THE POET: THE LIFE AND LOS ANGELES TIMES OF JIM MURRAY
Forget Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Westbrook Pegler, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon or Jimmy Breslin. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times was the single greatest columnist who ever lived. Not merely the best sports columnist; the best writer, period.
His column was read by millions daily for decades in arguably the most important media market in the world. What makes book so relevant and credible is that it was Murray who was responsible for making Los Angeles the most important media market in the world.
Murray and L.A. were inter-changeable. Every metaphor and parable for Tinseltown described Murray. New York, with Wall Street and its “paper of record,” the New York Times, promoted the myth they still held the lofty perch. By the mid-1960s the combination of population growth, New Hollywood, electoral politics, big time sports and Beach Boys panache swung to L.A. It became the new paradigm of public opinion, the trendsetter of the Baby Boomer generation.
It was precisely Murray’s background that lent itself so perfectly to this new style. The days of the “ink stained wretch” were over, replaced by hipness, personality and political awareness.
Murray, like so much else in Los Angeles, came from the East Coast after World War II. The Connecticut native was sent to Hollywood by Time magazine to cover the movies. There he got knee deep in the last vestiges of the studio system; the bacchanalias of Frank Sinatra and the “rat pack”; the days of sex and excess. His research led him to Marilyn Monroe; a half-date, half-interview at the Brown Derby. Murray’s fantasies were dashed when, upon completion of the Q&A period, Ms. Monroe excused herself. Joe DiMaggio was hiding out in a corner booth.
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Murray saw the future. He approached Time and Life magnate Henry Luce with a brilliant idea, a glossy magazine with a lot of photos of gossipy stories about celebrities in movies, music, fashion and the like.
“No one’ll ever buy such a tabloid,” Luce told Murray.
People magazine would have to go on without Jim Murray, he without its millions of dollars in profit.
Opportunity presented itself in 1961. Otis Chandler was a young Stanford graduate, just taking over his family’s newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Chandler, like his family and his newspaper, was a rock solid conservative Republican. The Times reflected the politics of its city.
After the Civil War, sympathizers of the Union, usually from the North (Boston, New York) ventured west, settling in San Francisco. They tended to be more libertine in ways. Thus did San Francisco become the city of the Barbary Coast, the dock worker’s unions, the labor movement, Robert Oppenheimer’s transformation of the University of California, and eventually ground zero of the Free Speech Movement, the environmental movement, the gay liberation movement, the feminist movement, the ant-war movement, the sexual revolution, the “summer of love,’ and the Democrat Party.
Southerners of the defeated Confederacy chose the warmer climes of Los Angeles. This did it take on a more Southern, Christian, evangelical, and republican identity. By the 1960s, the Rose Bowl attracted still more people from the “heartland,” so much so that Murray himself nicknamed Long Beach “Iowa west.” The L.A. Times catered to a constituency of readers best exemplified by Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) landed gentry Pasadena parents in The Graduate. The Southland was a land of Christian churches and fierce anti-Communism.
Its politics and its newspaper were one and the same. In the 1950s, McCarthyism dominated the political scene. In Los Angeles, its main advocate and beneficiary was a Congressman-turned-Senator-turned-Vice President named Richard Nixon. Chandler and his paper supported Nixon. His brand of Orange County John Birch politics rode the whirlwind; the Goldwater transformation of the Republican Party; Nixon’s sweeping electoral triumphs; and the Reagan Revolution.
But Chandler was a visionary. He decided to turn from his own partisan instincts, and in turn to make the Times the equal of the New York Times, Washington Post and London Times. A world-class newspaper for a new, world-class city.
His first act was to hire Jim Murray as his sports columnist. He chose him over long-time Times sports reporters and elevated him over the dean of the L.A. press corp, Braven Dyer, a man singularly responsible for creating the mythological nature of USC Trojan football lore.
Worried not over ruffled feathers, young Chandler knew sports was entertainment. He knew L.A. was a short-attention-span town that was not easily amused. He needed a man with movie-type panache to spike his sports page with wit and humor. He had no idea just how much.
The timing was made in Heaven. The Dodgers were in their third year. In 1962 they would move to the gleaming Dodger Stadium, half Cecile B. DeMille set, half Hanging Gardens of Babylon. All previous assumptions of sports patronage in term of attendance records, celebrity glitter, and sports glamour were eclipsed over the next two decades.
In addition, the Los Angeles Angels arrived, a cocky band of ruffians who seemingly did their training on the Sunset Strip in its nostalgic hey day. From Minneapolis came the now-Los Angeles Lakers, who would change the face off basketball-as-showmanship.
At USC, a moribund program was about to enter the greatest two-decade run in the history of collegiate football, led by a witty, Whiskey-drinking Irishman named John McKay, the greatest quotemeister in any writer’s dream book.
Across town at UCLA, a deacon’s son from Indiana took advantage of the full integration of the Westwood campus to create the UCLA basketball dynasty.
