By Dennis Rudner
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Nov. 1, 2019
In his own mind, Jim Murray was just a guy.
A guy who won a Pulitzer Prize, sure.
A guy who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, winning the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 1997. A guy who was named “America’s Best Sportswriter” 14 times.
If the Associated Press Sports Editors didn’t hand out the Red Smith Award every year, the organization would certainly be honoring a worthy recipient with the Jim Murray Award.
“He was the pope of sports journalism,” longtime Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre said after Murray died in 1998.
Murray, who won the APSE Red Smith Award in 1982 — it’s second year in existence — was the master of the written word. He championed social causes, was funny and caustic, entertaining and enlightening.
“There was Red Smith and there was Jim Murray and there won’t be any two better,” Dwyre told Elis Powers in “Still no Cheering in the Press Box.”
Murray spawned a generation of storytellers, but few could see what he saw, despite eye problems that would have sidelined most others.
One of his most moving columns, “I lost a friend today” remains a testament to how Murray could weave together language that even today, more than 20 years after his death, makes readers laugh, cry, maybe get a little angry but definitely marvel at his poetic style.
“People need to be amused, shocked, titillated or angered,” Murray wrote in his autobiography. “But if you can amuse or shock or make them indignant enough, you can slip lots of information into your message.”
He died in 1998, yet Jim Murray still is inspiring a new generation of sportswriters, thanks to the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, which raises money to provide scholarships for second- and third-year undergrad journalism students.
It’s a labor of love for his second wife, Linda Murray Hofmans, who launched the nonprofit with a home equity loan in 1999. She works endlessly to perpetuate Murray’s dedication to the craft.
“When you believe in something, you’ve got to have the passion and drive to make it succeed,” Murray Hofmans said.
To date, the foundation has helped more than 115 college students on their paths to realize their dreams.
Mari Faiello was one of five students recognized in 2019. To be associated with Jim Murray is “mind blowing” for the senior from the University of Florida, who became exposed to Murray during a sports writing class in Gainesville.
“I was familiar with the name Jim Murray, but not his legacy,” Faiello said. “To be one of the few lucky people to be in Los Angeles and connect with the people who knew Jim Murray, is priceless.”
Despite being what some would consider old school, Murray would still be relevant today. He’d leave social media to others, and Dwyer said he’d make sure that was the case. “I would want Jim to keep finding the story no one else could.”
For four decades he cranked out a column six days a week. At one time, he was syndicated in more than 75 newspapers across the country.
“The trouble with writing a column is it’s like running a railroad. You have to keep the stock rolling,” Murray once wrote.
Despite never throwing a pitch, making a sky hook or lugging the football for a touchdown, Murray was named among the Top 20 sports figures in Los Angeles history in 2011 by the Los Angeles Times.
What he did lug around was his 1946 cast-iron Remington Rand typewriter. It’s been said more than once, “the typewriter was Jim Murray’s brush and the sports page was his easel.”
In honoring Murray in 2011, the Times wrote he “was the master of the written word in a golden era of Los Angeles media that included the greatness of the spoken word from the likes of Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Bob Miller. They each had a sport to describe. Murray had the universe.”
The Pulitzer and induction into baseball’s HOF were special honors for Murray — he is only one of four sportswriters (Dave Anderson, Arthur Daley and Smith) to win a Pulitzer.
Quoting Tommy Lasorda shouldn’t merit a Pulitzer, Murray wrote.
“We were very close friends, and we never thought very much of the Pulitzer — up until then, it had been the possession of The New York Times,” said 2000 Red Smith Award winner Jerry Izenberg. “There had only been three sport guys to win it and they all had been from the Times. When he won it, both Blackie Sherrod (from the Dallas Morning News) and I called him, and we said the same thing: ‘Congratulations, and we finally got OUR Pulitzer.'”
Those awards are 1 and 1A, Murray Hofmans said, but the Red Smith Award was special.
Just as special as Murray. He was the first Red Smith Award winner not named Red Smith.
Dwyre, the Red Smith Award winner in 1996, said despite all the accolades and reverence Murray received from athletes, media colleagues and readers, Murray didn’t have an ego.
“If he did, he never showed it.”
Thousands, perhaps millions of words have been written about Murray — his style, his wit, his ability to find that one little nugget that separated him from all the others.
Rick Reilly’s 1994 “King of the Sports Page” for Sports Illustrated and Jerome Holtzman’s “No Cheering in the Press Box” tell the Jim Murray story better than anyone not named Murray.
“Murray may be the most famous sportswriter in history,” Reilly wrote. “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 UCLA coach John Wooden was “so square, he was divisible by four”? How many lines can you remember by any other sportswriter?”
“He was an observer of life through the prism of sports,” Roy Firestone told Holtzman in “No Cheering.” “He could do funny. He could do poignant. He could do inspiring.”
Oh boy, he did all three, masterfully.
“The only trouble with Spokane, Washington, as a city is that there’s nothing to do after 10 o’clock. In the morning. But it’s a nice place to go for breakfast.”
March 17, 1990, in Las Vegas. Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Olympian and gold medal winner Meldrick Taylor. Two undefeated warriors. Fight of the Year. Here’s what Murray wrote for the Times:
“If early rounds counted, in war, Germany and Japan would have been the winners of World War II. Let’s put it this way: They had a great first half. But you don’t score a football game by quarters or a baseball game by innings.”
He had more one-liners than Rodney Dangerfield.
When Mike Tyson gets mad, you don’t need a referee, you need a priest.
Willie Mays’ glove is where triples go to die.
Show me a man who is a good loser and I’ll show you a man who is playing golf with his boss.
Murray also championed racial equality, using his Remington to take aim at The Masters. “It would be nice to have a black American at Augusta in something other than a coverall … .”
He had a passing relationship with Red Smith. Smith wrote more about traditional sports while Murray loved boxing, golf and the horses. Murray respected the athletes he wrote about and the feeling was mutual, even from those who bared the brunt of his Remington.
While Murray was the subject of awe, there was one athlete whom he revered — Ben Hogan. Of all the memorabilia in his collection, Murray cherished one piece, Dwyre said.
Hogan wrote Jim a letter after reading one of his columns. In essence, the letter simply said:
Thanks for the nice article.
That letter meant the world to Jim, Dwyer said.
Coming from Hartford, Connecticut, shaped how Murray viewed and wrote about what he witnessed — and he usually saw things much differently than others.
Growing up, he was surrounded by extended family members, the kind you’d find in a Damon Runyon novel, Dwyer said.
He was bedridden with rheumatic fever when he was 10, Murray Hofmans said, and during that time he read, and read, and read.
Maybe that’s why his IQ was through the roof and helped shape his love for history and Winston Churchill. Murray could finish The New York Times crossword puzzle in 10 minutes.
Murray was a general assignment and cops reporter and escaped his roots in Connecticut and made his way to Los Angeles.
His career has been well documented with stories involving Hollywood’s elite. Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando.
He said covering celebrities helped prepare him to cover sports. His byline first appeared on a sports story in Life in 1950. In 1953, he helped start Sports Illustrated.
Murray was at the crossroads as the 1960s began: stay in Los Angeles or take a top spot with Sports Illustrated in New York, Holtzman wrote.
Otis Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, was convinced to keep Murray and offer him a job as a columnist.
And as they say, the rest is history.