The thing about Jim Murray is that he lived "happily," but somebody ran off with his "ever after." It's like the guy who's ahead all night at poker and then ends up bumming cab money home. Or the champ who's untouched for 14 rounds and then gets KO'd by a pool-hall left you could see coming from Toledo.
This is an article from the April 21, 1986 issue
Murray is a 750-word column, and 600 of those are laughs and toasts. How many sportswriters do you know who once tossed them back with Bogie? Wined and dined Marilyn Monroe? Got mail from Brando? How many ever got mentioned in a governor's state of the state address? Flew in Air Force One?
How big is Murray? One time he couldn't make an awards dinner so he had a sub—Bob Hope.
Murray may be the most famous sportswriter in history. If not, he's at least in the photo. What's your favorite Murray line? At the Indy 500: "Gentlemen, start your coffins"? Or "[Rickey Henderson] has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart"? Or that UCLA coach John Wooden was "so square, he was divisible by four"? How many lines can you remember by any other sportswriter?
His life was all brass rails and roses—until this last bit, that is. The end is all wrong. The scripts got switched. They killed the laugh track, fired the gag writers and spliced in one of those teary endings you see at Cannes. In this one, the guy ends up with his old typewriter and some Kodaks and not much else except a job being funny four times a week.
They say that tragedy is easy and comedy is hard.
Know what's harder?
Both at once.
Murray on Large People
MERLIN OLSEN: "...went swimming in Loch Ness—and the monster got out."
FRANK HOWARD: "...so big, he wasn't born, he was founded...not actually a man, just an unreasonable facsimile."
BOOG POWELL: "...when the real Boog Powell makes...the Hall of Fame, they're going to make an umbrella stand out of his foot."
BILL BAIN: "Once, when an official dropped a flag and penalized the Rams for having 12 men on the field...two of them were Bain."
Arnold Palmer had two of them bronzed. Jack Nicklaus calls them "a breath of fresh air." Groucho Marx liked them enough to write to him. Bobby Knight once framed one, which is something like getting Billy Graham to spring for drinks.
Since 1961, a Jim Murray column in the Los Angeles Times has been quite often a wonderful thing. (He's carried by more than 80 newspapers today and at one time was in more than 150.) Now 66, Murray has been cranking out the best-written sports column this side (some say that side) of Red Smith. But if a Smith column was like sitting around Toots Shor and swapping stories over a few beers, a Murray column is the floor show, a setup line and a rim shot, a corner of the sports section where a fighter doesn't just get beaten up, he becomes "sort of a complicated blood clot." Where golfers are not athletes, they're "outdoor pool sharks." And where Indy is not just a dangerous car race, it's "the run for the lilies."
In press boxes Murray would mumble and fuss that he had no angle, sigh heavily and then, when he had finished his column, no matter how good it was, he would always slide back in his chair and say, "Well, fooled 'em again."
Murray must have fooled all the people all the time, because in one stretch of 16 years he won the National Sportswriter of the Year award 14 times, including 12 years in a row. Have you ever heard of anybody winning 12 anythings in a row?
After a Lakers playoff game against the SuperSonics in 1979, Muhammad Ali ran into Murray outside the locker room and said, "Jim Murray! Jim Murray! The greatest sportswriter of all time!"
Which leaves only one question.
Was it worth it?
NORM VAN BROCKLIN: "...a guy with the nice, even disposition of a top sergeant whose shoes are too tight."
PAUL BROWN: "...treated his players as if he had bought them at auction with a ring in their noses...."
Conrad Dobler, former guard for the St. Louis Cardinals: "To say Dobler 'plays' football is like saying the Gestapo 'played' 20 Questions."
WOODY HAYES: "Woody was consistent. Graceless in victory and graceless in defeat."
Marilyn Monroe and Murray were having dinner at a Sunset Boulevard restaurant. This was not exactly an AP news flash. Murray was TIME magazine's Hollywood reporter from 1950 to 1953, and you could throw a bucket of birdseed in any direction at Chasen's and not hit anybody who didn't know him. He has played poker with John Wayne ("he was lousy"), kibitzed with Jack Benny (who gave him an inscribed, solid-gold money clip) and golfed with Bing Crosby (later, Crosby sent him clippings and column ideas).
On this particular night, somewhere around dessert, Monroe started looking as if she'd swallowed her napkin.
"What's wrong?" Murray asked.
"Jim," she said, "would you mind if I left with someone else?"
"Not as long as you introduce me."