All of this happened under the watch of Jim Murray. None would be remembered as such a golden age had it not been for Murray. His columns never were written down to people. The Trojans were “not a football team. They were the Wehrmacht taking Poland; Napoleon advancing on Vienna; Patton’s Army striking into the hearty of the Fatherland.”
A low level coach named Al Scates “was to volleyball what Napoleon was to artillery.”
A thousand other scenarios involved upsets and surprises worthy of Hannibal crossing the Alps; moments reminiscent of the Gettysburg Address; or things of beauty an poetry evoking the image of the Mona Lisa or a Botticelli Angel.
Day in and day out, Los Angelenos were treated with their morning coffee to Murray saying, “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.”
People called each on the phone to read that, “Don Quixote would understand golf. It is the impossible dream.”
Comedians borrowed from Murray at the Candy story or the comedy Store, quoting him as if the material was theirs: “I'd like to borrow his body for just 48 hours. There are three guys I'd like to beat up and four women I'd like to make love to” (Murray’s line on Muhammad Ali).
Willie Mays’ glove was where “triples go to die.”
“I never saw any of man's baser acts of inhumanity to man. I never saw screaming 'witches' burned at the stake, Christians tossed to starving lions, maidens pushed over the edge of active volcanoes,” Murray wrote of Ben Hogan. “I never even saw a man going to the electric chair. But until I do, watching Ben Hogan walk up to a five-foot putt is my idea of cruel and inhuman punishment, only a Hitler would enjoy. You feel like saying 'Go home to your wife and kiddies and don't look upon this terrible thing!' ”
But in the mid-1960s, Murray’s wit landed him some powerful enemies: the American South. Throughout the 20th Century, the sports intelligentsia pretended there was nothing incongruous about the fact black athletes did not play at Southern colleges. When the West Coast, the Big 10 and the East Coast began populating their rosters with the likes of Jim Brown and Bobby Bell, Alabama and its ilk conveniently stopping playing in the Rose Bowl, staying at home in the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl, all played in the old Antebellum Confederacy.
Murray had the temerity to not only observe that with which was before his eyes, but to acknowledge what it was in his newspaper. Why should Alabama or Ole Miss before declared the “national champion,” he wrote, when they did not venture north of the Mason-Dixon Line?
How could it be that an All-Pro of the Kansas City Chiefs was raised within buckshot of the University of Auburn, but never received so much as letter from them at the time? Or a man leading the New York Jets to Super Bowl glory could see Legion Field from his bedroom, but as a high schooler never received an invite to play on its turf? Could skin color by chance be at play?
When ‘Bama was denied the 1966 national championship, the good denizens of the Magnolia state placed all their venom and fury upon Murray, whose national column advocating against the all-white Crimson Tide in favor of those Catholics from Notre Dame.
It all came to a head in 1970. Because of Murray’s iconoclasm and advocacy, Bear Bryant knew he had to do something. Fate met in Birmingham on September 12, two ideologies on the 50-yard line not at Gettysburg, but at Legion Field.
According to the myth and lore, propagated by images of the smiling Beach Boys; Sinatra yakking with Sammy Davis, Jr.; and Hollywood’s portrayals, real or imagined; the world thought L.A. had “gotten it right.” Its high schools had never really been segregated. Black professionals were educated at USC as early as 1900.
But it was sports where the myth was closer to reality. USC’s first All-American in 1925 was black, Bryce Taylor. UCLA featured a black athlete of the 1920s, Ralph Bunch, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for - don’t laugh – brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1950.
But it was integrated football games played before 75,000 Coliseum patrons of the 1930s between the Bruins of Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington, and the integrated Trojans, which were social statements. It was USC and UCLA who built the two dominant collegiate sports traditions in this nation largely on the strength of an integrated policy. It was John McKay who was considered a modern day Moses of Progressivism when it came to opportunity in the form of O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett, and a hundred others. It was not an accident that USC came to Legion Field on September 12, 1970. Among those as responsible as any was Jim Murray.
That week, Murray and colleague Jeff Prugh were invited into Bear Bryant’s ornate office. If Bryant was resistant to integration before, he sure was not now. The game was scheduled to prepare ‘Bama fans for his first class of black players in the coming decade. The decorum he showed to Murray indicated Bryant knew the power of his nationwide, syndicated pen.
The game was played. USC blew ‘Bama out. The long and the short of it was that it convinced the South they needed more people who looked like the 10 or 15 black fellas who scored touchdowns, threw passes, caught balls, and made tackles for Southern Cal.
Murray’s September 13, 1970 column was, in my humble opinion, the finest in sports journalism history. Titled, “Hatred Shut Out as Alabama Finally Joins the Union,” it read in part:
On a warm and sultry night when you could hear train whistles hooting through the piney woods half county away, the state of Alabama joined the Union. They ratified the Constitution, signed the Bill of Rights. They have struck the Stars and Bars. They now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the Creator.
