Even if you don’t know the name Jim Murray you may be able to recite a line he wrote. Maybe that Elgin Baylor was as unstoppable as a woman’s tears, or about the St. Louis’ bond issue on the slogan “Progress or Decay” that decay won in a landslide. He was the scribe who lanced a culture of carnage at the Indianapolis 500 with a line equal parts macabre wit and hard truth: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.”
After stints at daily papers and Time, and after helping to launch Sports Illustrated, Murray leapt straight into a columnist gig at the ascendant Los Angeles Times that he rode to national notoriety, 14 sportswriter of the year awards, and the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. No less an authority on G.O.A.T.s than Muhammad Ali (whom Murray had long disparaged, early on) declared him the greatest sportswriter of all time.
Murray’s voice dominated Los Angeles at a time when L.A. was blossoming into a true rival to New York. Born in Connecticut in 1919, Murray stuck around New England just long enough to get a college degree and a few clips from the New Haven Register before hopping a train West. In L.A. the only job opening he found was at the Los Angeles Examiner, a paragon of Hearst yellow tabloid journalism. When Murray applied an editor found he couldn’t so much as locate City Hall and demanded to know whether Murray could at least write. “Oh, Mr. Richardson,” the young reporter replied. “I can write like a son of a bitch.” He was hired on the spot and spent his formative years honing his voice sensationalizing the most sensational stories of the day.
Murray died in 1998, at 78, a few short years before the Times and the newspaper industry at large began collapsing like dying stars. But his style survives in his many imitators (Rick Reilly, who wrote alongside Murray at the Times and who profiled him for Sports Illustrated in 1986, is an unabashed acolyte). Quips like Murray’s reign in the jab-jab-uppercut pace of the blogosphere and in the empire of one-liners that is Twitter.
Ted Geltner, then a doctoral student at the University of Florida, found his way to Murray’s history through a thesis he wrote about the early days of Sports Illustrated. He met Murray’s widow, Linda, who offered him access to thousands of articles, memos and other writings that still filled boxes in the Murray family garage. Geltner mined that trove, as well as oodles of interviews and other research for his new book, Last King of the Sports Page: The Life and Career of Jim Murray. The biography — deeply researched, fun to read — must be among the most thorough works ever dedicated to a sportswriter.
I rang Geltner at Valdosta State University, where he teaches, to talk about the rise of Los Angeles as a sports town, mailed-in Christmas columns and whether Jim Murray was indeed the last of his kind.
Sam Eifling: Murray’s really was a West Coast story. What part did California play in his voice and his identity?
Geltner: His entire attitude was that he had escaped from the East. His word for back East was always “Hartford,” everywhere was Hartford. That was hell for him. He really took to California. He became a sportswriter and showed up when L.A. was really nothing as sports town. He was on the ground floor. When he just got out there he’s writing about the minor league team and minor league hockey, the Lakers weren’t even there. He became a popular writer at the same time all these Los Angeles teams were becoming what they are today.
Eifling: That voice in Murray’s columns sounds like dialogue from an old gangster movie. Maybe it stands to reason, if he began by writing for L.A. tabloids that screenwriters were probably also reading to get ideas.
Geltner: He wrote that way when he was a cops reporter at the Examiner, and those were all his favorite movies when he was younger. He was a big movie buff. All of that went into what he ended up sounding like when he was Jim Murray after a 20-year apprenticeship.
Eifling: You call him the “last king.” Will no one ever take his place?
Geltner: That’s a lot of people ask about this. What would Jim Murray be like today? What he was great at, the newspaper column, 800 words — as he would say, “Get in and get out,” when he’s doing these portraits of stars and these one-liners — that form is dwindling. That’s really what he was the master of. I don’t know if great writers, commentators like that, will come out of newspapers. Though he always wanted to do other things, he was always a newspaper writer at heart. And he hated computers, even typewriters. He wasn’t one to jump into the new technology.
He wasn’t always trying to be funny but those are really the memorable columns that got him such a following. Some of the best writers today are his own disciples, like Rick Reilly, the current one you associate with humor writing in sports. If you went through the top columnists writing today, you could see the influence of Murray on a lot of them, probably more than any of the greats of the last generation.
Eifling: Either you left out all the dirt or there just wasn’t much to find. He comes across as a fairly upstanding sort of fellow, kind of an Everyman with a soft streak.
Geltner: You think that when you’re going to do so much research on someone you’re going to dig up some dirt and find people that hate him. Eventually I realized there wasn’t a point in calling more and more people and having them tell me the same thing. Sometimes I was hoping to find out he knocked over a liquor store or something.
Geltner: It’s true, when you have to fill that many days. Writing in his kid’s voice after a vacation, he did that probably 25 times. Every Christmas, presents were the stars. You could see he wanted days off.
When I started, I had all the columns. I said, “I guess I have to read all of them.” I did start just going day by day. I think I read the first year and a half. That took forever. I realized there’s no way. Eventually when Jim became as good as he was, they basically ran everything he wrote.
Eifling: Toward the end you venture a unified theory of Murray, that his history of broad news coverage along with the hellacious space constraints in Time forged his writing style. Was it circumstance or just raw talent that made him so good?
Geltner: When I think about it, you want to say that he was such a great writer that he really transcended what he did. But then you say, could he have done it in another type of writing? I’m not sure. I do think he found his way to where he belonged as a writer. He learned at Time, that whole experience in magazine writing, where you put more voice into the writing and more point of view. I found in the garage 60-year-old reports. They’re all yellowed — I don’t even know what machine they’re written on. He would write something like 10,000 words on subjects, not for publication, just for other editors. You see him developing his style there. Then he got into Sports Illustrated. Each one of these steps was practice for him. what he did. Whatever genre you’re writing in, there’s gonna be people who are transcendent writers and create literature. I think he did that in the genre he ended up in. He really did create art on the sports page.
Eifling: Is there a lesson there for the next would-be Jim Murray?
Geltner: I’ve talked to other people about this. The consensus is that some of these guys were great but they don’t speak to what people need to do right now. I don’t think that’s true. A lot of what you teach new writers is what to observe and what to include, the perfect detail and the perfect anecdote. Murray didn’t use a lot of quotes. He used to say that he could get more out of watching people than he could by asking them questions.
He definitely was far more interested in the big pictures and the characters than in the details. He wasn’t writing about strategy or “We should fire the coach.” I never came across anything like that. He managed to be beloved by the people he covered. There aren’t a lot of people getting ripped. I think that was his strategy. He would rip the cities or the institutions, but he wouldn’t come down too hard on individual athletes. There are examples — when Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear — but generally he wasn’t one to go after people.
There’s a lot of aspects of journalism that really don’t change even as the platforms change. Deep down he really embodied a lot of the key tenets of journalism. He still has something to say.