Thanks to the efforts of Linda Murray Hofmans, the “Last King of the Sports Pages” lives on
By Johnette Howard
The man once called America’s Last King of the Sports Pages has been dead 20 years this month, but unlike many of his newspaper contemporaries, he is not gone missing in the mists of history. Not really. Newspaper voices are being silenced all over the country now by layoffs, by threadbare budgets that miniaturize staffs and squelch travel to events that used to be de rigueur to cover. The golf majors. The Olympics. The Super Bowl. The Triple Crown. The vanishing act is going on everywhere.
Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Bob Considine and his unforgettable 1938 deadline classic on the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight — “Listen to this buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, whose jaw is agape…” — are all part of the sportswriting canon, but finding them requires archeological skills as much as desire.
The National Sports Daily — a grand early ‘90s experiment later dubbed “The Greatest Newspaper that Ever Died” by ESPN.com — is no longer available in Nexis’ digital archives. It was gone, just like that. Just a few weeks ago the New York Daily News — Dick Young’s old haunt, the model for Clark Kent’s office in the early Superman flicks, Mike Lupica’s “Shooting From The Lip” launch pad — laid off 25 of the 34 members of its sports department and kept only five writers for nine pro teams in a city of 8.5 million people. Which raises the question if you can’t have a viable newspaper in New York City anymore, can you have one anywhere?
Swimming stubbornly against the tide of all this, Linda Murray Hofmans hits the send button on her computer at the start of every week from her home in Arcadia, California, or wherever her travels take her. Could be the St. Bonaventure journalism school one week. Maybe USC the next. And just like that, Jim, her late husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times — a man who wrote about crime and mayhem, Hollywood and celebrities for Time and Life magazines before that — comes alive again in “Mondays with Murray,” the email newsletter Linda sends to 1,400 people on the mailing list of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation (http://jimmurrayfoundation.org).
That’s the non-profit she started in 1999, using money from a home equity loan she took out to award five scholarships a year in Jim’s memory to college kids hoping to be one-tenth as original and prescient, bitingly funny and ingenious as Murray was.
Raising the money gets harder and harder every year, even if Murray’s writing — especially the one-line gems he was famous for — ring as clear and vivid and entertaining as ever:
Murray on the damage football does to its players: “It’s a tooth-loosener, concussion-causer, limp producer. Broadcasters should warn viewers, ‘For adults only.’”
Murray on Babe Ruth: “His stomach used to rumble if the other team had a big inning.”
Murray on Bill Walsh: “You half expect his headset is playing Mozart.”
Murray wrote feckless boxers don’t just get beat up, they become “sort of a complicated blood clot.” He said garrulous Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda always talked like his house was on fire. It was Murray who coined the immortal line, “Willie Mays’ glove is where triples go to die.”
It’s tempting to say nobody writes like that anymore. Except no one else ever did. Murray’s last column was about a horse race at Del Mar. He died of cardiac arrest later that night at age 78.
“After he died,” Linda says with a sigh, “I was sitting around our house a couple months later and looking at all his plaques on the wall and thinking, ‘What am I going to do with all this stuff ? He deserves more than this.’ Then I got the idea. How about a scholarship fund?”
If the story of how Linda and Jim got together in the first place wasn’t so good, Murray might’ve had to make it up. Linda was a young administrative assistant for the Indiana Pacers back in 1969. She knew Bob Collins, the sports editor of the Indianapolis Star newspaper whose offices were then on the same block.
Murray was coming to town to cover the Indy 500. (“Gentlemen, start your coffins” remains one of the most famous lines ever in sports writing, though he also called the race “America’s Earache” and, in a later nod to a skein of foreign drivers, “Gentlemen, start your imports.”) Collins called Linda and said, “Come over here, I’ve got a job for you. I’d like you to drive one of my friends, Jim Murray, around this week to all the race festivities.”
“Well, I said, ‘Who’s Jim Murray?’” Linda says with a laugh. “Then I said, ‘Not interested. If he’s one of your friends, he’s old.’ But then Bob smiled and dangled a set of car keys in the air. He said they were the keys to this ’68 Indy pace car convertible he was giving me to drive that week. And honestly, that’s why I did it.”
Linda and Jim had a good time riding to all the pre-race parties. He went back to LA, she went back to work, and except for one chance run-in the following year, she says, “We didn’t speak for 16 years.” During that time, Linda’s first marriage ended in divorce. She concentrated on working and raising her son as a single mom. Murray kept writing — at first, a daunting six columns a week early in his Times career. As Red Smith once said about writing that much, “It’s not that hard. I just sit at the typewriter till beads of blood start forming on my forehead.”
Murray later cut back to four columns a week (still a lot) by the time a series of body blows befell him, starting in the late 1970s: One of Murray’s four children, a son, had a fatal overdose and Murray found out only by arriving home to find the coroner’s business card stuck in the door, something he kept in his wallet the rest of his life.
Five years later, in 1984, cancer claimed Gerry, his beloved wife of 38 years whom he’d met when he was still an entertainment writer for Time Inc., hobnobbing with the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Gregory Peck. She used to play the piano at Chasen’s and the Brown Derby.
