Jim Murray wasn’t the best sportswriter in Los Angeles, or the United States of America. He was the best sportswriter anywhere, anytime. The best there ever was.
Murray wrote the nation’s best sports column for 37 years, at the Los Angeles Times. Part crusader, part comedian, he was named National Sportswriter of the Year 14 times in 16 years, including 12 in a row from 1966 to 1977. Murray’s quick-witted style and gentle sarcasm was often imitated but never equaled. On the Indianapolis 500: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.” On Cincinnati: “They still haven’t fixed the freeway. It’s Kentucky’s turn to use the cement mixer.” Elgin Baylor “He is as unstoppable as a woman’s tears.”
A once-in-a-generation talent, Murray was the most influential and important journalist in the 137-year history of the Los Angeles Times. The ten-shot rule in golf was his idea. It was Murray who shamed the Masters into finally allowing Lee Elder to play. On the death of Loyola-Marymount basketball player Hank Gathers: “Death should stay away from young men’s games. Death belongs in musty hospital rooms, sickbeds. It should not impinge its terrible presence on the celebrations of youth, reap its frightful harvest in fields where cheers ring and bands play and banners wave.”
Muhammed Ali, the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T., declared Murray the greatest sportswriter of all time. Murray loved Ben Hogan, of whom he wrote perhaps thousands of references in hundreds of columns. Once, at a tournament in Southern California, Arnold Palmer knocked his ball under a tree. Spotting Murray in the gallery – and knowing of the writer’s affinity for Bantam Ben – Arnie asked Murray what Hogan would do in this situation. Answered Murray, “Hogan wouldn’t be in a situation like that.”
Murray, whose favorite topics were golf, boxing and horse racing, is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1982, he was presented the Red Smith Award, America’s most prestigious sports writing honor. After he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, the always-modest Murray said he thought the prize winner should have had “to bring down a government or expose major graft or give advice to prime ministers. Correctly quoting Tommy Lasorda shouldn’t merit a Pulitzer Prize.”
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, December 29, 1919, James Patrick Murray began his newspaper career as a campus correspondent for the Hartford Times while attending Trinity College in the early 1940s. He later became a police reporter. He joined Time magazine in 1948 and became West Coast editor for Sports Illustrated, which he helped found, in 1953. Murray left SI for the Los Angeles Times in 1961, and stayed until his death in 1998.
On this date in 1972, Jackie Robinson threw out the first pitch at the World Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The great Robinson was frail and nearly blind from diabetes – he died nine days later – when Murry approached him. “Jackie, it’s Jim Murray,” said Murray when they touched. “Oh, Jim,” Robinson answered, “I wish I could see you again.” “No, Jackie,” Murray replied. “I wish I could see you again.”
Jim Murray made us look at the world from a different perspective. He made words dance and images sing. On Spokane: “The only trouble with Spokane is that there’s nothing to do there after 10 o’clock. In the morning.” Murray observed that Ricky Henderson “has a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart” and that John Wooden is “so square that he’s divisible by four.”
There are two kinds of sportswriters: Jim Murray and others. Rick Reilly, who is the best sports journalist of his generation, considered Murray the finest man he ever knew. Murray’s readership numbered in the millions. The scribes he has influenced number in the thousands. The Times said, “Babe Ruth is to baseball as Jim Murray is to sports writing.” In 1984, Sports Illustrated dubbed him “King of the Sports Page.”
Murray’s observations were clever, witty, and incredibly accurate. “Willie Mays’s glove is where triples go to die.” “Baltimore is a great place if you’re a crab.” New Jersey’s “Principle export is soot.” His adoptive hometown of Los Angeles was “Underpoliced and oversexed,” while “San Francisco’s legacy to the world is quiche.”
A detached retina in his in his left eye and a cataract in his right had rendered Murray legally blind by the late 1970s. Yet his blindness did not diminish his marvelous perspectives on society and sports. He saw the world more clearly than everyone else. After multiple surgeries failed to correct his vision, Murray wrote in July 1979: “I lost an old friend the other day. He was blue-eyed, impish, he cried a lot with me, laughed a lot with me, saw a great many things with me. I don’t know why he left me. Boredom, perhaps.”
At the peak of his influence, Murray’s words were published in more than 200 newspapers. He penned over 10,000 columns for the Times. Murray was an invited guest to breakfast every morning. More than a guest, he was family. Sports journalist Roy Firestone emphasized the influence and importance of Murray’s work. “I’ll say without question, I think Jim Murray was every bit as important of a sports writer – forget sports writer – every bit as important a writer to newspapers as Mark Twain was to literature.”
In the last few months of his life, Jim Murray dictated his column blind and was still better than anybody in the country. Truly a man of vision, he once said that “writing a column is like riding a tiger. You’d like to get off, but you have no idea how.” Murray died August 16, 1998, of cardiac arrest in his Los Angeles home. He was 78. Mr. Murray had just returned from Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, where he wrote his last column, on Free House winning the Pacific Classic.