Once upon a time, in fact the last year the Baltimore Orioles won the World Series, Jim Murray, a sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times, wrote that "Baltimore, the team, is a lot like the city. Monotonous. It's like watching nine guys run a lathe. Or mow a lawn. . . . The weather is like the team. Gray. Colorless. Drab. . . . It would be a great place to stage 'Hamlet,' but not baseball games. It doesn't really rain; it just kind of leaks. You get the picture of Baltimore as a guy standing on a corner with no place to go and the rain dripping off his hat. . . .
"The ballpark looks like the Christians and lions are coming on next. It's not a ruin exactly. More like a Civil War monument. They forgot to put the roof on. A plane once crashed in the upper deck here. Some said he thought it was an old tobacco shed."
And they gave this guy the Pulitzer Prize last week?
You bet they did, although they took their sweet time about it. If the award had come much later in Murray's career, Willard Scott would have had to make the announcement. When asked for a reaction, Murray, typically, said he thought it was great because the award would make it easier for the obit writers.
Actually, he doesn't need the imprimatur of some self-important committee that should have recognized long ago what everyone in my business has understood for years. All the obit boys would have to say, sometime in the distant future, is that Jim Murray was the greatest sportswriter who ever lived and leave it at that.
The greatest? Didn't he take a stiletto to Baltimore and make like Zorro? Sure. And it caused quite a stir at the time. What people didn't understand is that for a city to get the Murray treatment is not unlike Shakespeare writing about some dead king. It's a kind of immortality. In fact, civic leaders from Spokane, Wash., a town in desperate need of some immortality, once begged Murray to add their city to his long hit list.
"The only trouble with Spokane, Wash., as a city," Murray began, "is that there's nothing to do after 10 o'clock. In the morning."
Murray is different from other sportswriters, which is to say better, of course. He is unique. He is the prince of hyperbole, who never met a straight line he didn't like. And no matter how broad a brush he uses to paint his word pictures, Murray's tend to come out looking like the "Mona Lisa."
At the Indy 500, he wrote, "Gentleman, start your coffins."
When he returned to writing after losing one eye to a detached retina, he wrote, "Old Blue Eye is back."
He warns his readers not to play cards with a guy named Doc, and when Casey Stengel died, he wrote, "Well, God is getting an earful today."
He has profiled a thousand athletes, and I swear to you that each one of them, no matter how famous, has the column framed and hanging on a wall somewhere. It's a kind of immortality. Other writers fill in the blanks, tell you the count on the home run, give you the details. Murray, who started out on the Hollywood beat for Time magazine, has made the games and the people come alive in his columns for 30-odd years now, sometimes as often as five days a week. And, finally, the Pulitzer committee had to say as much.
Before Murray, there were only three sportswriters to have won a Pulitzer. All of them wrote for the New York Times, a great newspaper that cares little about the games it covers. Murray's award was an award for all of us who do care. It said that sports was important, or at least as important as drama or opera. It also said that satire was satire, whether the topic was the Orioles or Dan Quayle. It said that great writing was great writing, although Murray would probably have none of that. A gentle, modest man, who has never understood the fuss made over him, Murray likes to sum up his career by saying it would have been better to have been a failed playwright.
But Murray writes truth, the essence of any great writer. And like many who deal in humor, he is at his best when serious, when he tells us of the loving wife who died or of the slaughter of the Israeli innocents--and our innocence--at Munich. He can even write a great column about moving, if the move is from the beaches of Malibu to the safe and solid life inland. He wrote: "I will envy you when I hear rain falling on pavement, and I know you are watching my storm come in--long gray veils of rain sweeping in from the tossing seas, leaving the temples of the mountains with the hoar of mist, what the poet calls 'the compassionate sweet laughter of the rain, the gray-eyed daughter of the mist above the flawed and driven tide.' Then, and not only then, but mostly then, will I miss my lovely, lost land, my sunset, my ocean, my 18 Christmases by the side of my lovely sea."
And on another day, with deadline calling, he could summon up these words: "I said New York was the largest chewing gum receptacle in the world. . . . I said Minneapolis and St. Paul didn't like each other, and from what I could see, I didn't blame either of them.
" 'Is L.A. such a big deal?' they ask. No, it's not. It's under-policed and over-sexed. . . . It's 400 square miles of slide area. One minute you're spreading a picnic lunch on the Palisades and the next you're treading water in the Pacific."
I was once a young writer on The Los Angeles Times, and like all young writers on The Times, I wanted to be Jim Murray. I tried. You don't know how hard I tried. Finally, an old hand came to me and said, "Son, there's only one Jim Murray. Try to be somebody else."
I came to settle for just knowing the man and reading him every day and understanding what the word "inimitable" means. And when I decided to leave Los Angeles to come to the Baltimore Sun, Murray came up to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said straight-faced, "Mike, did they tell you it was Baltimore?" Honest to God.