 kudos by a huge 318 to 213 point gap over Montreal's Andre Dawson, the 6-5 center fielder said, shortly after winning the MVP, "In my opinion, he (Dawson) is a whole lot better than me. He does everything well. He can hit, field, run the bases, and he hits for power."

Interestingly, it sounded as though Murphy was describing himself. Murphy, too, can truly do it all. In 1982, he led his Braves to their first Western Division title since 1969, the initial year of divisional play. Murphy lashed out for 36 homers (just one shy of league leader Dave Kingman), hit a solid .281, and drove in 109 runs (to tie Al Oliver of the Expos for the top RBI spot in the N.L.). Furthermore, he established career highs that year with 598 at bats and a .557 slugging percentage along with his homer and RBI career high water marks.

Shortly after winning his 1982 plaudits, Murphy inked a new $1.3 million per year contract which contained a $100,000 bonus clause. Murphy would cash in on the clause if he repeated as MVP. With a .302 batting average in 1983 (sixth best in the circuit), with 36 homers (second in the league), and with 121 RBI (tops in the loop), Murphy quite deservingly earned his bonus, snaring 21 of the 24 first place votes cast.

Murphy was scintillating in 1983, leading the N.L. in slugging percentage (.540) while scoring 131 runs (second best behind only the mercurial Tim Raines of Montreal) and turning in a sizzling .393 on-base percentage (third highest in the league). His 178 hits represented the sixth best hit productivity in the Senior Circuit.

Need more to impress you? Consider this: Murphy also pilfered 30 bases in 34 attempts (a success rate of nearly 90 percent). And, by stealing 30, Murphy became only the sixth man in the annals of the game to enter the "30-30 Club" (30-plus homers and stolen bases in a single season). His fellow members of this exclusive club are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, Ken Williams and Tommy Harper. In short, Murphy carried his team. Without him the Braves' second place finish would have been an impossible mission.

And what did Murphy say of all this? Again, his reaction was typical of his legitimately earned wholesome John Boy image: "I'm extremely honored and happy to share it (the award) with my teammates and coaches." Oh well, that's Dale Murphy for you.

Prior to Murphy, the previous back-to-back M.V.P. winner was Mike Schmidt who did it in 1980, the year his Phillies won the World Series, and in 1981. Just for the record, in 1981, the year of the infamous players' strike and the split-season format, the Phils finished in first place (at 34-21 .681) over the first part of the campaign, but in the second half they tumbled to third place (4 1/2 games out at 25-27, knowing they were assured of a playoff berth). Eventually in 1981, the Montreal Expos eliminated the Phillies in the division series. However, all that aside, one fact remains--Mike Schmidt dominated play in 1980 and 1981, and thus swept two consecutive MVP awards.

Schmidt, the personification of talent at the hot corner, possesses a combination of Eddie Mathews' power and the Gold Glove abililty of a Brooks Robinson (well, not quite). He has enough finesse to have won seven Gold Gloves (entering 1983), yet his brute strength enabled him to break Mathews' "Most Homers by a Third Baseman, One Season" record when he belted 48 home runs in 1980. It was then that he also captured his first RBI crown with 121 runs driven in which complemented his .624 slugging percentage and his 17-game winning RBI (second best in the league). Then, in 1981, despite the shortened season, (Schmidt had only 354 at bats), he led the league in total bases (228), walks (73), intentional walks (18), most round trippers (31), most runs (78), most RBI (91), and slugging percentage (.644)--all this while hitting .316. Not bad for one year's work!

Interestingly, from 1931 (when the BBWAA began their MVP voting) until 1959 (when Ernie Banks won the second of his two straight MVP trophies), no National Leaguer repeated as MVP. In addition, after Banks there was a 16-year drought before this accomplishment was again attained. Then, from the middle 1970s to the present, the N.L. has had a rash of back-to-back MVP winners. In the last four years, two men have monopolized the trophy. This is so unusual, it has happened only once before when the New York Yankees churned out MVP's in assembly line fashion. In 1954 and 1955, Yogi Berra won the league's top honors, and the following two seasons Mickey Mantle hauled in two awards.

