I don’t mean to say that I want all my sports journalism to be serious. I want it to be entertaining as well as informative. Is that so much to ask?
Look, I grew up reading the late Jim Murray. He was the sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 1961-98, and I can’t imagine anyone arguing that he wasn’t the best sports columnist ever. Murray was the reason I became a journalist in the first place, and why I took to sports writing in particular. He won 14 sportswriter of the year awards and the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, but that doesn’t tell the greatness of Murray and why we miss his writing. It was his good-natured wit and ability to turn a phrase that we miss and that seems to be so scarce in today’s sports writing.
I won’t ever forget some of Murray’s one-liners, like this one when he wrote of the Indianapolis 500 auto race: “Gentlemen, start your coffins.” Or, when he wrote that baseball player Rickey Henderson “has a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.” And this one, when writing about the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Coach was so square, he was divisible by four.”
There have been Murray imitators (former Sports Illustrated and now ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly comes to mind), but no one I can think of comes even close to having the sports writing skills of Murray.
Certainly, there have been wonderfully gifted sports writers in the past and some good ones are still at it. Naturally, Red Smith, who, for some four decades from the 1940s through the ‘70s set the standard for great sports writing is at the top of that list. We’re all familiar with this quote: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” In 1949, Walter Winchell wrote: “(Red) Smith was asked if writing a daily column was a difficult task. ‘Why, no,’ Smith said. ‘You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.’ ”
Oh, if it was only that easy.
I think Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post and George Vecsey of the New York Times are among the very few who seem to care about how they write as much as about what they write. But the list of really good sports writers after that is a very short one. Sure, there are other fine, even great, sports writers still out there such as Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, John Feinstein, Mike Lupica and Peter Gammons. But most of them have gone on to write books and are no longer regular newspaper writers or columnists.
I hope that someday again we’ll be blessed with another Jim Murray. Until then, I’ll just reminisce about the good old days and Murray lines like this one, when he wrote of another notoriously mean and grouchy man, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes: “Woody was consistent. Graceless in victory and graceless in defeat.”