Jim Murray: Babe Ruth of sportswriters

Wednesday, August 19, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Murray
The story has improved with age, but the facts have been taking a beating. This much we know: Jim Murray had breakfast with Sandy Koufax in the spring of 1964, and his column caught the eye of a Cincinnati sportswriter named Lou Smith.

Smith, as the story is told, liked Murray's column so much that he reprinted it under his own byline. Koufax, in turn, asked to be introduced to the imposter who claimed to have shared his breakfast table.

The microfilm shows Smith's column appeared on June 23, 1964, two days after the Dodgers left town. But if he borrowed more than Murray's breakfast menu, Smith must have been using some other source. There were no laughs in Smith's piece, no dazzling one-liners, no nimble flights of rhetorical fancy. There was no sign of Jim Murray.

Plagiarism can be a form of praise, but any man who stole from Murray was sure to be found out. Murray, who died Sunday, wrote sports columns too clever, too funny and too distinctive to be mistaken for anyone else's. A young writer would pick up one of Murray's pieces in the Los Angeles Times, cackle at the jokes, covet the skill and then despair at his own meager talent. To read Jim Murray was to quote him.

"Paul Brown, the unfrocked genius of pro football, has left the game on the end of a toe and there isn't a wet eye in the house," Murray wrote upon Brown's firing from the Cleveland Browns.

"A man of glacial contempt, spare and fussy, he treated his players as if he had bought them at auction with a ring in their noses and was trying not to notice they smelled bad."

I ran across this passage in researching Brown's obituary, and included it to balance a piece that was growing top-heavy with testimonials. Years later, I caught a colleague trying to pass some of these same phrases off as his own.

The guy was mortified and apologetic. I let him off with a warning. "Always steal from the best," I said.

Unmatched hyperbolic style

To borrow a construction he often used, if Jim Murray was not the best sportswriter who ever lived, he was in the photo. He was named Sportswriter of the Year 14 times -- 12 in a row -- and spawned more imitators than Elvis. He was the High Priest of Hyperbole, a man with a knack for elegant exaggeration and definitive phrases.

Rickey Henderson, he wrote, "has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart."

"John Wooden was so square, he was divisible by four."

Arnold Palmer once knocked his golf ball behind a tree and discovered Murray in his gallery.

"All right," Palmer said. "What would your pal (Ben) Hogan do in a situation like this?"

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

When Dizzy Dean died, in 1974, Barry Goldwater was so struck by Murray's tribute that he inserted it into the Congressional Record. When Pete Rose was banned from baseball, in 1989, Murray was still able to see Huckleberry Finn in spikes.

"Rose was a ballplayer right off the Saturday Evening Post," he wrote. "Norman Rockwell invented him. He seemed the eternal 14-year-old, cap on backward, socks flopping about his ankles, knickers with a hole in them from sliding. He had these eager, excited little boy's eyes and he always looked to me coming to the ballpark like a kid coming downstairs on a Christmas morning sure there was going to be a pony or a new bicycle under the tree."

It was Rose who introduced me to Murray, and I couldn't have been any more tongue-tied that day if I had shaken hands with Charles Dickens. In college, I had compiled a clip file of Murray columns. Later, I located two of his anthologies at used book stores.

So long as Jim Murray lived, no sportswriter could believe he was wasting his time in the toy department. "I suppose I never grew up," he explained. "That's all right with me. That's the nice thing about sports. You can be Peter Pan."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com