When I was in high school, I would love it when the “Newspapers in Education” would roll around once a week. The Chattanooga Times was a real Godsend because it offered me something interesting to read during class and, man, I would pounce on the paper. I would immediately find the syndicated columnist, Jim Murray, and revel in his every word. He was - and this I believe to this day - the greatest sports writer who ever lived. Mind you, long before I had a driver’s license, Jim Murray played a huge role in why today, some 60 years later, I still write a story every day.
During my junior year, fate and God teamed up and I joined what was called “the toy department” at my family’s newspaper – the Chattanooga News-Free Press. I started as a very-wet-behind-the-ears sportswriter. I’ve written about this before but, quite literally, I taught myself how to write by reading every word in every Sports Illustrated (Jim was one of its founders), all of the great classics by Hemingway and O’Henry and a host of others with my Dad carefully guiding the way, and a wide range of newspapers and opinion pieces in a daily ritual of delight that I still enjoy with every new morning to this day. I call it my Morning Readings.
Again, with fate and God, I would not only grow to meet Jim Murray, but we soon befriended one another. With some of the nation’s greatest sports writers from all over the nation, his very select crowd would let me tag along to the oft-extended cocktail hours and sumptuous dinners where stories were the main course, this during the 80s and 90s. Jim and friends thought I was funny; believe this: they were much funnier and I never let him forget he was truly a guiding force in who I was to be.
His glorious wife, Linda, created the Jim Murray Foundation upon his death in 1998 to enhance journalism and it is now affiliated with many universities in its awards. To the lucky among us, the Foundation sometimes shares some of Jim’s most memorial columns and yesterday’s story, written in July of 1988, shared a rare glimpse of his growing up during The Great Depression. It was 32 years ago that Mr. Murray wrote a column before the election that year where George H.W. Bush defeated U.S. Senator Bob Dole and televangelist Pat Robertson to win the nomination. He selected U.S. Senator Dan Quayle as his Vice President.
Jim was the all-time master of the one-liner in sports columns. Here’s a sampling, God love him:
* -- On San Francisco: "Its legacy to the world is quiche."
* -- On Cincinnati, Ohio: "They still haven't fixed the freeway. It's Kentucky's turn to use the cement mixer."
* -- On New Jersey: "Its principal export is soot."
* -- On Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota: "They didn't like each other and, from what I can see, I didn't blame either one of them."
* -- On a Brookline, Massachusetts golf club: "I won't say this place is stuffy, but if you ever want to play here, bring your monocle."
* -- Los Angeles "is under policed and oversexed."
* -- Elgin Baylor "is as unstoppable as a woman's tears."
* -- Rickey Henderson "has a strike zone the size of Hitler's heart."
* -- On Merlin Olsen: "He went swimming in Loch Ness and the monster got out."
* -- On Billy Martin: "Some people have a chip on their shoulders. Billy has a lumberyard."
* -- On Sandy Koufax: "Sandy's fastball was so fast, some batters started to swing while he was on his way to the mound."
* --On Reggie Jackson: "He didn't swing at a pitch, he pounced on it like a leopard coming out of a tree."
* -- On Maury Wills: "He studied pitchers the same way heist men studied banks. And for the same reason: larceny."
* -- On Sonny Liston vs. Cassius Clay: "One hundred and eighty million people will be rooting for a double knockout."
* -- "Baseball is a game where a curve is an optical illusion, a screwball can be a pitch or a person, stealing is legal and you can spit anywhere you like except in the umpire's eye or on the ball."
* -- "Don Quixote would love golf. It's the impossible dream."
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Oh, my mercy. I loved Murray.
Here is the vintage column Murray shared about his years in the Depression, which he spent as a teenager in Hartford, Conn.:
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THE GAME, THE WAY HE PLAYED IT
By Jim Murray, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, a Times Mirror Company, on July 18, 1988.
I don’t usually pay any attention to political speeches. All those “going forwards” get on my nerves. I guess you could say my interest in the 1988 Presidential election is minimal, anyway. In the immortal words of Bugs Baer at the 1945 World Series, “I don’t see how either one of them can win it.” Looks like a game between the old St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators in September. What’s the difference?
All I really require of a President is that he doesn’t boycott the Olympics.
I mean, I look at it this way: Jesse Jackson has his problems and I have mine. If he wants to be President, that’s all right with me. Personally, I’d rather be a Dominican playboy, but that’s horse racing.
But something Jackson said in an address before the NAACP struck a chord with me. He was talking about how hard he had it as a kid, and one of the things he called attention to be the fact he didn’t have a real football when he was growing up. He had to make do with a bunch of rags tied together.
Big deal. Who didn’t? You think we all got a new football and a pump and a Washington Redskins uniform under the Christmas tree, Jesse? Hah.