"O.K." She waved to a man across the room, who, sheepishly, made his way to the table.
"Jim, I would like you to meet Joe DiMaggio."
Not bad company for a kid who came up through the Depression in his grandfather's standing-room-only house in Hartford, Conn., where, at various times, the roster consisted of himself, his two sisters, his divorced father, his grandparents, two cousins and two uncles, including, of course, Uncle Ed, the one who cheated at dice, a man so bored by work that "he couldn't even stand to watch" people work.
For his part, Murray liked to write, and his first critical success was a 50-word essay on his handpicked American League all-star team. For winning the contest, he received a razor. He was 10.
Murray devoured any book featuring European history, and so, after graduating from Trinity College in Hartford and working a city-side stint at the New Haven Register, it is no wonder that when a real war came along and history was being made, he wanted to see it up close. But as a youth, he had had rheumatic fever, and that made him 4-F. He was so disappointed that he wouldn't be seeing Europe that he took the first and farthest-going train out to see distant parts of his own country. Besides, "I wanted to be as far away as I could when the casualties started coming in," he says. "I didn't want any mothers leaning out the window and saying, 'Here's my son with a sleeve where his arm used to be. What's the Murray boy doing walking around like that?' "
The train was bound for Los Angeles, where Murray talked his way into a job as a reporter and eventually became a rewrite man for the Hearst-owned L.A. Examiner. Those were gory, glory days for Murray. "There was seldom a dull moment," he wrote in The Best of Jim Murray. "And if there were, the front page of the Examiner never admitted it."
He specialized in murders. He wrote, "...we slept with our socks on, like firemen waiting for that next alarm." But Murray never could get used to the blood. Once he covered a story about a little girl who was run over by a truck and lost a leg. Murray took the $8 he had left from his $38 paycheck and bought her an armful of toys.
That figured. Murray always was a sucker for a pretty face. And in those days, in a town with pink stucco houses and restaurants shaped like brown derbies, every nightclub window was filled with pretty faces. One night, Murray and a cohort were entertaining two of them when Jim went to call his best friend. The friend had good news.
"You know that girl over at the Five Seventy Five Club that you're always saying melts your heart? The one who plays the piano?"
"Yeah, so?" Murray said.
"If you can get over here in the next five minutes, she said she'd like to meet you."
Murray threw $2 on the table, grabbed his coat and headed for the door. Outside, his nightclub buddy caught up with him.
"I'm coming, too," he said.
"Why?" Murray asked.
"Because those two girls were mad enough to kill one of us, and it wasn't going to be you."
Murray married the girl at the piano, Gerry Brown, and theirs was a 38-year date. Folks say you've never seen two people carry on so. The Murrays appeared to be happiest at the piano, with Gerry playing (she was an accomplished pianist) and Jim belting out maudlin Irish songs. "If the phone rang at two in the morning, you knew who it was," says Tom McEwen of The Tampa Tribune. "It was the Murrays saying, 'All right, what do you want to hear?' And you'd say, 'Well, whatever you feel like.' And Murray would break into Galway Bay."
Murray longed to be a foreign correspondent—"and wear a trench coat and carry a Luger"—but when TIME called with $7,000 a year, he took it. Over the years he worked on a dozen cover stories on such subjects as Mario Lanza, the Duke, Betty Hutton and Marlon Brando.
"You'd go knock on Brando's door," Murray says, "and you'd knock and you'd knock for an hour and he'd never answer it. But as soon as you walked away, he'd fling it open and cackle like a rooster."
Humphrey Bogart became a friend, too. "He was the kind of guy who'd get nasty after a couple of drinks. What's the old line? 'A couple of drinks and Bogart thinks he's Bogart.' That's how he was.... But I remember when he was dying, his wife, Lauren Bacall, would allow him only one drink a day, and if I was coming over he'd wait, because he knew I'd have it with him."
When a sports assignment in Los Angeles came up at TIME, Murray got it—by default. His proclivity for sports was so strong that, in 1953, when Henry Luce decided to launch a sports magazine, Murray was asked to help start it up. He did, and a year later SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was in print. Although Murray did return to TIME for a while, he eventually became SI's West Coast correspondent. In 1961 he jumped to the L.A. Times, where he was ready to take on the daily world of sports. Unfortunately, that world was not ready to take him on.
Letter From a Rookie's Wife
How are you? ...I am working now at the Bon Ton Grill.... All the fellows from the box works ask for you and say, 'Boy, I bet if that old husband of yours could only see you in them net stockings he'd bat a thousand....'
