A Sportswriter For All Seasons

Years ago, golfer extraordinaire Arnold Palmer was playing in the Los Angeles Open, staring down at a horrible lie that would seem to portend terrible result. He saw sportswriter Jim Murray watching and grumped, "You're always writing about [Ben] Hogan. What would Hogan do in a situation like this?"

Responded Murray, "Hogan wouldn't be in a situation like this."

And they both were convulsed with laughter.

Sportswriter Jim Murray? Please. That's like saying baseball player Babe Ruth or boxer Muhammad Ali. Descriptives that would fit almost everyone else do a gross disservice to special cases.

No case is more special than Jim Murray, winner of journalism's highest award, the Pulitzer, in 1990 and 14 times national sportswriter of the year.

He wrote his hilarious, perceptive, and brilliant syndicated sports column for 37 years for the Los Angeles Times. He died earlier this week.

Times sports editor Bill Dwyre said, "There will be words in that space, but they won't be the same."

How sadly true. We all have the same words to work with but whether they fall into the hands of a road paver or a Michelangelo is the difference.

Indeed, to know Murray was to cower in his literary shadow.

But what made Jim Murray arguably the best sportswriter ever is that he was not just a sportswriter. He was a writer for all seasons and all reasons, a man who handled the language with superlative care to ensure against injury.

Golf was Murray's favorite sport, "the most maddening of games."

When his golf clubs were stolen, he warned the thief about the No. 1 wood:

"The club has a natural instinct for trouble. It's a born outlaw. If it were human, it'd be robbing banks."

He was the best at the deserved rip, earning the animosity of the Indianapolis 500 big shots when he wrote, "Gentlemen, start your coffins."

He was the best at seeing situations clearly: "I sometimes think the last stand of dictatorship in this world is the college football coach. His word is law, his rule is absolute, his power is unlimited. His legacy is academic chaos."

And he was the best at description, evidenced when writing about Hogan's eyes: "They were the eyes of a circling bird of prey: fearless, fierce, the pupil no more than a dot in their imperious center. They were not the eyes of a loser."

Murray didn't simply use words, but rather cherished them and cradled them and nurtured them. He also was a superstar who never acted it nor suspected it. To walk into a room and see Jim Murray would make your heart soar because his presence signaled that the good times were fixin' to roll.

Not so long ago, at an elegant home after a California golf tournament, Murray sat on a white sofa with a pal. The crowd around him, including Arnold Palmer and a galaxy of stars, grew rapidly. It always did. Murray held court but he didn't intend to. It's just how things were. People were dead silent in admiration - wonderment, actually - but Murray didn't notice. It's just how things were.

Put Jim Murray in a room full of celebs and this rumpled man with ridiculously thick glasses instantly had everyone at his knee, stars all squinting up at the North Star.

Being around true genius is an exquisite experience.

And all of this from a man who since 1979 was legally blind. He wrote at the time, "So, one blue eye is missing and the other misses a lot."

It never mattered. Jim Murray could see more with no eyes than most of us can see with two.

Jackie Robinson, in his later years, also lost his eyesight. The two encountered each other, and Robinson said, "Oh, Jim, I just wish I could see you again."

Said Murray, "No, Jackie, I wish we could see you again."

Oh, Jim, my man. You showed us by your talent how inferior we are, and we didn't mind.

You set the bar high, easily cleared it while we couldn't, and we didn't mind. You were elegant and eloquent while we were not, and we didn't mind.

"I like," wrote Murray, "country roads and moonlight, homemade fudge and ocean sunsets."

Thanks, Jim, for the good times and the glorious words.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is: looneyd@csps.com

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