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Farewell to a Friend

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Star athletes, Hollywood entertainers, fellow journalists and friends--people who enjoyed his wit, his warmth and his peerless work--gathered in Brentwood on Friday to pay final homage to Jim Murray, a man many consider the greatest sports columnist in history.

“He was one hell of a writer, and even a better person,” television sports essayist Jack Whitaker told an overflow congregation at St. Martin of Tours Roman Catholic Church.

“He was . . . a Peter Pan who believed satire was a wondrous weapon to defeat the pompous and the evil,” said Whitaker, who delivered the tribute at Murray’s funeral Mass. “It was about time someone came along and stopped coddling .250 hitters.”

Among the mourners in the church on Sunset Boulevard were some of the biggest names in sports.

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The athletes and former athletes included basketball immortal Elgin Baylor, former Dodger manager Bill Russell, King forward Luc Robitaille, Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, former USC, Raider and Chief running back Marcus Allen, jockey Chris McCarron, race drivers Carroll Shelby and Danny Sullivan and a favorite Murray target--heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.

There was a similar array of front-office types, among them Raider owner Al Davis, former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley and former Dodger vice president Fred Claire.

From behind their television and radio microphones came Whitaker, Keith Olbermann, Roy Firestone, Gil Stratton and Jim Hill. Print journalists included Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News, Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle, Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald and Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Actors Dabney Coleman and Peter Falk showed up, along with veteran entertainer Red Buttons--all of them reminders of the era before Murray started writing for Sports Illustrated and The Times, when he covered Hollywood for Time and Life magazines.

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The Times was represented Friday by virtually its entire sports staff, along with Publisher Mark Willes and Editor Michael Parks. Sports Editor Bill Dwyre was one of the pallbearers, as was former Times editor Bill Thomas.

“The church is filled with such love, affection and respect,” Whitaker said.

“James Patrick Murray, my, what a grand man you were.”

Murray, a syndicated columnist for The Times since 1961 and one of only four sportswriters to have won the Pulitzer Prize, died Sunday at his home after a heart attack. He was 78.

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His death ended what might have been the most heralded career in sportswriting.

Besides winning the Pulitzer, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1987, for “meritorious contributions to baseball writing.” Three years earlier, he had won the Associated Press Sports Editors award for best column writing, along with the same group’s Red Smith Award for lifelong achievement in sportswriting.

During one 16-year stretch, Murray was named national sportswriter of the year 14 times, 12 times in succession.

“Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived . . . never went on ‘The Sports Reporters,’ never had his own radio show, never even liked his picture to be in the paper,” Reilly, a former associate of Murray’s at The Times, wrote in this week’s Sports Illustrated. “But he had more impact than Grantland Rice.

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“The 10-shot cut rule was Murray’s idea,” Reilly wrote. “It was Murray who shamed the Masters into finally allowing [African American golfer] Lee Elder to play.”

The widespread admiration for Murray was illustrated by Tyson’s attendance Friday.

Despite Murray’s sharp criticism for the ear-biting incident that earned him a suspension from boxing, Tyson said he showed up at the funeral because he respected Murray’s work.

Allen said Murray was “remarkable” in what he did.

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“He poured his heart and soul into writing,” Allen said. “He was a measuring stick for every writer.”

Murray’s wry humor and penetrating satire--often imitated, seldom matched--made him a journalistic legend.

“Murray could write anything; sports just happened to get lucky,” Reilly wrote.

Monsignor John Sheridan, one of Murray’s old friends, echoed that theme on Friday, calling Murray “a born philosopher” who dealt with “the whole spectrum of human thought and imagination.

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“His subject was human beings who happened to work in the world of sports.”

Not that Murray couldn’t turn his talents elsewhere.

Cities were among his favorite targets--like Philadelphia [“a place to park your truck and change your socks”] and Oakland [“You have to pay 50 cents to go from Oakland to San Francisco. Coming to Oakland from San Francisco is free.”].

“It’s always amazed me that this bona fide Connecticut Yankee would become the most vocal huckster Southern California ever had,” Whitaker said. “Nothing here was ever bad. Nothing in the rest of the United States was ever good.”

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Not quite.

Murray once described Los Angeles as “400 miles of slide area. . . .

“It’s a place that has a dry river but 100,000 swimming pools,” he wrote. “It’s a place where you get 100 days for murder but six months for whipping your dog.”

His first wife, Gerry, died in 1984. It was the third tragedy to strike Murray within five years--along with the loss of much of his sight and the death of his son of an alcohol and drug overdose.

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But Murray continued to “fight the good fight,” as Sheridan noted, and the fabled sportswriter was rewarded in 1986 when he was reacquainted with Linda McCoy, an old friend he had met when she acted as his driver at the 1969 Indianapolis 500. They married in the spring of 1997.

Linda, his children, her children and his grandchildren received the hugs and warm words of scores of well-wishers at a service that reflected Murray’s Irish heritage.

A bagpiper led the precessional, which was followed by a series of Irish ballads, sung by tenor Dennis McNeil, that included “Danny Boy” and “Galway Bay.” Father Donie Keohane, who celebrated the Mass, reflected that while Murray “was a true American, he was blessed with an Irish wit.”

And when it came time for the recessional, members of the congregation blinked back their tears and walked out to the strains of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

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The Times’ Web site has a special memorial to Jim Murray with some of his most memorable columns, comments from readers and colleagues, and reports on his life and career. Go to: https://www.latimes.com/murray


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