In between all that? Jim lost the eyesight in his left eye despite five surgeries to repair a detached retina, which might have been less problematic if the vision in his right eye wasn’t already severely limited by a cataract.
“If you think six or even four columns a week is brutal, trying writing them blind,” says Rick Reilly, a Murray protégé who worked at the LA Times from 1982-1985. “For a while, he used to dictate his columns into a tape recorder. For a while, he had a clerk (who later became an editor) accompany him to events and describe what was going on.”
Murray’s column was syndicated in 150 newspapers at his apex. By the time he lost his eyesight in 1979, he was so revered he would sit at the Bel Air Country Club and athletes would come to him to be interviewed. Can you imagine that today?
“Hey Tom Brady, I’ll talk to you — but it’s gotta be at the club over my grilled cheese sandwich,’ ” Reilly joked.
The loss of his eyesight and death of Gerry were also the fodder for two of Murray’s most unforgettable, elegiac columns.
Murray after Gerry died: ”I don’t mean to inflict my grief on you, but she deserves to be known by anyone who knows me. She has a right to this space more than any athlete who ever lived.”
Murray on the blindness in his left eye (http://articles.latimes.com/1998/aug/18/sports/sp-14305): “I lost an old friend the other day. He was blue-eyed, impish, he cried a lot with me, saw a great many things with me. I don’t know why he left me. Boredom, perhaps….I thought we were pals…He took a lot with him. But not everything…He recorded the happy moments, the miracle of children, the beauty of a Pacific sunset, snowcapped mountains, faces on Christmas morning….To be sure, I’d like to see a sky full of stars, moonlight on the water, and yes, the tips of a royal flush peeking out as I fan out a poker hand, and yes, a straight two-foot putt.
“Come to think of it, I’m lucky. I saw all of those things. I see them yet.”
Through it all, Murray kept writing. “What else would I do?…Carmen has been announced, Carmen will be sung,” he said at various times.
Two years after Gerry’s death, one of Linda’s friends mentioned Murray’s name and Linda recalls asking, “Oh yes, how is he doing?’ And when she told me everything painful that had happened to him, I almost wished I hadn’t asked.”
Linda wrote Murray a heartfelt letter of condolence, inquiring how he was. She lived in upstate New York by then and before long he was flying in to cover the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in the Hamptons. He was as witty and erudite as she remembered; she was as striking and funny as he recalled.
Cataract surgery on Murray’s right eye had by now restored some of his vision and he was working alone again. As Murray told Reilly after Linda had been in his life for a while, “I try to keep her on my right side. My good eye. She’s awfully good looking and I don’t want anyone stealing her from me.”
“Linda gave him new life,” Reilly says. “I remember going to his house the first couple years after Gerry died and he was just rattling around in that way a bachelor does who’s lost a wife. No lights on. No windows open. She really pulled him out of it.”
Linda traveled with Jim to New York City in 1990 when Murray became only the fourth sportswriter to win the Pulitzer Prize, following Arthur Daley, Smith and Dave Anderson, all of the New York Times.
“This is going to make it a little easier on the guy that writes my obit,” Murray cracked.
Then, with typical humility, he said at the Pulitzer award ceremony that he thought the prize winner for commentary “should have to bring down a government or expose major graft or give advice to prime ministers.
“Correctly quoting Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda shouldn’t merit a Pulitzer Prize.”
But Murray didn’t just dabble in the toy department or traffic in jokes, great as his columns on sports were. In 1963, he memorably captured America’s heartbreak the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Two years before that, he traveled to Alabama when Paul “Bear” Bryant’s team was ranked No. 1 and still fielded a whites-only squad. He questioned Bryant about it when no other reporter else present would. UCLA’s integrated team was saying it would refuse to play if ‘Bama was also chosen for the Rose Bowl.
Linda chose to revive that November 20, 1961 piece in December 2014 as her “Mondays with Murray” selection after Michael Brown, a black youth, was shot by police officer Darren Wilson, and riots broke out after the announcement came that Wilson would not be prosecuted.
Murray’s lede of touching down in Alabama was as scorching as any caustic one-liner he wrote: “An airline ticket to romantic places — only this ain’t one of them, Birmingham, Ala., show place of the Deep South, gateway to the Ku Klux Klan.
“Your liberal friends have told you about it — the place where, when they say “Evening Dress,” they mean a bed sheet with eyeholes. And bring your matches. We’re lighting a cross.”
Bob Curran Jr., former vice president of the New York Jockey Club, says Linda’s ongoing practice of matching Murray’s pieces with issues happening today underscore how timeless Murray’s writing is. And Mike Downey, an LA Times sports columnist from 1985 -1989, agrees, adding Murray changed how newspaper writers thought.
“Jim was a journalist who all but abandoned journalism,” Downey wrote this week via email. “He didn’t bother with breaking news or being first with anything. He didn’t keep a tape recorder running or construct a column based on an interview’s quotes. Jim Murray’s world was observational. He described a person or a place. He defined someone. He deified someone. He caricatured someone. Jim was the antithesis of 21st Century sport journalists who write 24/7 about something said or done 24 hours ago or 24 minutes ago. He was like an Andy Warhol or an Al Hirschfield with a keyboard. He typed portraits.”
