Jim Murray's autobiography proves his greatness is there for all to read

Phil Jackman

June 17, 1993|By Phil Jackman

* "Jim Murray, The autobiography of the Pulitzer Prize-winnin sports columnist," Macmillan, $20.

There are any number of fine moments in sports -- so many, in fact, that it might qualify as death-defying to pare a list down to a dozen or so.

But among them certainly would be the bell for Round 1 of a legitimate heavyweight title match, the opening tap of the NCAA basketball championship game, Secretariat closing out a Triple Crown with a 31-length victory and a pitcher heading for the mound after throwing eight innings of hitless ball.

Of a more sedentary nature, right up there with the best would be an evening just listening to the stories flowing forth from Jim Murray.

For years, I've considered one of the few drawbacks of living in Baltimore, once one gets accustomed to 90-percent humidity to go with the 90-degree temperatures, is the absence of Murray's column in any paper within reasonable driving distance.

fTC Fortunately, what the great unwashed of the East has missed since Jim began columnizing in the Los Angeles Times in 1961 is partially available in Murray's autobiography, due for publication July 2.

It's vintage Murray, just like you're sitting across the table from him in a press room somewhere during a rain delay at the World Series.

Ah, Jim Murray, a sportswriter who along with Red Smith qualifies for the designation "great" in a profession where there have been and are thousands of "goods."

Did you ever sit down to read a book and find yourself arriving at the last page too quickly? I had never been so lucky until now.

For one thing, there just wasn't enough of Jim's days as the Hollywood correspondent for Time magazine.

Like the time, after trying to sell his editors in New York on a cover story of Marlon Brando, Murray showed up at the appointed time only to be left biding his time on purpose by the first of the method actors. Our man got his revenge, pointing out "Marlon was the first guy in history to make Napoleon funny [in the cinematic bomb "Desiree"]."

But never was Jim vindictive, be it as a regular news reporter in New Haven and Los Angeles, a magazine writer at Time or Sports Illustrated or in his column. Tough, to be sure, but entertaining, screamingly funny and with just the right amount of information to keep readers coming back.

Like life itself, the sports dodge is not all fun and games (not even close) and Jim's treatises on professional franchises playing hop-scotch, racism, the laughable state of supposedly amateur college football, television and other subjects are certainly worthy of inclusion.

Throughout his 50-year career of right-headedness, Jim has carried satire and wit to heights which should be deemed unlawful. His "Gentlemen, start your coffins" column at the Indianapolis 500 wasn't simply a throwaway line, but a suggestion that the powers that be take a closer look at the wanton slaughter taking place nearly every Memorial Day.

If there's a person anywhere who mixes up the name Jim Murray with ballplayer Eddie, dance master Arthur or game-show host Jan, it should be pointed out that Jim has the reputation as a serial killer -- of cities.

I think maybe the only time his words appeared in a Baltimore newspaper was during an Orioles-Pirates World Series. He described the cities as "complicated truck stops." He said the Birds were a team "nobody knew in a town where nobody cared, and that there were guys in the Russian secret police who had higher visibility than the Baltimore infield."

The words were never meant to be taken seriously, of course, and they weren't (mostly) as readers took to memorizing their favorite put-downs. The one I'll never forget is Murray's ode to the Mound City: "St. Louis is a city loved by millions . . . of flies," he wrote.

He reasoned that Cincinnati was taking an inordinate amount of time to finish a freeway, "because it was Kentucky's turn to use the cement mixer." He said New York should have a huge "Out of Order" sign on it.

He said Minneapolis and St. Paul didn't like each other and it was easy to see why. The ballpark there, the Met, he described as "Early Erector Set."

Jim said it was easy for folks in New Jersey to tell you were a tourist, "because you didn't have a tattoo." Birmingham was "Showplace of the Deep South, gateway to the Ku Klux Klan, a place where 'evening dress' means a bedsheet with eyeholes."

Not that he ever needed to explain, but he does anyway:

"I always conceived my function to be to entertain the reader. They could find the score elsewhere. Basically, I find, most people hate to be informed. Unless they're rapacious business types looking for an edge. Information can be boring. People read to be amused, shocked, titillated or angered. But if you can amuse or shock or make them indignant enough, you can slip lots of information into your message. Sort of like putting castor oil in orange juice. Satire is the best weapon in a 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 soap box. The din of indignation gets deafening."

Now tell me those aren't words to write by.

No, this autobiography isn't a page-turner, as reviewers like to say. When Jim's on a roll you would just as soon see the page go on forever.

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