Jim Murray, Pulitzer-Winning Times Columnist, Dies

From a Times Staff Writer

Columnist Jim Murray, whose keen and stylish observations on life and sports made him one of only four sportswriters to win a Pulitzer Prize, died at his home late Sunday night. He was 78.

Death was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Since 1961, Murray had entertained and enlightened his readers several times each week, although occasionally sidelined for eye or heart surgery. His quick-witted style and gentle sarcasm became widely imitated but seldom matched.

While becoming famous for one-liners and good-natured jabs at cities across the country, he also was adept at bringing a sports issue into focus with incisive commentary.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing."

He won the Associated Press Sports Editors' award for best column writing in 1984, and the same group's Red Smith Award for lifelong achievement in sportswriting.

In one span of 16 years, he was voted national sportswriter of the year 14 times, 12 times in succession.

"Jim Murray is one of the journalists who helped, in a very special way, to bring The Times to greatness," Editor Michael Parks said Monday. "His contribution over 37 years is best measured in the delight and pleasure--and even outrage, sometimes--and the insights he brought to two generations of readers."

Murray, a familiar figure at Southern California sports venues--in recent years, slightly bent over and rumpled--wrote his last column for Sunday morning's paper. It was on the thoroughbred Free House's victory in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Vintage Murray, it said, "The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet. The 'best friend' got the girl. . . . The sidekick saves the fort."

In a 1986 Sports Illustrated profile, reprinted by the magazine in 1994, Rick Reilly noted that "Murray may be the most famous sportswriter in history. . . .

"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 4'? How many lines can you remember by any other sportswriter?"

Right Place at the Right Time

Murray's reign as king of sports journalism coincided with the meteoric rise of all sports and their transformation into industries--and with the ascendancy of Los Angeles as their capital. He was in the right place at the right time with the right words.

There were stars everywhere, on the field and in the box seats, and Murray knew them all: Wilt Chamberlain and Marilyn Monroe, Bill Shoemaker and Bing Crosby, Sandy Koufax and Jack Benny. . . . It was great to be alive and the leading sports columnist in Los Angeles.

Murray said he always thought his primary job was to entertain the reader.

"They could find the score elsewhere," he wrote in his 1993 autobiography. "Basically, I find most people hate to be informed . . .

"People need to be amused, shocked, titillated or angered," he wrote. "But if you can amuse or shock or make them indignant enough, you can slip lots of information into your message. . . .

"Satire is the best weapon in the writer's arsenal to attack injustice. Frothing at the mouth turns the reader off. Angry voices are always assaulting us from all sides. The humorless we always have with us. And they always have their soapbox. The din of indignation gets deafening."

So, in Murray's column, the one-liners flowed like the bubbly at Chasen's.

Reilly in Sports Illustrated: "A Murray column is . . . 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.' "

Before 1990, only three sportswriters had been honored with Pulitzer Prizes--Smith, Arthur Daley and Dave Anderson, all of the New York Times. That year, Murray became the fourth.

Now, it's conceivable that with Murray's death, an era is ending, both in journalism and in Los Angeles.

The former capital of sports is in danger of becoming just another county seat, with journeyman athletes getting top billing by default. The Dodgers, with their 1988 World Series victory, are the last Los Angeles pro team to have won a championship, and the city is without pro football. The Raiders are back in Oakland and the Rams, the first big-time pro team to arrive here, have fled to St. Louis.

Ah, St. Louis. It "had a bond issue recently and the local papers campaigned for it on a slogan, 'Progress or Decay,' and decay won in a landslide." That was how Murray, the master geographer, once handled that town. And he had lots to say about lots of towns.

In fact, every locale in the hinterland was fair game for Murray, who, tongue in cheek, showed them no mercy. A sampler:

* "If Cincinnati were human, they'd bury it. It's the only municipal rubble heap this side of occupied Germany. If war came, the Russians would bypass it because they'd think it had already been bombed."

* "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."

And so on, right across the map.

Wrote Murray in his autobiography, "You can see where these free-wheeling travel tips didn't endear me to the local chambers of commerce. Nor the citizenry. You can take on the smallest community in the United States--and a few hundred people in L.A. will have come from there. They would promptly clip the offending columns--and mail them back to the mayors of their hometowns.

"Once, when I undertook to describe Iowans at a Rose Bowl as 'thousands of people in calico and John Deere caps in their Winnebagos with their pacemakers and potato salad looking around for Bob Hope,' the governor, no less, got mad and denounced me on the floor of the state Legislature. You'd think I was John Dillinger."

Nor was Los Angeles spared.

"It's 400 miles of slide area," he wrote. "One minute you're spreading a picnic lunch on a table at the Palisades and the next minute you're treading water in the Pacific. It's a place that has a dry river but 100,000 swimming pools. It's a place where you get 100 days for murder but six months for whipping your dog."

