Part crusader, part comedian, Jim Murray was a once-in-a-generation literary talent who just happened to ply his trade on newsprint, right near the box scores and race results. During his lifetime, Murray rose through the ranks of journalism, from hard-bitten 1940s crime reporter, to national Hollywood correspondent, to the top sports columnist in the United States. In Last King of the Sports Page: The Life and Career of Jim Murray, Ted Geltner chronicles Jim Murray’s experiences with twentieth-century American sports, culture, and journalism.
Q: Why did you choose to write about Jim Murray?
If you talk to 10 working sports writers in America, nine of them will tell you that Murray was their hero. He’s the patron saint of sports writing. Everybody who cares about sports journalism can quote their favorite Murray line. One writer told me that if there was a Bartlett’s Book of Quotations for sports, Murray would own 75 percent of the lines.
Another reason that Murray is a great story is the length and breadth of his career. He wrote for 60 years, and by the time he started writing his famous sports column for the L.A. Times, he had already spent 20 years in the business. He’d covered famous crimes, Hollywood stars and starlets, and helped launch Sports Illustrated. And that was all before he typed his first sentence for the Times.
Q: What were the challenges you faced?
Well, Murray wrote over 10,000 columns. At first I thought I would read all of them, but pretty quickly I realized that it would take several years and eventually cause my head to explode. It illustrated to me what an incredibly prolific writer Murray was. For decades, he was writing six sports columns a week, every week. And he rarely missed a column.
Q: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
I loved digging into Murray’s old files and discovering material about his early career. I knew a little about his sports writing, but not much about his work for Time, and the old Los Angeles Examiner. He kept everything, so I would find 60-year-old memos to Time editors about Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, or stories about small-time fights he covered, never published. And since Murray always wanted to be a screenwriter or a playwright, it was interesting to find the unpublished screenplays and television pilots that he must have labored over in between baseball and football games.
Q: What was Murray’s favorite sport?
It’s difficult to say, but it would probably be golf. Early in his career, baseball was the most popular sport in America by far, so he wrote about it all the time. But golf was the one sport he both covered and played, so he had a different perspective on it, and incredible admiration for it stars. He always said Ben Hogan was his favorite athlete. He must have really loved the sport, because all his friends said he was a terrible player, but it was his only real form of recreation. He wrote dozens of columns making fun of his own ineptitude.
Q: What would Murray think about today’s media environment?
He would hate it. Murray never liked change. He didn’t want to switch from manual to electric typewriters, and then he didn’t want to give up his typewriter and work on a computer. He had to be dragged into the modern era. But he always managed to adapt, and he might have flourished in the age of Twitter. Most of his best lines come in at well below 140 characters.