Murray: last word Appreciation: The famed columnist, who died late Sunday at 78, was known as the best in the business. To top it off, he was a nice guy.

August 18, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray died late Sunday, which can mean only one thing.

God loves a good read.

Murray, whose eloquent voice and acerbic wit was the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Times sports section since 1961, died at his home from a heart attack at the age of 78 -- leaving behind a rich journalistic legacy and a legion of loyal readers.

He was Picasso with a press card, Sinatra with a Smith-Corona. He was one of the five most influential sportswriters of all time, and one of the most popular and beloved figures in the history of print journalism.

In the '50s and '60s, Jim Murray at the typewriter was like Van Cliburn at the Steinway or -- maybe more appropriately -- Ben Hogan with a 3-wood.

In the '80s and '90s, the world turned to computers, but it never passed him by. He could be caustic or congratulatory, depending on the situation, deftly pinning back the ears of some overpaid oaf with his stinging wit or finding just the right combination of humor and hero worship to mark a historic day in sport.

And yet, the thing that separated him from many of the other high-profile journalists of his time was his humble nature and easygoing manner. Even the sports figures who felt the sharp point of a Murray column seldom could stay angry at him for long.

Murray was so self-effacing that if he could, he would wire back word from heaven that reports of his life have been greatly exaggerated. But that would be far from the truth.

He began his newspaper career as a campus correspondent and then a police reporter for the Hartford Times during the early 1940s before joining Time magazine in 1948. He helped found Sports Illustrated in 1953 and served as its West Coast editor before returning to the newspaper business.

His national reputation would be built at the Los Angeles Times, where he won not only the Pulitzer Prize, but also the Associated Press Sports Editors award for column writing, the APSE Red Smith Award for career achievement in sportswriting and the J. G. Taylor Spinks Award, which landed him in the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987.

The day he was inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y., he accepted the honor with the humble grace that characterized his entire career.

Deferring to the great achievements of the athletes that he had covered for so many years, Murray summed up his professional life in typical Murray fashion.

"Somebody," he said, "had to sit on the curb and watch the parade go by."

It was a long parade. He covered Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali and was still around to take a journalistic bite out of Mike Tyson.

He could quote you chapter and verse from every Rose Bowl since the Roosevelt administration, or every World Series, or just about any significant sporting event that he had put in either historical or hysterical perspective.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990 and was genuinely embarrassed about it.

"All the years I was in the business, I always thought Pulitzers were for overturning a government or exposing a scandal in the stock market," he said. "I thought Walter Lippmann got Pulitzers, not us guys."

Of course, Murray wasn't just one of us guys, but he always wanted to be. He was a genuinely decent man who endured more than his share of life's hardships, but never allowed himself to become self-absorbed or bitter.

He lost a son tragically. Lost his first wife. Lost his eyesight temporarily. But he never lost his sense of humor or his unique perspective on sports.

"He's maybe the only great writer I've ever known who had almost no ego," Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre said yesterday.

Everyone who worked at the Los Angeles Times and came in contact with Murray could attest to that.

In the mid-1970s, a brand-new sportswriter sheepishly introduced himself to Murray at Dodger Stadium, just happy for the chance to meet the man whose column had graced the left side of the Times sports front as far back as he could remember.

Murray was friendly and accommodating. The shy young writer went off about his business and did not cross paths with Murray again until the Rose Bowl several months later.

This time, however, the great columnist was talking with another well-known writer in the press box, so the rookie walked quietly past without interrupting.

"What's the matter, Mr. Schmuck?" Murray said. "You already gotten so big that you won't even say hi to me?"

Maybe you had to be there, but the moment was pure Murray. He loved to pump up the little guy -- both in print and in life -- but he wasn't afraid to let the air out of an inflated ego.

Murray filed what would be his final column on Friday from the Pacific Classic at the Del Mar racetrack, where he chronicled the victory of perennial runner-up Free House in typical Murray style.

"The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet," he wrote. "The best friend got the girl. The sidekick saves the fort."

He was a master of simile, but that didn't keep him from getting right to the point when the situation warranted, as he did in a famed column about the Indianapolis 500.

The lead: "Gentlemen, start your coffins."

Deadline finally arrived for Jim Murray the other night, but not before he had written his own epitaph, thousands and thousands of times.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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