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Tucson Weekly Jim Murray

The Legendary Sportswriter Made This Kid Want To Write.

By Tom Danehy

AUGUST 31, 1998:  I JUST CAN'T let this week go by without paying my respects to my idol. Jim Murray, longtime sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, died last week of a heart attack. How I loved his work.

I guess you could say that he's the reason I'm a sportswriter. Go ahead, take whatever poke you want. I'm sure I could have done something different, maybe even something better, with my life. But taking care of my kids, coaching some ball, and writing about sports--hey, sounds like heaven to me.

One of the most vivid memories I have of my teen years involves Jim Murray in a way. My teammates and I used to get up at 5:30 on school days and go run the foothills near where we lived. We were dedicated athletes, determined to be in better shape than any of our opponents. I would drag my butt out of bed and go downstairs. (The Projects in which we lived were all two-story apartments.)

My dad would be down there already, coffee cup in hand, Los Angeles Times spread out in front of him. Because of the Depression and World War II, my dad only had a high-school education, but he was still one of the smartest people I ever knew. He would devour that paper every day, from front to back, which is no small feat.

(For those unfamiliar with the Times, be advised there was once a lawsuit brought by Barbara Bain of TV's Mission: Impossible fame, claiming that when the paperboy threw the morning paper over her fence, it landed on and killed her dog.)

My dad was a disabled veteran for most of his life, the victim of shrapnel near his spine from a mine explosion in Italy. He suffered in silence, underwent operations and rehab, and was nearly 50 before he was well enough to work full-time. In the meantime, he sat and read.

Because of his harsh farm-life upbringing and the misfortunes of war, he was basically a humorless man. I can't say as I blame him. But every now and then he'd be reading something and he'd smile.

I'd ask him what was so funny and he'd invariably show me Jim Murray's column. What made Dad smile generally made me laugh out loud. I remember thinking, "How cool to be able to write some words down and make people laugh."

A lot of writers point to Shakespeare or O'Neill or Hemingway as idols. I always wanted to write like Jim Murray.

After my run, I'd shower and get ready for school. He'd be done with the paper by then, so I'd start in on the sports page, then the front page if I had time.

Murray was a master of the one-liner. Great zingers just flew out of his typewriter.

  • "Willie Mays' glove is where triples go to die."

  • "Philadelphia is a place to park and change your socks."

  • "When Guy Lombardo dies, he's taking New Year's Eve with him."

  • "The only bad thing about Spokane is that there's nothing to do after 10. In the morning."

Every sportswriter I know has read Murray's stuff and stolen Murray's lines. And Murray, being the guy he was, would've probably said, "Go ahead, I'm done with them."

That's why it has amazed me watching Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle take the heat for lazily lifting some lines from George Carlin. Please. After Jim Murray came along, every writer picked up his cadence, his style, and if you were really lucky, his outlook on life.

(The latter charge about Barnicle inventing column subjects is a more serious matter, but I know of a lot of people who do that, too.)

There have been several tributes to Murray this past week. Sports Illustrated ran a nice one. The Tucson Citizen's Corky Simpson did a good job on his. Corky said that Jim Murray ruined an entire generation of sportswriters, because they all wanted to be like Jim and none of them could even come close.

I plead guilty to that charge, but I ask, after reading his stuff, how could one not want to be like that? His writing was easygoing, charming, and fall-down hilarious.

I got to meet him once, and he'd actually read something I had written. It was a one-liner I did on the criminal-stocked 1992 UNLV basketball team. I wrote, "If the UNLV starting five went to the $5-a-carload drive-in, at least three of them would try to hide in the trunk."

They had printed the line in the Times about a week before I met Murray. When I saw him, I introduced myself, gushed all over him about his influence and my upbringing, then clumsily mentioned the UNLV line.

He told me that he was familiar with the line and thought it was a good one. He said he wished he'd said that.

So, y'all can tell me I suck all you want. Jim Murray liked something I wrote. Or at least he said he did.

He's one of only two sportswriters ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. When he won it, he laughingly said, "Well, that makes it easier for whoever has to write my obituary."

He started out writing entertainment in Hollywood. Tough job, huh? One night he was out with Marilyn Monroe and noticed a guy staring at them, somewhat secretively, from another booth. He looked at Monroe, all beautiful and seductive, and said, "Could you please introduce me to Joe DiMaggio? At least that way he'll stop staring at us."

Murray wasn't a jock worshipper like a lot of sportswriters. He never wanted to be an athlete. He claimed he didn't even write about athletes. He wrote about people and the games they played.

He's gone now and we'll miss him. Maybe Dad can say hello to him up there. Maybe tell him how many times he made him smile. Murray ought to get a kick out of that.

I think of them in tandem. I'll miss them both, certainly one more than the other.

And I'll remember those early mornings in high school. Dad made me want to read. Jim Murray made me want to write.


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