My company had a sponsorship deal with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers in the 1990s. Clippers owner and Beverly Hills real estate mogul Donald Sterling would every season host a late summer sponsor party at his beach house in Malibu, which had been owned at one time by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It was a class operation, right on the beach.
I was sitting there one year, feeling a bit uncomfortable in my required “Malibu whites,” when I looked across the patio and spotted the legendary Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray. One of only four sportswriters in history ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, Murray had long been a favorite of mine.
Jim was sitting by himself, wearing huge, dark sunglasses, and enjoying a drink in the afternoon sunshine. I’d heard the aging writer was having serious sight problems. I decided I’d go introduce myself.
"Jim Murray, how are you? My name is Tom Walsh, and I’ve been pissed off at you since 1966, for an article you wrote called “Tie One for the Gipper.” A warm hand shot out instantly, followed by an invitation to sit down and join him for a drink.
“Tom, before you tell me what you’re pissed off about, let me tell you, I suffer from Irish Alzheimer’s myself.”
“What do you mean, Jim?” Having skillfully maneuvered the hook into its proper place, the master angler now set it.
“I’ve forgotten everything but my grudges,” he replied.
With that began one of the warmest conversations I’ve ever had with someone I didn’t know. We talked a bit about the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State game, a 10-10 tie that some still consider one of the finest college football games in history. I made my point that Ara Parseghian had arrived in East Lansing with an undefeated, number one team, to play the number two Spartans. The Irish kicked a field goal to tie the game, I believe late in the third quarter. Over the years the story has been inaccurately portrayed as a last-minute-attempt to escape with a tie. Parseghian had some concerns about the physical well-being of diabetic quarterback Coley O’Brien as the game proceeded, and he surmised (correctly, I might add), that he’d leave Lansing still in first place if the Spartans didn’t beat them. Ara was right: the Irish were National Champions that year.
Murray then told me of a time when he was a young reporter, and certainly not as well-credentialed as he later became. One of the big weeklies, and I don’t recall whether it was Life, Look, or The Saturday Evening Post, ran an uncomplimentary article on legendary Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy, and his “vicious” midweek practices. The article was accompanied by the now-trite photograph of the team bending over in an oval huddle, with the photographer lying on his back, shooting upward at their faces. A number of Leahy’s lads were missing teeth. Of course, this preceded the days of the face mask and mouthpiece. Murray made the point that some of these kids may well have lost teeth in farm accidents or other ventures, but the clear implication was that Leahy’s practices were the sole cause.
I cannot remember which magazine he told me he was working for then, but they sent him to South Bend to do a follow-up article with the University. Upon presenting his credentials, and asking to talk with Father Ned Joyce, the University’s vice president of athletics, he was told by the receptionist, in a rather offhand way, that, since the University was a private school, they opted not to speak with him about the article.
Surprised, and more than a bit daunted by the brush-off, Murray tried to restate his request in a more positive fashion. Once again he met fierce resistance from the keeper of the gate. Alarmed by now, and facing the wrath of an unrequited editor upon returning home, Murray thought for a moment, and looking around, saw the half-opened door to a pretty plush office.
“I looked in through that partially opened door and saw very nice carpeting,” he told me. “I could just see the corner of a fine desk, and a soft glow from what had to be a desk lamp, probably sitting on the other end of the desk. I had to think quickly, as I’d already more than worn out my welcome.
‘Well Ma’am, let me get this straight then. When a young Irish Catholic writer with a growing family goes back to my editor and tells him I couldn’t get the story, I’ll lose my job. How will I explain that the mighty University of Notre Dame helped contribute to the demise of my family?
”No sooner did I finish, and I heard a half-growl, half-grunt from inside that office. ‘Send him in here, right now, please!’
“Tom, that was the beginning of a relationship with a great man, Father Ned Joyce, which has lasted and flourished for over 40 years now. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people over my career, but Ned Joyce has to be near the top of the list.”
The rest of that afternoon visit with Murray is a bit of a blur, but I remember that every word the man said seemed steeped in integrity.
Murray wrote the following about jockey Willie Shoemaker; “Watching Shoe ride a horse was like watching Gene Kelly dance or Gauguin paint. It was art. You had the feeling he could win the Kentucky Derby on a Brahma bull.”
When visiting an aging and nearly blind Jackie Robinson, Jackie said, “Oh Jim, I wish I could see you again.” Murray’s response: “No, Jackie, I wish we could see you again.”
Already ailing when I met him, Jim Murray passed away in his Brentwood home on August 16, 1998.
There are a million stories about Murray. For one lovely afternoon in Malibu I got to meet and talk with him. That is my Jim Murray story, and there’s precious little I’d trade for it.