But as he noted, it was "all good clean fun. Or what's a sports column for anyway?"

Retired Times Publisher Otis Chandler said Monday that every time Murray wrote one of his trademark columns poking fun at a city, the publisher's mailbox would overflow.

"I developed a standard letter," Chandler said. "It said that Jim Murray is a great writer, a knowledgeable sports expert and also a humorist."

Bill Thomas, editor of The Times for more than 17 years until 1989, said Murray "rarely wrote just for effect, and if he did, he let you know he was just kidding around. He was essentially a serious writer, a writer with integrity. He was a very large talent whose subject was human beings who happened to work in the world of sports.

"Jim was a celebrity, a national icon in sportswriting, yet he remained a modest, hard-working, unaffected human being," Thomas said.

Murray, who became a friend of the famous and a celebrity himself--former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali once spotted him and shouted, "Jim Murray! Jim Murray! The greatest sportswriter of all time!"--grew up alongside the railroad tracks in Hartford, Conn.

"I was a Depression child," he began in his autobiography, "with all that connotes.

"That means you never trust the system again. You know what can happen to it. That means you go through life never fully able to enjoy it. That means you have an ever-present sense of foreboding. I don't know how it affected other people but I have never been off a payroll in my life. . . . I don't recommend it. It's just the way I was. A legacy of hard times, constant fear of the future. . . . That's because the most terrible thing in life to me was to be out of work. I had seen what it did to people. To families. To marriages. . . .

"I noticed in later life all those people who said money wasn't important to them always had plenty of it. . . .

"I was raised by my grandparents. My father had been a druggist. He had lost his stores, I was told. I was too young to remember. I don't know whether he was a poor druggist or a poor businessman. Either way, my parents got divorced.

"Don't ask me how but my grandmother got custody."

Sports as a 'Universal Language'

Somewhere along the way, Murray "made a remarkable discovery: Sports is not only a universal language like music, but it's a nice, safe topic of conversation. . . . I took away from my childhood that love of sports and never lost it. . . . I suppose I never grew up. That's all right with me. That's the nice thing about sports. You can be Peter Pan."

Living halfway between Boston and New York, Murray had mixed sporting allegiances, but he soon realized that "the glamour players were in New York. The Yankees, Giants and Dodgers were there. Babe Ruth was there.

"I'm happy to say I saw Ruth. In his last season with the Yankees. I actually saw Babe Ruth hit a home run. . . . At the time, I thought they should have put it on my epitaph."

After attending Trinity College in Hartford, Murray worked for the New Haven Register, then in 1944 headed west, joining the city staff of the old Los Angeles Examiner.

"I didn't set out to be a sportswriter," he wrote later. "I was going to be Eugene O'Neill. Hemingway. Hell, Tolstoy. I was going to stand Broadway, Hollywood, the Old Vic on its ear.

"I got to be a sportswriter in my journalistic dotage--which is just the right time for it."

First, though, in 1948, he became Hollywood correspondent for Time and Life magazines, turning out cover stories on John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Mario Lanza, Betty Hutton and other stars of the day.

Wayne, according to Murray, "lived in a man's world on and off the screen and a lot of my interviewing was spent sitting around a poker table with his cronies or riding down to Baja for a pigeon shoot."

Murray also numbered among his close friends Humphrey Bogart, who "always played tough guys but he was anything but. . . . 'After two drinks, he thinks he's Bogart,' the restaurateur Mike Romanoff, who knew Bogart about as well as anyone, used to sneer."

In Bogart's last days, Murray recalled, the actor was limited to one drink a day by his doctor, and often would hold off until Murray came by--and have that drink with him.

Helping Start Sports Illustrated

When Sports Illustrated was conceived in 1953, Murray was recruited to help the magazine get started. He then continued working in various capacities for Time Inc. until 1961, when he was hired by The Times as featured sports columnist,

He covered everything, with wit and style.

There were the Dodgers: "[Manager] Walt Alston would order corn on the cob in a Paris restaurant."

There were the Lakers: "Elgin Baylor is as unstoppable as a woman's tears."

Later, there were the Raiders, with such characters as Lyle Alzado: "He found out what everyone finds out in Tinseltown sooner or later: You're only as good as your last picture. Or your last tackle."

There was boxing, which Murray described as "great theater. There is no moment in sports to rival the electric charge that goes through an audience in the moments just before the bell for a heavyweight championship fight. Nothing can touch that. No Super Bowl coin flip, no World Series introduction, no Final Four, Wimbledon or Stanley Cup can match it."

And there was always golf, which he also loved to play at his favorite course, Riviera Country Club.

Summing up his feelings about the game in a chapter of his autobiography titled, "Golf--Me 'n Hogan 'n Jack 'n Arnie 'n Sam," Murray wrote, "I'll miss lots of sports one day, but I may miss golf most of all."

For a while, starting in 1979, he did miss lots of sports.

