CALLING Pulitzer Prize-winner Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times the nation's most celebrated sports columnist is a lot like saying that two and two make four: Nobody in the business is going to dispute it.
Murray has been a member of the writers' wing of baseball's Hall of Fame since 1988 and in one 16-year stretch won the National Sportswriter of the Year award 14 times. Only the late Red Smith (also a Pulitzer Prize-winner) was in Murray's league, and Smith practically ignored basketball and ice hockey in his career.
Clever, witty, and urbane, Murray's syndicated columns are entertaining, appreciated, and as understandable in the eyes of a New York cab driver as they are in America's most elegant boardrooms. For thousands (maybe millions) of sports fans, the day begins with a large helping of Jim Murray. And, believe me, laughs for breakfast are a lot more satisfying than Fruit Loops.
"The only thing I know for sure about sports," Murray is fond of saying, "is that they need dramatizing."
Murray, who has reached the point where he is as famous as some of the people he profiles, has finally done what his friends have urged him to do for years: He has written a book about himself with honesty, integrity, and his usual flair for reporting the fun as well as the facts. You won't be disappointed.
Yet Murray has been careful not to let Pollyanna skip rope indiscriminately on his pages. In fact, the parts about his family and his physical problems read like Greek tragedy. Instead of a mother and father to bring him up, the job was turned over to a grandmother and two errant but lovable uncles.
Like everything else Murray has written, however, this book grabs readers with its opening chapter and makes them reluctant to stop or even take a break.
That is, until it's over and he has tagged along with Murray on a date with Marilyn Monroe; watched the sun come up with the Los Angeles Lakers; and interviewed a 240-pound leprechaun named Walter O'Malley. O'Malley was the visionary who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, turning what was once a goat pasture (Chavez Ravine) into Fort Knox West.
Jim Murray was not always a nationally known sports columnist. He was a newspaperman first, spending his early years with the Los Angeles Examiner, beginning in 1944. While working for the Examiner, he chased fire engines, tracked troop movements, wrote sob stories, interviewed the newest Hollywood divorcees, and followed murder investigations. It was one of the happiest times of his life.
Later, Murray became the West Coast cinema correspondent for Time magazine (1950-53), before publisher Henry Luce tapped him to help launch Sports Illustrated in 1954. Seven years later, Murray became the chief sports columnist of the Los Angeles Times, a post he still holds.
Most writers would have gladly paid for Murray's Time magazine assignments, which included aisle seats for the Oscars, lunch with stars like Cary Grant and Monroe, a few cameo film roles, plus engraved invitations to every Hollywood premier.
I've seen Murray set up interviews around the batting cages of several major-league ballparks, and his technique would never make it into a journalism textbook. Usually, he approaches his subject like a guy on a trip to the barber shop.
He doesn't hurry. His manner suggests no tough questions. His notebook and pen appear only after he has retired to a remote part of the dugout and his subject has become as relaxed as cooked spaghetti.
What Murray gives his readers in his next column, though, is another winner: It's filled with enough clever one-liners to make Jack Benny and Bob Hope envious. In fact, Benny once gave Murray an inscribed, solid-gold money clip as a token of his admiration.
The big thing about Murray is that you don't have to be a sports fan to enjoy him. And he's not above taking an occasional swing at himself. Murray played baseball as a kid and describes himself as a choke hitter.
"Not my bat," he writes, "my throat."