Remembering sports writing’s best

The greatest sportswriter of all time, or at least the greatest of our time, died 25 years ago this week. The New York Times, which sometimes seems to view itself through a unique lens of arrogance, said goodbye in 628 words.

Jim Murray deserved so much more.

He was the best of the best. Among his peers, he was magical before magical became a modern cliche. Fourteen times, he was America’s sportswriter of the year. He’s the latest of four sportswriters to win a Pulitzer Prize — 33 years ago. Having read the other three, I put him in a class by himself.

Murray’s final sports editor, Bill Dwyre, wrote this tribute to his all-star columnist: “He won’t be writing any new words but his legacy is tremendous because he left us with so many wonderful old ones.”

The Los Angeles Times, according to Dwyre, had clerks who had bigger egos.

It was my good fortune to have met Jim Murray, this man with little ego. Twice. Both times, we were covering the World Series…and it gives me shivers just saying we had anything in common. The first year, 1977, we met for breakfast — at his suggestion. A year later, an instant replay, also at his suggestion. Why? It beats me, but I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to share a meal with writing royalty.

I’m guessing we talked about baseball and the series, maybe even a little about writing. But whatever Jim Murray threw at my wall didn’t stick; what stuck was that he sold his California seaside home to Bob Dylan. Two years after that, he was blind from a detached retina in one eye, and failed cataract surgery in the other. It prompted another column, in which he wrote: “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.”

He wrote a great many things about a great many things, almost always with style, humour, and humility. You could fill a book with what he wrote, and they did. Five of them, including The Last of The Best, published after his death.

I saw him once after those breakfasts. It was during the 1981 National League playoffs. He was in Montreal because the Dodgers were, too, on the way to another World Series. I wanted to speak to him but I couldn’t. What would I say? If he couldn’t see me, how would he remember breakfast? He had an aide standing next to him, telling him what he couldn’t see because, after all, he still had columns to write. After a few years, miraculously some of his vision returned. His Pulitzer Prize, and many of his finest columns, came while he was blind.

Later, he lost his son to drugs. Then he lost his wife to cancer, uncharacteristically sharing her with his readers. “She has a right to this space more than any athlete who ever lived.”

Yes, I was fortunate to have met Jim Murray, as brief as it was. I was more fortunate to have been alive when he was the world’s best sportswriter.