The other night was election night and the bar had to be closed; so I had the whole gang over to our house.... The party wasn't as noisy as the papers said.... I didn't see why the police came....
I sure want you to meet Cesar [a new roomer].... [He] feels terrible he had to take this long business trip just the time you come home.... He'll come back. He has to; he has the car.
Faithfully yours, Cuddles.
Back in 1961, before the Computer Age, writers on the road would type hard copy and Western Union would wire it to the home papers. Except for Murray's stuff. The guys from Western Union would come back to Jim looking befuddled.
"Hey, Murray," they would ask, "you sure you want to say this?"
Says Murray, "I think they kept waiting for 'and then, his bat flashing in the sun, the Bambino belted a four-ply swat,' and it never came."
What came instead were one-line snapshots that a hundred fulminations couldn't top. Elgin Baylor was "as unstoppable as a woman's tears." Dodger manager Walt Alston would "order corn on the cob in a Paris restaurant."
It was the kind of stuff that the guy with a stopwatch hanging from his neck hated, but almost everybody else liked—especially women. "I love your column," one female fan wrote him, "even when I don't know what you're talking about."
Murray became nearly as famous as his subjects. Once, during a tournament, Arnold Palmer's golf ball rolled into a gully, leaving him an impossible shot out of a thicket. Just then he saw Murray in the gallery. "Well," Palmer said, "you're always writing about Hogan. What would Hogan do in a situation like this?"
Said Murray, "Hogan wouldn't be in a situation like that."
In 1969 Texas and Arkansas met in Fayetteville in a classic battle for number one, a football game attended by President Nixon. After the game Murray was slammed into a chain link fence by a Secret Service man who apparently thought Murray looked suspicious. Murray found himself a foot off the ground, suspended only by his collar. Just then, Nixon walked by.
"How ya' doin', Jim?" Nixon said.
"I'd be better," Murray said, "if you could get this monkey to put me down."
LONG BEACH: "The seaport of Iowa...a city which, rumor has it, was settled by a slow leak in Des Moines."
SAN FRANCISCO: "...it's not a town, it's a no-host cocktail party. If it were human, it'd be W.C. Fields. It has a nice, even climate. It's always winter."
CINCINNATI: "They still haven't finished the freeway outside the ballpark...it's Kentucky's turn to use the cement mixer."
ST. LOUIS: "...had a bond issue recently and the local papers campaigned for it on a slogan 'Progress or Decay,' and decay won in a landslide."
OAKLAND: "...is this kind of town: You have to pay 50 cents to go from Oakland to San Francisco. Coming to Oakland from San Francisco is free."
THE TWIN CITIES: "...didn't like each other and from what I could see I didn't blame either of them."
BALTIMORE: "...a guy just standing on a corner with no place to go and rain dripping off his hat. Baltimore's a great place if you're a crab."
LOS ANGELES: "...underpoliced and oversexed."
Murray and nuclear waste dumps have a lot in common. Everybody likes them until one shows up in the backyard.
Take the state of Iowa. When the University of Iowa got stuck on its ear in the Rose Bowl this year, Murray felt for the visiting vanquished:
"...I mean, you're going to have to start covering your eyes when these guys come to town in the family Winnebago with their pacemakers and the chicken salad.... They're going home, so to speak, with a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge and a watch that loses an hour a day and turns green on their arm."
That ruffled Iowans so much that two weeks later Governor Terry Branstad began his state of the state message (as if he didn't have more pressing issues) with a comment for Murray: "Jim, we're proud to be Iowans...." the governor said. "We're tough and we're coming back."
No, no, no, Governor! You're taking it all wrong. To have your nose tweaked by Murray is to be hockey-pucked by Don Rickles. Look on it as a privilege. You're one of the lucky ones. Some people roast celebs. Murray roasts America. He has zinged and zapped every place from Detroit ("...should be left on the doorstep for the Salvation Army), to Munich, West Germany ("Akron with a crewcut!").
In fact, Murray maintains Spokane once got to feeling neglected and wrote in asking for the treatment. Always helpful, Murray wrote: "The trouble with Spokane...is that there's nothing to do after 10 o'clock. In the morning. But it's a nice place to go for breakfast."
Besides, if Murray had dropped dead as thousands have asked him to, sports wouldn't be the same. He has championed dozens of causes, many as stark as black and white, and they've made a difference in the nation's landscape. It was Murray's badgering of the Masters, for instance, that helped that tournament change its Caucasians-only stance: "It would be nice to have a black American at Augusta in something other than a coverall...."