At any rate, the N.L. drought which occurred after Banks' two MVPs was broken by Joe Morgan. Morgan, oldest man on the list (winning his kudos at ages 31 and 32), was a veritable dynamo for Cincinnati--especially in 1975 and 1976 when the Big Red Machine was fine tuned and headed for fame. The Reds zoomed to 108 wins in '75 and a World Series title (defeating the Boston Red Sox in a dramatic seven game set), and they then won 102 more contests the subsequent season before adding yet another Series crown--this time with a sweep over the New York Yankees.

Through all of this, Morgan was the catalyst. On a team which featured numerous MVP winners (Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and George Foster), it was the 5-7, 150-pound Morgan who led the way. For example, in 1975 the diminutive second sacker led the league in most walks drawn for the third time (with 132), he scored 107 runs, stole 67 bases and hit .327. Further, he drove home 94 runners while batting in the top part of the order. And, the next season was, in many ways, an even more fruitful year. He scored 113 runs, drove in 111 (a personal best), stole 60 bases, hit .320, blasted 27 homers (yet another career high), and chalked up 20 two-baggers. His .567 slugging percentage led the National League, and that figure, too, was a personal high point for Morgan.

In addition, his 1975 fielding percentage of .986 was the N.L. peak for a second baseman. His stats, therefore, were as sparkling as his MVP-caliber play, and his two great seasons will forever be remembered.

The same is true of Ernie Banks who won his MVP's in 1958 and 1959 while playing the shortstop position in virtuoso style for the hapless Chicago Cubs. Interestingly, three of the four men on the list are infielders. Usually outfielders are the ones who hit long balls, win MVPs and drive Cadillacs. However, Banks was brilliant in 1958, perhaps his best season ever, as he established career zeniths in: at bats, hits (193), triples, homers (47), runs (119), batting average (.313) and slugging percentage (.614). While Banks, like Morgan, did not frequently lead his league in many categories, he did top the N.L. in four departments that year (at bats, home runs, slugging percentage and RBI). He even led the league in assists by a shortstop with 519 that wonderful season.

While 1958 clearly was his finest hour (consider, for example, his 379 total bases), the Dallas, Texas native and one-time Gold Glove winner came back in '59 with another superb season. His 143 RBI again led the Senior Circuit, and his overall play impressed the entire baseball community (45 homers, .304). Surprisingly, however, Banks was to lead the league in an offensive category only once more in his long, illustrious career (in 1960 when he was the loop's premier home run hitter with 41).

It is sadly true that the genial, optimistic Banks was doomed to play for a club which was destined to become associated with mediocrity. The Cubs, even now, own the longest dry spell since tasting post-season play in the majors (their last pennant was in 1945). The '58 edition of the Bruins finished in fifth place with a dismal 72-82 slate, just three games better than the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies. Nevertheless, the BBWAA ignored his team's fiascoes and gave Banks the MVP over Hank Aaron (.326, 30, 90) who guided his Milwaukee Braves to a National League pennant.

Ironically, Aaron had earned the 1957 (for another pennant-winning club), thus, had he been selected as the '58 MVP then he would have been the first N.L. back-to-back MVP winner, not Banks.

In 1959, Aaron's stats again glistened like a diamond, but Banks won the trophy. Aaron won the 1959 batting crown (hitting a lusty .355, 41 points higher than Banks); Aaron has 223 hits (44 more than Banks); he collected 46 doubles (21 more than the man who made the "friendly confines of Wrigley Field" famous); had an astounding 400 total bases (Banks had 351); and Aaron even had the advantage in the slugging percentage department .636-to-.596, and in runs scored 116-97. But, Banks, even while again playing on a fifth place club, took MVP plaudits. However, all this is hardly shocking as the award has often been surrounded by controversy. Even in more recent years there has often been an outcry demanding more clearly defined criteria in MVP selections.

But, this is academic now in connection with "Mr. Cub". The fact is Banks was highly productive in 1958 and 1959, and the record books will forever list him as the first National Leaguer to capture back-to-back MVPs.

From Banks to Murphy--four great players in the history of the National League have won consecutive MVP Awards. Will the recent Morgan-Schmidt-Murphy trend continue, or are we due for another dearth of back-to-back M.V.P. winners?

Or will Dale Murphy astonish the baseball world by capturing his third MVP award in a row in 1984?

If you're smart, don't bet against that happening.

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