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Finest Man I Ever Knew

Aug. 24, 1998
Aug. 24, 1998

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Aug. 24, 1998

Finest Man I Ever Knew

I once asked Jim Murray if he kept a few extra columns in the
bank for days when he had the flu or a tee time or an incurably
blank computer screen. "Of course not!" he yowled. "What if I
die one ahead?"

This is an article from the Aug. 24, 1998 issue

On Sunday, Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived,
kissed his gorgeous wife, started to put on his pajamas, said,
"Linda, something's wrong," and collapsed. The doctor was there
in five minutes, but it was too late. Jim had died of a heart
attack. He was 78.

He got his wish, though. He didn't have any columns saved up. Too
bad. We could use a few laughs right now.

Murray on huge Boog Powell: "They're going to make an umbrella
stand out of his foot."

On how they ought to begin the Indianapolis 500: "Gentlemen,
start your coffins."

On baseball: "Willie Mays's glove is where triples go to die."

On Roger Staubach: "Square as a piece of fudge."

On Elgin Baylor: "Unstoppable as a woman's tears."

Murray could write anything; sports just happened to get lucky.
He was TIME's Hollywood correspondent in the 1950s, and the
stars loved him. He drank with Bogey, played cards with the
Duke, dined with Marilyn. He carried a solid-gold money clip
given to him by Jack Benny. Murray could've made millions in the
studios. He used to moonlight doctoring dialogue for Jack Webb.
I'll pulverize ya! the script would say. Murray would change it
to, Say, how'd you like to end up as six feet of lumps?

He wrote the nation's best sports column for 37 delicious years
at the Los Angeles Times, but, come to think of it, the column
was about sports sort of the way Citizen Kane was about sleds.

Murray on an unfinished highway to a stadium in Cincinnati: "It
must be Kentucky's turn to use the cement mixer."

On New Jersey: "Its principal export is soot."

On Philadelphia: "A place to park the truck and change your
socks."

Murray's Banned-McNally became so famous that Spokane begged to
be done. "The trouble with Spokane," the compliant Murray wrote,
"is that there's nothing to do after 10 o'clock. In the morning."

Murray never went on The Sports Reporters, never had his own
radio show, never even liked his picture to be in the paper. But
he had more impact than any sportswriter since Grantland Rice.
The 10-shot cut rule in golf was Murray's idea. It was Murray
who shamed the Masters into finally allowing Lee Elder to play,
in 1975. ("Wouldn't it be nice to have a black American at
Augusta in something other than a coverall?" Murray wrote.)

One time, at a U.S. Open, Arnold Palmer found himself in a
ditch. He was trying to figure out what shot to play when he
looked up and saw Murray. "What would Hogan do in a situation
like this?" Palmer asked. Murray looked down and said, "Hogan
wouldn't be in a situation like that."

It wasn't all laughs, yet through heartache, illness and sorrow,
Murray wrote on. His son Ricky died of a drug overdose, and Jim
blamed himself in part. The love of his youth--his first wife,
Gerry--died of cancer 14 years ago, and I thought Jim would
never turn the lights up in his house again, until Linda came
along. His eyes had this annoying habit of going out on him. He
dictated the column blind for six months and was still better
than anybody in the country.

America tried to tell him. He won a Pulitzer. He's in the
Baseball Hall of Fame. He was named National Sportswriter of the
Year for 12 straight years, 14 in all. There was a little dinner
honoring him a few years back. Nothing special. Kirk Douglas
showed up. Dinah Shore. Barron Hilton. Some couple came in to
hand Murray the Richstone Man of the Year community service
award: President and Mrs. Reagan. Yet Murray was so humble that
when you left him--even if you were the third-string volleyball
writer in Modesto--you couldn't remember which of you was the
legend.

Finest man I ever knew.

Lately, I was waiting for Jim to retire and hoping like hell he
wouldn't. "Writing a column is like riding a tiger," he used to
say. "You'd like to get off, but you have no idea how."

Rotten luck. He finally found a way.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA [Rick Reilly]
It wasn't all laughs, yet through heartache, illness and sorrow,
Murray wrote on.