He was incredulous that Satchel Paige was having difficulty being inducted into the Hall of Fame: "Either let him in the front of the Hall—or move the damn thing to Mississippi."
He championed the cause of the beleaguered, retired Joe Louis: "As an economic entity, Joe Louis disappeared into a hole years ago and pulled it in after him. He cannot tunnel out in his lifetime. He owes the United States more than some European allies."
Crazy, isn't it? For a man who is half blind, Murray sure could see.
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....
He had a pretty exciting life. He saw Babe Ruth hit a home run when we were both 12 years old. He saw Willie Mays steal second base.... He saw Rocky Marciano get up.... You see, the friend I lost was my eye....
July 1, 1979
The beginning of the end announced itself one morning in Miami, three days before the 1979 Super Bowl, in the form of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson.
"Funny how dusty the air is in Miami," Murray told Henderson. "Been like this all week."
"What do you mean, Jim?" Henderson said. "It's as clear as a bell out."
The retina in Murray's left eye had become detached—and that was his good eye. The right one had carried a cataract since 1978, leaving him only peripheral vision. Now both eyes were out and Murray was legally blind. Over the next year five operations on the left retina could not restore it.
"At that point, I did not care," Murray says. "I would like to have died, actually. When you're blind, there's no quality to life."
I guess I would like to see a Reggie Jackson with the count 3 and 2 and the Series on the line, guessing fastball.... Rod Carew with men on first and second and no place to put him, and the pitcher wishing he were standing in the rain someplace.... Muhammad Ali giving a recital, a ballet, not a fight. Also, to be sure, I'd like to see a sky full of stars, moonlight on the water, and yes, the tips of a royal flush peeking out as I fan out a poker hand.... Come to think of it, I'm lucky. I saw all of those things. I see them yet.
Funny, he didn't feel lucky, even as sympathies stacked up in his hospital room. Once, when Murray had just come out of surgery and was not allowed visitors or phone calls, the phone did a funny thing. It rang anyway.
"Hello, Jim? You O.K.?"
"How'd you get through?"
Reggie Jackson does, after all, have a heart.
As for Murray, he had lost his and it wasn't until six months later that he got it back. Unable to see the keys on a typewriter, he began to use a tape recorder. Writing a column with only the sound of your voice is something like assembling a 1932 Ford roadster wearing boxing gloves. "It wasn't very good," Murray says. "But to me, it was a hell of an achievement."
With no chance to repair the left eye, doctors in December 1979 decided to remove the cataract from his right. That worked until the retina detached from it, too. Retinas 2, Murray 0. The right retina was finally repaired on Jan. 18, 1982, and Murray's vision, albeit tunneled, one-dimensional and precarious, came back.
Who knew that there would be times when he wished it hadn't?
To my three sons, Ted, Tony, and Ricky, who have never read my columns and doubtless won't read this book, and my daughter, Pammy, who won't, either. To their mother, Gerry, who not only read, but, bless her, laughed at all the jokes.
The Best of Jim Murray
Rearing teenagers in the late '60s and early '70s was a bitch, though the Murrays seemed to have done O.K. Tony pitched for Cal and, at one time, had scouts bird-dogging his games. Ted and Pam were good kids, and Ricky, the baby, was a delight. "He could play the piano like an angel," Murray says.
His father got him a job in the nuts-and-bolts end of the Times, and everything seemed fine. Many were the days Ricky would call his dad and laugh it up about that day's column.
"I don't know what happened," Murray says. "Dedication is hard on the marriage, hard on the family life. Maybe it was the column. Maybe it was the Malibu beach scene. Maybe it was all of it."
In the early evening of June 6, 1982, Jim and Gerry came home to find a business card sticking out of the door. It was from the county coroner.
CALL RE: CASE NO. 82-7193.
Case No. 82-7193 was better known as Ricky, age 29, dead from an overdose.
"I think about it all the time," Murray says, fingering that card, wrinkled from the years it has been in his wallet. "I don't know if I should say this, but it was always easy for me, the column. It's not like I spent long, long hours on it. I had plenty of time to be with my family.... But I don't know. You lose a son and you think, 'Was I a lousy father?' But then, when you're a semifamous father, that's another load to bear."
There was one load yet to go.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. I was supposed to die First.... I had my speech all ready. I was going to look into her brown eyes and tell her something I should have long ago. I was going to tell her: "It was a privilege just to have known you."
I never got to say it. But it was too true.
