The thing about Jim Murray is that he lived “happily” but somebody ran off with his “ever after.” It’s like the guy who’s ahead all night at the poker and then ends up bumming cab money home. Or the champ who’s untouched for 14 rounds and then gets KO’d by a pool-hall left you could see coming from Toledo.
Murray is a 750 word column, and 600 of those are laughs and toasts. How many sportswriters do you know who once tossed them back with Bogie? Wined and dined with Marilyn Monroe? Got mail from Brando? How many ever got mentioned in a governor’s state of the state address? Flew in Air Force One? How big is Murray? One time he couldn’t make an awards dinner so he had a sub – Bob Hope.
Murray may not be the most famous sportswriter in history. If not, he’s at least in the photo. What’s your favourite Murray line? At the Indy 500: “Gentlemen, start your coffins”? Or “[Rickey Henderson] has a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart”? Or that UCLA coach John Wooden was “so square, he was divisible by four”? How many lines can you remember by any other sportswriter?
His life was all brass rails and roses – until this last bit, that is. The end is all wrong. The scripts got switched. They killed the laugh track, fired the gag writers and spliced in one of those teary endings you see at Cannes. In this one the guy ends up with his old typewriter and some Kodaks and not much else except a job being funny four times a week.
They say that tragedy is easy and comedy is hard. Know what’s harder? Both at once …
ARNOLD Palmer had two of them bronzed. Jack Nicklaus calls them “a breath of fresh air”. Groucho Marx liked them enough to write to him. Bobby Knight once framed one, which is something like getting Billy Graham to spring for drinks. Since 1961, a Jim Murray column in the Los Angeles Times has been quite a wonderful thing. (He’s carried by more than 80 newspapers today and at one time was in more than 150.) Now 66, Murray has been cranking out the best written sports column this side (some say that side) of Red Smith. But if a Smith column was like sitting around Toots Shor’s and swaping stories over a few beers, a Murray column is the floor show, a setup line and a rim shot, a corner of the sports section where a fighter doesn’t get beaten up, he becomes “sort of a complicated blood clot.” Where golfers are not athletes, they’re “outdoor pool sharks.” And where Indy is not just a dangerous car race, it’s “the run for the lilies.”
In press boxes Murray would mumble and fuss that he had no angle, sigh heavily and then, when he had finished his column, no mater how good it was, he would always slide back in his chair and say, “Well, fooled ’em again.”
Murray must have fooled all he people all the time, because in one stretch of 16 years he won the National Sportswriter of the Year award 14 times, including 12 years in a row …
MARILYN Monroe and Murray were having dinner at a Sunset Boulevard restaurant. This was not exactly an AP news flash. Murray was Time magazine’s Hollywood’s reporter from 1950 to ’53 and you could throw a bucket of birdseed in any direction at Chasen’s and not hit anybody who didn’t know him. He had played poker with John Wayne (“he was lousy”), kibitzed with Jack Benny (who gave him an inscribe, solid-gold money clip) and golfed with Bing Crosby (Crosby sent him clippings and column ideas.)
On this particular night, somewhere around dessert, Monroe started looking as if she’d swallowed her napkin. “What’s wrong?” Murray asked.
“Jim,” she said, “would you mind if I left with someone else?”
“Not as long as you introduce me”
“O.K.” She waved to a man across the room, who, sheepishly, made his way to the table. “Jim, I would like you to meet Joe DiMaggio…”
Murray was always a sucker for a pretty face, And in those days, in a town with pink stucco houses and restaurants shaped like brown derbies, every nightclub window was filled with pretty faces. One night, Murray and a cohort were entertaining two of them when Jim went to call his best friend. The friend had good news.
“You know that girl over at the Five Seventy Five Club that you’re always saying melts your heart? The one who plays the piano?”
“Yeah so?” Murray said.
“If you can get over here in the next five minutes, she said she’d like to meet you.”
Murray threw $2 on the table, grabbed his coat and headed for the door. Outside his nightclub buddy caught up with him.
“I’m coming too” he said.
“Why?” Murray asked.
“Because those two girls were mad enough to kill one of us, and it wasn’t going to be you.”
Murray married the girl at the piano, Gerry Brown and theirs was a 38 year old date. Folks say they’ve never seen two people carry on so …
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to die first….,” he wrote in his column on April 3, 1984. “I had my speech all ready. I was going to look into her eyes and tell her something I should have long ago. I was going to tell her : ‘It was a privilege just to have known you.’ I never got to say it. But it was so true.
Toward the end, because of the treatments, Gerry wore a wig. One day, on the way to Palm Springs, they stopped at a coffee shop and for some reason, she wanted a milkshake, the first she’d had since high school. They sat there and had a few laughs. And when they’d stopped laughing, Gery tipped her wig cockeyed for a few more laughs.
Two nights later she got up in the middle of the night and fell; she faded into a coma and stayed there from January through March.
Four times a week Murray would write his column, get an interview at lunch and then spend the rest of his time at the hospital at Gerry’s bedside. Sitting down at the typewriter with sorrow staring back at him was de rigeur for Murray. Through it all – his blindness, the death of his son, Ricky, Gerry’s death – the show went on.
“I have sat down and attempted humour with a broken heart,” he says, “I’ve sat down and attempted humour with every facet of my life in utter chaos ….Carmen was announced. Carmen will be sung.”
What was hard was trying to write over those infernal voices, trying to forget the doctor’s voice on the phone. The first X-rays showed the cancer hadn’t spread. But there had been a mix-up at the radiology clinic, just like in the movies. What in fact had happened was just the opposite. “Sorry,” the doctor said. “The cancer has metastasized”.
The cancer has metastasized.
“The most terrible collection of syllables in the english language,” Murray says.
Gerry died on April 1. That figures. You write punch lines your whole life, and then the last joke is on you …
When this moving tribute by a former colleague and longtime admirer, Rick Reilly was published, Jim Murray was America’s premier sports columnist, a man who left ’em laughing even as he endured unthinkable losses – April 21, 1986.