During the week leading up to the Super Bowl that January in Miami, the retina in Murray's left eye became detached. Because there already was a cataract on his right eye, he was virtually blind. After doctors failed in five operations to reattach the retina in his left eye, Murray resigned himself to its loss, and wrote upon his return to The Times in early July:

"OK, bang the drum slowly, professor. Muffle the cymbals. Kill the laugh track. You might say that Old Blue Eye is back. But that's as funny as this is going to get.

"I feel I owe my friends an explanation as to where I've been all these weeks. Believe me, I would rather have been in a press box.

"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.

"We read a lot of books together, we did a lot of crossword puzzles together, we saw films together. 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 Maury Wills steal his 104th base. He saw Rocky Marciano get up. I thought he led a pretty good life.

"One night a long time ago he saw this pretty lady who laughed a lot, played the piano and he couldn't look away from her. Later he looked on as I married this pretty lady. He saw her through 34 years. He loved to see her laugh, he loved to see her happy.

"You see, the friend I lost was my eye. My good eye. . . .

"So my best friend left me, at least temporarily, in a twilight world where it's always 8 o'clock on a summer night. . . .

"But it was a long, good relationship, a happy one. . . .

"Still, I'm only human. I'd like to see again, if possible. . . . Reggie Jackson with the count 3 and 2 and the Series on the line, guessing fastball. . . . I'd like to see Elroy Hirsch going out for a long one from Bob Waterfield. . . . I'd like to see Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali giving a recital, a ballet, not a fight. . . .

"Come to think of it, I'm lucky. I saw all of those things. I see them yet."

In December 1979, doctors decided to try removing the cataract from Murray's right eye, but the retina soon detached from it, too. Finally, using new surgical techniques, the right retina was repaired early in 1982, restoring some vision.

Through it all, Murray attended sporting events and wrote whenever possible, a regimen he continued even when beset by further personal tragedy twice within the ensuing two years.

"I have sat down and attempted humor with a broken heart," he told Reilly. "I've sat down and attempted humor with every possible facet of my life in utter chaos. . . . 'Carmen' was announced. 'Carmen' will be sung."

On June 6, 1982, Murray and his first wife, Gerry, learned that the youngest of their three sons, Ricky, 29, had died of an overdose of drugs and alcohol.

"To this day, I don't quite know what happened," Murray wrote in his autobiography. "Several things: First, I became a columnist five years after we moved to Malibu [in 1956]. Second, Malibu was almost the eye of the storm in the drug hurricane that twisted across America. . . . Looking back on it, I did all the wrong things. Threats, cajolery, dire threats of ruination. I didn't even know what the kids were talking about. . . .

"We get lessons in everything from sex to how to play golf. But we get no lessons in the most important function we will ever have to face--how to be parents. Gerry knew it by instinct. I didn't have a clue."

Then, less than a year later, Gerry was told that she had an inoperable brain tumor. The cancer had started in her colon and metastasized to the liver and brain. She died on April 1, 1984.

"I lost my lovely Gerry the other day," Murray wrote in his column two days later. "I lost the sunshine and roses, all right, the laughter in the other room. I lost the smile that lit up my life. . . .

"She never grew old and now, she never will. She wouldn't have anyway. She had four children, this rogue husband, a loving family and this great wisdom and great heart. . . . Wherever she is today, they can't believe their good luck. . . .

"Gerry took the magic and the summer with her. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I was supposed to die first. We would have been married 39 years this year and we thought that was just the natural order of things. 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."

It took seven years of grieving and living alone in his Westside home before Murray found someone to share the rest of his life: Linda McCoy, an old friend he had met when she acted as his driver at the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

Murray underwent complicated heart surgery in December 1994, which again caused him to miss some columns, but with his recovery, he was hard at work again.

Over the years, Murray liked frequently to resurrect one of Brando's movie lines when referring to athletes who didn't quite make the cut: "I coulda been a contenduh."

Obviously, it was a line that never applied to Jim Murray. He was a champ.

Mark Willes, publisher of The Times and chairman of Times Mirror Co., described Murray on Monday as a "journalist with remarkable wit, coupled with penetrating insights.

"In addition, [he was] a first-class human being," Willes said. "He will be deeply missed."

Survivors include his wife; his children, Pam Skeoch of Solvang, Ted of Santa Monica and Tony of Pacific Grove; granddaughters Danica Skeoch and Lindsay Murray; sister Betty Suppicich of Wethersfield, Conn.; and stepson Bill McCoy of Indianapolis.

A funeral Mass will be said Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Martin of Tours church, 11967 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Richstone Family Center, 13620 Cordary Ave., Hawthorne, CA 90250.

Participate in an interactive memorial to Times sports columnist Jim Murray and read some of his most-remembered columns on The Times' Web site. Go to: http://www.latimes.com/murray

* MORE ON MURRAY: He is remembered by colleagues and athletes. C1, C2, C6-10

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