RedEye

Murray's impact still is plain to hear

TEN years ago, when an editor discovered me shivering underneath a pile of one-sentence paragraphs and inexplicably made me a Times sports columnist, I knew there would be changes.

I knew I would finally begin receiving e-mail from people other than exiled Nigerian businessmen.

I knew I would be asked to appear on television, my presence serving as indisputable evidence why this newspaper does not run columnist photos.

I knew the job would change my wardrobe (I started wearing socks) and change my hairstyle (I stopped needing a comb).

But I had no idea that the biggest change would be my actual name.

It went from two words to four words. It went from unpronounceable to unmistakable.

I was no longer "Bill Plaschke."

I became "You're No Jim Murray."

It was a name carefully scrawled at the bottom of scented letters from elderly women and drunkenly shouted into my voice mail from middle-aged men.

I have heard it shouted from the rafters at Staples Center and whispered in the back aisles of Staples stores. I have felt its accusatory wrath from Coliseum steps to mausoleum parking lots.

"You're No Jim Murray."

Ten years later, that's still me.

If my presence has truly caused Jim Murray to turn in his grave as much as readers claim, well, then, the poor soul has barely had a moment of eternal rest, and for that, I am truly sorry.

But, as for my new name, I am not.

It is, I believe, a distinct honor to be called "You're No Jim Murray."

Because, after all, it is the only time in my life that I will be mentioned in the same sentence with the greatest sportswriter in history.

Jim Murray was the most influential and important journalist in this newspaper's 125 years of existence. I am thrilled we are publishing this anniversary sports section, but I am flabbergasted that he is not on the cover.

Because that's where he existed, for 37 splendid years, on the front pages and front porches of a city that laughed and cried and argued over such gems as Murray's line about the Indianapolis 500.

"Gentlemen, start your coffins."

Or Murray's line about one of the Laker stars.

"Elgin Baylor is as unstoppable as a woman's tears."

Or Murray's line about Rickey Henderson.

"Has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart."

Jim Murray was our Babe Ruth, becoming one of only a handful of sportswriters to win a Pulitzer Prize.

He was our Michael Jordan, being selected national sportswriter of the year 14 times in 16 years.

He was our Muhammad Ali, once being hailed as "the greatest sportswriter of all time" by, well, Muhammad Ali.

"I find most people hate to be informed," Murray said. "People need to be amused, shocked … or angered."

Murray had command of all those pitches, using them from his first start in 1961 until his final outing in 1998.

In Murray's debut column, written after he was hired away from Sports Illustrated, he came out firing.

"I hope Steve Bilko has lost weight. The last time I saw him in the Coliseum, the front of him got to the batter's box full seconds before the rest of him."

In Murray's final column, written shortly before his death Aug. 16, 1998, he showed he had lost none of that fastball.

In celebration of a Free House victory at Del Mar, he wrote, "He's not a What's-His-Name anymore. He's a Who's Who….The bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet. The best friend got the girl in the Warner Brothers movie for a change. The sidekick saves the fort."

A day after writing those words, he died of a heart attack in his home, resulting in an obituary that was three times as long as most of his columns, and a star-studded funeral that would have embarrassed this most humble of men.

This is the Jim Murray who once ripped the United States Golf Assn. for a setting up a weak U.S. Open course in Merion, Pa., and then raced to the press tent after the first day of competition to write that he was wrong.

This is the Jim Murray who would stand up on press row after sending his column and sheepishly announce "Fooled 'em again."

But if he really thought he didn't matter, then he was only fooling himself.

Folks still remember how he laughed at the NBA.

"One massive pituitary gland."

How he chuckled at USC's beating Notre Dame.

"The crowd at the Coliseum could not have been more surprised if the Christian had begun eating the Lions."

And how he protested the resumption of the 1972 Munich Olympics after the terrorist killings at the Games.

"This was supposed to be a track meet, not a war….How can they have a decathlon around the blood stains, run the 1,500 over graves?"

And to think, two of his most memorable columns were not about sports: the death of his first wife, Gerry, and the loss of his eyesight.

Folks remember so many columns that, upon his death, they filled an entire Times sports page with letters about them.

"Maybe because his columns were timeless, I assumed Jim Murray was as well," wrote Frank Newell of Long Beach.

"There are two kinds of sportswriters: Jim Murray and others," wrote Russ Hill of Huntington Beach.

Hal Dion of Los Angeles remembered an elderly woman sitting in a diner with a magnifying glass, shooing him away from her Times, saying, "Son, my morning is reserved for Mr. Murray."

One reader, Tracy Odell of Rossmore, spoke for thousands when she wrote, "I have only one request of the L.A. Times. Leave Jim Murray's space in the newspaper empty and pray for reincarnation."

Request granted.

I'm on the front page of the Sports section three or four times a week, sweating and stretching and doing my darnedest to reach into the hearts and minds of the most sophisticated sports readers in this country.

But, no, I'm no Jim Murray.

And, yes, that space will forever remain empty.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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