Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Last King of the Sports Page (2012)

By Ted Geltner

Let's start with an over-generalization.

Way back in the 1960s, sports columnists in the newspaper had something of a mythic quality about them - particularly the good ones. Yes, every town had a couple of columnists, and they were the obvious authority in their circulation area. But the good ones worked their way up the ladder and eventually landed in the big cities. They were the ones who went to all of the big events.

The mythic part was that, in that non-Internet age, it could be rather difficult to read those columnists without living in a particular town. (The Sporting News had a few columnists, but it was more information-driven.) So only the very special ones were syndicated and read in other newspapers.

Two people led the way in that era, and they were from completely different schools. Red Smith was a craftsman; you could practically see his tools in between the lines. Words were carefully chosen, and by column's end it was difficult to find a wasted word, let alone paragraph. Smith was a writer's writer.

Then there was Jim Murray. He was no less a wordsmith in his own way, but he was funny. World-class funny. Trying to make jokes about sports is extremely difficult, but Murray usually succeeded six times a week. His imitators, and there were were many, found that an impossible standard to meet. I never lived closer than 2,500 miles from Los Angeles, so seeing a Murray column was a rare thrill. No wonder he collected "sportswriter of the year" awards like Green Stamps.

Someone like Murray played a role in the growth of sports in this country, particularly in the important Southern California market - which treated him like a treasured resource. He certainly deserves to have a full-fledged biography, and "Last King of the Sports Page" is a good one.

Murray himself wrote an autobiography in 1993, five years before his death. While that's an entertaining book, it does have plenty of stories about others. Author Ted Geltner sticks to the subject here, and wisely so.

Murray grew up in Connecticut and started his journalism career there, but fled to the sunshine of California around World War II to work in Los Angeles in the news department. That led to a stint with Time magazine (with some time spent covering Hollywood) and a shift to newcomer Sports Illustrated. His work was good, very good, but nothing you'd clip and put on your refrigerator.

Then came the move to the Los Angeles Times, where he was installed as the lead sports columnist in 1961. It took about a week for people to figure out what they had in the paper each day, something that made getting out of bed worthwhile. That relationship lasted for more than 30 years. Murray was so good that he became more famous that the people he wrote about, which had its inconveniences.

Geltner does a good job of reviewing Murray's life in full, including the professional triumphs (many) and personal tragedies (too many, such as medical issues and the problems of family members). It's interesting to see how Murray's writing evolved over the years on such "issues" as Muhammad Ali. Murray was late to the party on Ali's set of talents, but came around more or less after the first Joe Frazier fight.

Now, let's be clear about something. A book like this has all of the notes that went into Murray's writing, but very little of the music. Excerpts are held to a minimum here. There are four collections of columns out there, and I've got them all. They are still funny, and I assume they'd still work for someone who doesn't remember who Sandy Koufax is but wants to know what the fuss was all about.

From there, if you want to know more about someone who was someone was at the top of the heap, "Last King of the Sports Page" is a fine place to look.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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