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Jim Murray, Pulitzer-Winning Times Columnist, Dies

Journalism: The much-honored, legendary sportswriter was famed for his wit, style and durability. He was 78.

August 18, 1998| From a Times Staff Writer

Columnist Jim Murray, whose keen and stylish observations on life and sports made him one of only four sportswriters to win a Pulitzer Prize, died at his home late Sunday night. He was 78.

Death was attributed to cardiac arrest.

Since 1961, Murray had entertained and enlightened his readers several times each week, although occasionally sidelined for eye or heart surgery. His quick-witted style and gentle sarcasm became widely imitated but seldom matched.

While becoming famous for one-liners and good-natured jabs at cities across the country, he also was adept at bringing a sports issue into focus with incisive commentary.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987 for "meritorious contributions to baseball writing."

He won the Associated Press Sports Editors' award for best column writing in 1984, and the same group's Red Smith Award for lifelong achievement in sportswriting.

In one span of 16 years, he was voted national sportswriter of the year 14 times, 12 times in succession.

"Jim Murray is one of the journalists who helped, in a very special way, to bring The Times to greatness," Editor Michael Parks said Monday. "His contribution over 37 years is best measured in the delight and pleasure--and even outrage, sometimes--and the insights he brought to two generations of readers."

Murray, a familiar figure at Southern California sports venues--in recent years, slightly bent over and rumpled--wrote his last column for Sunday morning's paper. It was on the thoroughbred Free House's victory in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Vintage Murray, it said, "The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet. The 'best friend' got the girl. . . . The sidekick saves the fort."

In a 1986 Sports Illustrated profile, reprinted by the magazine in 1994, Rick Reilly noted that "Murray may be the most famous sportswriter in history. . . .

"What's your favorite Murray line? At the Indy 500: 'Gentlemen, start your coffins'? Or '[Rickey Henderson] has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart'? Or UCLA Coach John Wooden was 'so square, he was divisible by 4'? How many lines can you remember by any other sportswriter?"

Right Place at the Right Time

Murray's reign as king of sports journalism coincided with the meteoric rise of all sports and their transformation into industries--and with the ascendancy of Los Angeles as their capital. He was in the right place at the right time with the right words.

There were stars everywhere, on the field and in the box seats, and Murray knew them all: Wilt Chamberlain and Marilyn Monroe, Bill Shoemaker and Bing Crosby, Sandy Koufax and Jack Benny. . . . It was great to be alive and the leading sports columnist in Los Angeles.

Murray said he always thought his primary job was to entertain the reader.

"They could find the score elsewhere," he wrote in his 1993 autobiography. "Basically, I find most people hate to be informed . . .

"People need to be amused, shocked, titillated or angered," he wrote. "But if you can amuse or shock or make them indignant enough, you can slip lots of information into your message. . . .

"Satire is the best weapon in the writer's arsenal to attack injustice. Frothing at the mouth turns the reader off. Angry voices are always assaulting us from all sides. The humorless we always have with us. And they always have their soapbox. The din of indignation gets deafening."

So, in Murray's column, the one-liners flowed like the bubbly at Chasen's.

Reilly in Sports Illustrated: "A Murray column is . . . a corner of the sports section where a fighter doesn't just 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 matter how good it was, he would always slide back in his chair and say, 'Well, fooled 'em again.' "

Before 1990, only three sportswriters had been honored with Pulitzer Prizes--Smith, Arthur Daley and Dave Anderson, all of the New York Times. That year, Murray became the fourth.

Now, it's conceivable that with Murray's death, an era is ending, both in journalism and in Los Angeles.

The former capital of sports is in danger of becoming just another county seat, with journeyman athletes getting top billing by default. The Dodgers, with their 1988 World Series victory, are the last Los Angeles pro team to have won a championship, and the city is without pro football. The Raiders are back in Oakland and the Rams, the first big-time pro team to arrive here, have fled to St. Louis.

Ah, St. Louis. It "had a bond issue recently and the local papers campaigned for it on a slogan, 'Progress or Decay,' and decay won in a landslide." That was how Murray, the master geographer, once handled that town. And he had lots to say about lots of towns.

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