April 3, 1984
Toward the end, because of the treatments, Gerry wore a wig. One day, on the way to Palm Springs, they stopped at a coffee shop and, for some reason, she wanted a milkshake, the first she'd had since high school. They sat there and had a few laughs. And when they'd stopped laughing, Gerry tipped her wig cockeyed for a few more laughs.
Two nights later, she got up in the middle of the night and fell; she faded into a coma and stayed there from January through March.
Four times a week, Murray would write his column, get an interview at lunch and then spend the rest of the time at the hospital at Gerry's bedside. Sitting down at the typewriter with sorrow staring back at him was de rigueur for Murray. Through Ricky, through blindness, through Gerry, the show went on.
"I have sat down and attempted humor with a broken heart," he says. "I've sat down and attempted humor with every possible facet of my life in utter chaos.... Carmen was announced. Carmen will be sung."
What was hard was trying to write over those infernal voices, trying to forget the doctor's voice on the phone. The first X rays showed the cancer hadn't spread. But there had been a mix-up at the radiology clinic, just like in the movies. What in fact had happened was just the opposite. "Sorry," the doctor said. The cancer has metastasized."
The cancer has metastasized.
"The most terrible collection of syllables in the language," Murray says.
Gerry died on April 1.
That figures. You write punch lines your whole life and then the last joke is on you.
Writing a column is like riding a tiger. You don't want to stay on, but you don't want to get off either.
March 12, 1961
Not 10 minutes down the hill from Murray's house is the Hotel Bel-Air, where a famous low-calorie beer company is holding a dinner for the stars of its next 60-second sports celluloid extravaganza. Murray is invited, so he arranges for a ride (he can't drive at night) and makes an appearance. What the hell, as Murray says, might be a column in it.
Walking in, Murray turns heads. For some in the sports world, seeing Murray come into a room without a guide is sufficient reason for a celebratory dinner. "How ya' feelin', Jim?" asks Red Auerbach. "How you makin' out, Jim?" asks Bob Lanier. "Everything O.K. with you, Jim?" asks Bob Uecker.
Over in the corner, Boog Powell cannot quite get up the courage to say hello. "I haven't ever met him," says Powell, "but I've been reading his stuff for many years. And he's written about me, I don't know, half a dozen times, but I've seen him in a locker room only twice. He's a great man. I'm one of his biggest fans."
This is how it is now for Murray. He is in that the-legend-walks-and-talks-and-eats-breakfast stage. The Last King of Sportswriting, boys, sitting right over there.
But Murray the writer has seldom seemed younger. He was named the nation's best columnist for 1984 by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Odds are that Murray will go on winning awards three years after he is buried.
Why he has never been awarded the Pulitzer Prize is an unsolved mystery. Then again, only three sportswriters have won it—Red Smith, Dave Anderson and Arthur Daley—and all three worked for The New York Times. "If Murray worked for the Times" says Dan Jenkins, author of Semi-Tough, "he'd already have three."
Murray doesn't care. "Gerry's gone. So what?"
He misses her. "I'll be watching TV once in a while and I'll see somebody we knew and I'll say, 'Gerry, come take a look at...' And then I'll catch myself."
Two years after Gerry died, friends are still telling him, "Why don't you move out of that house? It'll help you to forget." And he answers, " 'Cause I don't want to forget."
So he fills his days at home, in a house that is far too big for him, the lights always turned on low. He's a steel ball in a giant pinball machine, banging around off the walls, nothing much in the refrigerator, stacks of books and untended mail cluttering up the counter space. No room in the house really means much to him anymore except the corner of a small downstairs bedroom where he writes his column by the light of a lamp and a window. It strained his eyes to make out the tiny print on his portable computer, so someone hooked up a magnifying monitor. It is chilling to watch him with his back to the door, his shoulders hunched over an eerie green light, writing jokes for the greater Los Angeles area.
And Murray never misses a column. "What else would I do?" he says.
A tour of the house is really more of a tour of Gerry—here we are at the Masters, at Pebble Beach, at the Dunes, at Madison Square Garden—until you arrive at a 3 X 5 on the piano.
"This is my favorite," he says. "I don't know if she'd like it or not. But I like it. Look at those eyes. Look at them. There's just no jealousy in those eyes."
He fingers the frame, clears his throat.
"The final curtain is pretty bad, isn't it? The last scene, the last act, is pretty bad." Pause.
"Put it this way," he says. "It'll never sell in Dubuque."
You laugh. But Murray doesn't. He just smiles.
Fooled 'em again.