Santa Rosa family finds ideal home for baseball fan’s autograph collection

In another world, not so very long ago, many of us would be off to Arizona for Major League Baseball’s spring training, where we would watch our favorite teams work out the winter kinks, look over the rookie rosters and give fans hope for a new season.

This is why, today, in the middle of this particular March, when the prospects of travel and spring breaks are naught but fond memories, we are remembering a lifelong baseball fan and telling the good news he didn’t live to hear.

When retired Superior Court Judge Joseph P. Murphy Jr. died at age 89 in his Santa Rosa home nine years ago he was, his obituary tells us, watching a Sunday afternoon San Francisco Giants baseball game from spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona.

To those who knew him well, this made perfect sense. And it prompted a sad “Way to go, Joe,” from many who saw him in Scottsdale in so many springtimes past. Joe, for all his four decades as a respected lawyer and judge in Sonoma County, was also, to put it in simple terms, a baseball nut, always had been.

We are pleased to tell Joe’s “baseball story.” The happy ending comes first. In late November the Murphy family donated the Joseph Murphy Autograph Collection to the Sullivan Family Research Center, located at the San Diego Public Library.

Joe’s eldest son, Steve, considers the destination “like a Holy Grail” ending for his father’s search for the right place to put the astonishing results of his lifelong dedication to the sport he loved.

“He was so involved in baseball history,” said Steve, “and libraries — he was 30 years on the Sonoma County Library Commission. It’s the perfect place!”

Joe came by his love of baseball naturally. Growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, with a father who had played in the minor leagues, he played the infield on his high school team and, at the tender age of “almost 9,” began a collection that, last November, became part of the baseball history research center in San Diego.

Joe told the early story in an introduction to his “treasures” when he became a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR.

“My brother John (age 7) and I were hooked on baseball at an early age,” he wrote. “In 1931, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Pepper Martin, playing in his first big league season as a regular, stole 5 bases and had 12 hits, which was then a World Series record.”

The Murphy brothers of Oak Park “were so enthralled,“ Joe said, “that we wrote a letter to Martin and “To our amazement and delight, about three weeks later we received a postcard containing a rubber-stamped message and a rubber-stamped signature, “Your Pal, Pepper Martin.”

The Murphy brothers were stunned.” We had never considered that the great Pepper Martin would respond to our letter. And the thought suddenly hit us: If we wrote to other ballplayers, maybe they would respond as well. The seed took root, and before long we were in the autograph collecting business.”

Their pursuit continued throughout the 1930s, until college and World War II set their lives on other tracks. Brother John died young, soon after serving during World War II. Joe was a Marine, a survivor of the assault on Iwo Jima. He went to law school at the University of Michigan and arrived in Santa Rosa in 1949. He joined the district attorney’s staff in rapidly growing Sonoma County and, by 1951, was chief deputy D.A., ascending to the Superior Court bench in 1964.

He never lost his love for the game of baseball. In his early years, he rooted for the Chicago Cubs but, upon the Giants relocation to the Bay Area, became a huge fan of the San Francisco team and especially fond of Willie Mays. When he retired in ’84 — with more time to devote to organizing and pondering the fate of his baseball treasures — he became an active member of SABR, attending its conventions and beginning to plan for the ultimate home for the collection.

One can assume that even Joe was surprised at what he had to offer — including some 1,300 autographs and photos of baseball’s past legends, including Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, the DiMaggio brothers, Branch Rickey and so very many more.

“The collection stops about 1940,” Joe wrote in his preface, “and so there are no signatures of Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax or Barry Bonds. Not that Barry Bonds would have responded to an autograph request!” he wrote of the Giants’ star’s aversion to signing his name for fans.

Bob Surratt, the San Diego library’s Art, Music & Recreation Librarian, calls the collection “a wonderful family gem that we’re honored to have.” It is, he said, “not only substantial, but also tells a unique story of American fandom.”

“We are currently working,” Surratt said in an email last week, “on making the collection available for remote viewing via our digital archive.” There will also be scheduled, chaperoned in-person visits when the coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

This is exactly what Joe would want to hear. “At one time,” he wrote in his preface, “I thought of donating the autographs to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but several knowledgeable SABR members told me that they would wind up in a box in the basement, along with many other items which have been donated. Perhaps, ultimately, a suitable home for them will surface.” The Murphy family can be proud that Joe’s wish has come true. There will be no “boxes in the basement” for this sports treasure.

Maybe we can all stop off in San Diego on our way to Scottsdale in the spring.

So, with spring training underway, hooray!, in Arizona and Florida, baseball is back, bringing all the memories we have of past seasons and the people associated with them.

There are at least nine innings of baseball stories in our Sonoma County local history — everything from the cherished local old-timers like Norm Maroni — for whom the Doyle Park diamond is named, or Willie Rossi, whose name is on the softball field at Howarth Park in honor of his 60 years of good-humored umpiring.

Or maybe the night in 1949 when Bing Crosby came to see the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league team play at the Doyle Park field. Crosby was a part owner of the Pirates and that year — the only year that Santa Rosa had their farm team — the Pirates had a young pitcher named Vernon Law. If you, like Joe Murphy, followed baseball your whole life, then you know what Vernon Law accomplished in his career.

Another springtime, another season. The difference this time is that it offers hope that fans can gather as usual in the next March, giving a whole new meaning to the familiar season-ending “Wait ‘til next year”

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