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MURRAY WILL BE REMEMBERED AS BEST IN THE BUSINESS

They put Jim Murray in the ground today.

That's the only way you can silence an Irishman. Between the six feet of earth and the raucousness of his funeral there's a better-than-even chance you'll never hear from him again.

Our loss.

As a Western New Yorker you might not be all that familiar with Murray's work. Sports, like politics, is all pretty much local. Even though the voice of the Los Angeles Times was syndicated we didn't see his words that often here.

That was our loss too.

Simply put, Jim Murray was the best sports columnist of our time and quite possibly of all time. He died earlier this week at the age of 78 only hours after he had filed what would be his last words for the Times.

Fitting, because words were his passion and in many ways his life. His greatest talent was that he could display them in a multitude of ways.

Perhaps Murray's most famous line was "Gentlemen, start your coffins." It was the lead to a column he wrote after a particularly gory Indianapolis 500. Racing people are said to have never truly forgiven him for it, but the sport changed after that. Track and car safety became an issue just because a sportswriter -- with no real association with the sport -- used four simple words to describe its carnage.

There were other words. Millions and millions of others.

It was Murray who wrote that quarterback John Brodie was "slower than fourth-class mail," and that Rickey Henderson had "a strike zone smaller than Hitler's heart." And it was Murray, who during a time of great racial unrest in this country, wrote that "an evening dress in Birmingham is a sheet with eye holes cut out." Murray once said that the city of Cincinnati appeared perpetually unfinished because "it was Kentucky's turn to borrow the cement mixer," and that losing the Rose Bowl to (Ohio State coach) Woody Hayes on a pass is "like losing a spelling bee to an immigrant."

Murray wrote for The Times with style, grace and wit for 37 years. I first read his work as a copy boy at The News. I worked the night wire room back then, cutting and sorting the copy that poured in via the teletype machines, then delivering the bundles to sports, the wire desk, the features department and the like. It was there that I first was exposed to Murray. I've been laughing, crying and nodding with him ever since.

Murray was unique among writers and not just in sports. He was a sickly child and as a result spent more time cracking books than baseballs. He knew the wisdom of Shakespeare better than most of us know the musings of Marv Levy. He studied history and grammar and had hopes of following his hero, playwright Eugene O'Neill, as an Irish author of note.

Before switching to sports, he was a features writer in Hollywood for Time magazine and was on a first-name basis with Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and the superstars of Hollywood. He was drafted as one of the first writers for an upstart publication called Sports Illustrated, but eventually he moved into the daily grind of sports, taking on the baggage that comes with writing a column nearly every day.

He found himself there. Defined the business, too.

I admired Murray as much for his perseverance as for his talent. Over the course of his career he lost a son to drugs and his first wife to cancer. In one of the rare moments he wrote about his personal life he moved a country to tears regarding the death of his mate.

"This is the column I never wanted to write," he wrote. "The story I never wanted to live to tell. I lost my lovely Gerry the other day. I lost the sunshine and roses, all right, the laughter in the other room. I lost the smile that lit up my life.

"It wasn't supposed to happen this way. I had it all planned. I was supposed to go first and I would tell her all those things. I never got that chance."

Murray had his own health problems, too. He had lost the sight in one eye and for a time lost it in the other. It was only because of a risky operation to restore the retina in the first eye that had gone bad that he was able to come back from near-total blindness. During the time he couldn't see he would dictate columns based on what he heard on radio, through the television set or the people he spoke to by phone. For much of the later years of his life, he was legally blind. Once his vision was partially restored he wrote a column about how his "old blue eye was back" and all the wonderful things his one good eye had enabled him to enjoy.

Murray partially blamed himself for the death of his son and struggled mightly to get over the loss of his wife. The fear of being blind nearly drove him to despair. Yet through it all he never stopped writing, for to do so would surely have caused him to stop being.

When I finally met him, at Super Bowl XXVII the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, he was in the prime of his senior years. He was cracking one-liners like a standup comic at the Improv. He wore glasses just slightly smaller than the Hubble telescope and he had to turn his whole body just to look at you because if he moved his head or neck too quickly he ran the risk of tearing the fragile optic nerves in his surgically restored eye. Yet he always took the time to say hello. Much like an athlete on the field before him, Murray was a superstar to sports writing wannabes across the country. At the big events they would then push themselves just to go up to introduce themselves and tell him how much they admired his work.

Young priests in the presence of our Pope.

Unlike so many of the people he covered, Murray always took the time to respect our humble offering. He would greet us warmly and note the places where we worked. Usually he offered a little tease about the region or the paper but then came a bit of friendly advice on how to tame the beast he so easily faced.

Writing a column is never easy, but Murray made it read that way. He wrote with the style, grace, poise, insight, warmth, humor and mastery of language that no one else seemed quite able to approach. What Murray did every day was, for the rest of us, darn near impossible.

Jim Murray set the bar so high it's likely a great many of us will never get over it. He was one of just four men in this field to win the Pulitzer Prize. He won most every other award ever created and he was national sportswriter of the year 14 times.

Athletes enjoyed him, writers adored him, and readers, well, I felt readers were always blessed just to read him.

That's at an end now. Today they will start his coffin into ground.

Words can hardly begin to describe our loss.

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