Jim Murray made the sports page seem as if it should have a $10 cover and a two-drink minimum. In the last four decades of the 20th century, he wrote four, five, even six columns a week, delivering one-liners faster than a stand-up comic with his pants on fire. Casey Stengel’s rambling oratory reminded him of “the sound a porpoise makes underwater and an Abyssinian rug merchant.” Louisville, he wrote, smelled like “a wet bar rag.” One look at boxing’s baleful Sonny Liston and Murray told readers, “you only hope it doesn’t bite.” Even when he railed against the carnage at the Indianapolis 500, there was a laugh, however dark, in his outrage: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.”
He’d throw a change-up once in a while, something serious about racism or violence, and it was when deep pain entered his personal life that he wrote perhaps his best columns. Still, the Jim Murray I most loved to read was the one who wisecracked his way onto a stage made of newsprint. Sportswriters before him had dealt in humor—Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Ring Lardner and Ring’s boy John—but Murray played a different game entirely: Even when a joke tanked, you had to stick around because his next one would slay you.
You can order Ted Geltner’s new Murray biography, The Last King of the Sports Page, here. And if you’ve never read Rick Reilly’s 1986 bonus piece on Murray, check it out.