It wasn’t a reach when Bill Dwyre, Murray’s sports editor and friend at the Times for so many years, said it usually read like “poetry.”
Or when Linda laughs now and adds, “I also think Jim would be the absolute best on Twitter.”
Thanks to Linda’s constant hustling and scrambling, the Murray Foundation this year will hit a total of 114 scholarships awarded in 19 years. But this year’s amount has been temporarily knocked down from $5,000 to $3,000 apiece to make ends meet. Only 11 of the 90 former essay-contest judges — traditionally the lifeblood donors for the all-volunteer foundation — have donated so far. Corporate sponsorships have waxed and waned over the years, but have waned a little too much lately. More help is needed.
But Linda has still somehow again cobbled together terrific hotel accommodations and money to fly this year’s five winners to Los Angeles for three days and show them the time of their lives, hand them a check, squire them to sports events around town, and even give them the chance to sit down behind Jim’s old Remington Model J typewriter and bang out a few graphs of their own.
“They often ask, ‘Where’s the ‘return’ key?’ ” she says, laughing again.
Linda tracks their lives and careers over the years, keeping them all in touch, making the Murray Scholars feel like a community.
She got remarried six years ago to the thoroughbred horseracing trainer David Hofmans and says she sometimes thinks the foundation’s challenges are Jim Murray’s way of telling her, “ ’Enough already, Linda. For God’s sake, get a life.’ Because he wouldn’t have liked the attention. And keeping it going is a challenge.”
But she feels stopping would be worse. Murray was famous for making older writers wail about how their writing paled next to his. People used to wait to have their coffee until the newspaper arrived, just to see what Murray wrote today, one after another has said. Murray kindly made young writers who nervously introduced themselves to him feel like a million bucks by treating them like an equal, asking them to sit down and tell him a little about themselves, deflecting the compliments they stammered at him by kidding, “You sure you don’t you have the wrong guy?”
The scholarships memorialize his kindness, too.
“Linda has become the keeper of his flame,” Downey says. “Jim lives on, due in no small part to her.”
And now? It would be nice if some huge corporate angel or big-money donor swooped in and endowed the foundation, made sure the scholarships kept coming and made sure Jim Murray’s name and voice continue to be heard across generations.
The sweep of his life, like the breadth of his work, is still a story worth telling and re-telling. A lot of people still don’t know, for example, that Murray was eloquent on such a broad range of subjects because he had rheumatic fever as a kid and read voraciously, most of it not about sports. Later, he started out covering murders and crime as a young writer in the go-go-go days of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, another paper now defunct. In 1953, he was one of the founding editors of Sports Illustrated but kept writing about everything else from LA for Time Inc. In 1961, he switched to sports column writing full- time with the Times. A lot of people thought he really found his voice when he started a running gag of skewering the cities he visited.
Murray on St. Louis: “They had a bond issue recently and the local papers campaigned for it on a slogan, ‘Progress or Decay.’ Decay won.”
Murray on Cincinnati: “They still haven’t fixed the freeway. It’s Kentucky’s turn to use the cement mixer.”
Feeling left out, some people in Portland finally reached out to Murray and said, “Do us! Do us!”
The friendships he made as a Hollywood writer with the likes of Ronald Reagan and Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando, lasted the rest of his life, too. He once called Marilyn Monroe 5 feet 6 inches of whipped cream. When Humphrey Bogart’s doctor limited Bogart to one daily cocktail in his dying days, Murray used to swing by his house and Lauren Bacall would open the door and say, “He’s waiting for you.” Then he and Bogie would swap stories over that drink.
Reilly remembers asking Murray once where he got a jazzy money clip he had. Murray answered, “Jack Benny.”
“I really believe he would’ve been just as famous if he kept writing about Hollywood — he probably could’ve been Gay Talese. Or Norman Mailer,” Reilly says. “If he wanted to do novels he could’ve been Damon Runyan.”
Today, anyone who speaks to sports writers or college journalism classes knows writers sometimes struggle for a reason to jump in or stay in this business. Even if Carmen has been announced, how long will Carmen still be sung — at least at newspapers? There’ve been too many requiems and dirges sung lately instead.
But Jim Murray’s writing remains something artful to aspire to, a reason to continue, a reminder of the worth and mirth of being someone who turns up day after day to write the first draft of history.
“Aw, I won’t be gone six months and they’ll say, ‘Jim Who?’ ” he once said. Nah. Not a chance. Not if Linda Murray Hofmans can help it.
(Top photo courtesy of Linda Murray Hofmans)
Johnette Howard, a contributor to The Athletic, previously worked as a columnist for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Washington Post, and as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and The National. Her long-form articles have been collected in eight anthologies, most notably David Halberstam’s Best American Sports Writing of the 20th Century. Follow Johnette on Twitter @JohnetteHoward (https://twitter.com/JohnetteHoward).