I mean, I wasn’t born in a log cabin, but I was born into the Great Depression, which was the next-best thing.
Jesse, you had to play with a bunch of rags tied with string? Well, what we had was a burlap bag tied up in a bunch of thick rubber bands so it could make a cylindrical shape. You could spiral it, all right, and hand it off. You couldn’t kick it, but we didn’t kick anyway. That was for sissies. Fourth and long separated the men from the boys.
We played in the streets in front of our houses. We had to break occasionally for the traffic, but that wasn’t a big problem. Not too many people had cars in those years, either.
We played from telephone pole to telephone pole. Mostly, we played touch, but occasionally we played tackle. I have to laugh when I think of those players today complaining about artificial turf when they have helmets and shoulder pads and knee pads and special shoes. We had none of those things and, when you talk of artificial turf – asphalt, now that was artificial turf. Astroturf would have seemed like a feather bed.
Out of bounds were sidewalks. We played the first night games, under street lights till the quarterback’s mother made him come in.
We not only didn’t have footballs with air in them, we didn’t have baseballs with real yarn in them either. What we had were called “dime rockets” and about their only resemblance to real baseballs was that they were round.
At first, that is. The first time you hit one of them, it got out of round in a hurry and got as lopsided as Popeye’s face. Also, it leaked. It seemed to be filled mostly with sawdust. So, what we would do was, we would wrap this sphere with heavy rubberized tape. This would give the ball the density and consistency – to say nothing of the weight – of, oh, say, a Civil War cannonball. You couldn’t really throw it, you had to shotput it.
I was a catcher in those days and, when a foul tip from this missile would crash into your nose, your face would look like an aurora borealis. We didn’t have masks in those days. Or chest protectors or shin guards or any of those la dee-dah refinements.
The bats were pieces of art, too. You usually got them – broken – from the pro or semi-pro teams in town. You took them home, put a screw through the splintered part and then wrapped the handle in the same way you did the ball – with heavy rubber tape. You know how they talk about Babe Ruth swinging a 52-ounce bat? Well, we swung a bat that was just lighter than a sledgehammer.
Sometimes we couldn’t even afford the dime for the dime rocket. What we’d do then is get some tennis balls from the public park courts. When they’d knocked all the fuzz off them, that is, and threw them away. Now, a tennis ball would go farther than the taped bowling ball we usually played with. So, to equalize matters, we would make the batter swing from the opposite side of the plate. If he was right-handed, he had to bat lefty and vice versa. The nice thing about tennis balls was, they usually didn’t break any windows. The taped balls would not only go through windows, they went through roofs.
The bases were rocks. Big rocks. This meant a lot of broken toes, to say nothing of ankles, when you were trying to beat out a throw and the weeds had grown up around the “base.” They were hard to identify anyway, because, more often than not, the whole infield was a rock pile.
We played hockey with a puck that was actually a tuna can into which you poured water and let it freeze overnight. No goalie wore a face mask. He just hoped the can opener wasn’t too jagged. There was no net, just a hunk of plywood we had stolen from the woodwork shop.
Tennis? Tennis was played over a piece of clothesline stretched between two poles. There was no net. Who had a net? What do you need it for, anyway? You can’t tell when a ball goes under a clothesline?
Basketball, of course, we had real baskets. We just took the peaches out of them. We didn’t have a real basketball, however. We used any outsized ball we could steal from our sisters. There were no layups, no foul shots. No backboard. The basket was just nailed to the pole. There was no such thing as a foul anyway. And every shot was from three-point range, now that I look back on it. We thought that was the whole idea.
If not having a real ball to play with qualifies you for the White House, I guess the cliché is true – any kid can become President.
I can see how a guy could never forget the deprivations of his childhood, though. You remember I said I always wanted to be catcher? Well, I never had a real mitt. Well, almost never. I had one for a few hours once.
You see, they had this great big gorgeous golden catcher’s mitt in the window of Cleveland’s variety store. I mean, for months. And I lusted for it. But it cost $2.98. You could buy a railroad for that in those days.
So, I saved and saved – and somebody gave me a $2 bill for Christmas. I went in and bought the glove.
Well, the family was horrified. You have to understand bread was a nickel in those days. A can of salmon was 9 cents.
So, my uncle, my favorite uncle, made me take the glove back, where he bawled out the storekeeper for taking advantage of a dumb kid and we got the money back.
Well, I drifted out of catching after that. Gabby Hartnett was safe. But I can see why you’d still remember a time you didn’t have that football even when you were running for the highest office in the land. A person’s youth is evergreen. I can still see that catcher’s mitt in the window. I should’ve hid it under the bed. I’ve bought some things over the years I wish my uncle had made me take back. But not that gold glove.
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So now you see, and now you know. Best ever.