Murray would go on to write that the previous time he had been in Alabama, the only black man in the stadium was carrying towels. But “a man named Martin Luther King” thought that if you paid for a seat on the bus, one ought to be able to sit in it. The only thing white folks in the state cared about was “beating Georgia Tech."
Murray pointed out that the citizens of Alabama took their football so seriously that they realized that if they wanted to play in the big time, it would require integration. Otherwise, instead of invites to all the best bowl games, they would continue to be relegated to the Bluebonnet Bowl.
“And,” wrote Murray, “if I know football coaches, you won’t be able to tell Alabama by the color of their skin much longer. You’ll need a program just like the Big 10."
He was prescient, but remarkably few others were. It was years before the media acknowledged what Murray knew to be so important when he saw it the eyes God gave him.
He went on to win a Pulitzer. In 1985 I mailed his column daily to friends in Paris. It came to be known as the “Daily Travers.” Their memories of Paris are infused first and foremost by the fact they never missed a Murray column.
He wrote for the Times until the late 1990s, most of his last decade-plus legally blind. His influence was profound. To me, he is the reason I write.
Steven Travers, a former professional baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Oakland A’s organizations, is the author of 16 books, including the best-selling Barry Bonds: Baseball’s Superman, nominated for a Casey Award as Best Baseball Book of 2002; and One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game that Changed a Nation (a 2007 PNBA nominee, subject of the CBS/CSTV documentary Tackling Segregation, and soon to be a major motion picture). He pitched for the Redwood High School baseball team in Marin County, California that won the national championship in his senior year, before attending college on an athletic scholarship and earning all-conference honors. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Steven coached at USC, Cal-Berkeley and in Europe; served in the Army; attended law school; and was a sports agent. He has written for the Los Angeles Times and was a columnist for StreetZebra magazine in L.A., and the San Francisco Examiner. His screenplays include The Lost Battalion, 21 and Wicked. He has a daughter, Elizabeth Travers, and lives in California.
Books written by Steven Travers
One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed A Nation (also a documentary, Tackling Segregation, and soon to be a major motion picture)
A’s Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be A Real Fan!
Trojans Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be A Real Fan!
Dodgers Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be A Real Fan!
Angels Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be A Real Fan!
D’Backs Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be A Real
The USC Trojans: College Football's All-Time Greatest Dynasty
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Los Angeles Lakers
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly Oakland Raiders
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly San Francisco 49ers
Barry Bonds: Baseball’s Superman
Pigskin Warriors: 140 Years of College Football's Greatest Games, Players and Traditions
The 1969 Miracle Mets
Dodgers Baseball Yesterday & Today
A Tale of Three Cities: New York, L.A. and San Francisco During the 1962 Baseball Season
What It Means To Be a Trojan: Southern Cal’s Greatst Players Talk About Trojans Football
God's Country: A Conservative, Christian Worldview of How History Formed the United States Empire and America's Manifest Destiny for the 21st Century
Angry White Male
The Writer’s Life
The USC Mafia: From the Frat House to the White House to the Big House
Praise for Steve Travers
Steve Travers is the next great USC historian, in the tradition of Jim Murray, John Hall, and Mal Florence! . . . the Trojan Family needs your work. Fight On!
- USC Head Football Coach Pete Carroll
. . . Steve Travers tells us all about the exciting and remarkable football . . . . that not only changed the way the game is played; it . . . changed the world.
- Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump
Steve Travers combines wit, humor, social pathos and historical knowledge with the kind of sports expertise that only an ex-jock is privy to; it is reminiscent of the work of Jim Bouton, Pat Jordan and Dan Jenkins, combined with Jim Murray' turn of phrase, Hunter Thompson's hard-scrabble Truths, and David Halberstam's unique take on our nation's place in history. His writing is great storytelling, and the result is pure genius every time.
- Westwood One radio personality Michael McDowd
Steve Travers is a great writer, an educated athlete who knows how to get inside the player's heads, and when that happens, greatness occurs. He's gonna be a superstar.
- San Francisco Examiner
Steve Travers is a phenomenal writer, an artist who labors over every word to get it just right, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and history.
Steve Travers is a “Renaissance man.”
- Jim Rome Show
He is very qualified to continue to write books such as this one. Good job.
- Marty Lurie/Right Off the Bat Oakland A's Pregame Host
Steve's a literate ex-athlete, an ex-Trojan, and a veteran of Hollywood, too.
- Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton/XTRA Radio, San Diego
You've done some good writin', dude.
- KFOG Radio, San Francisco
[Travers is] one of the great sportswriters on the current American scene.
- Joe Shea/Radio Talk Host and Editor
Travers appears to have the right credentials for the task.
- USA Today Baseball Weekly
A very interesting read which is not your average . . . book. . . . Steve has achieved his bona fides when it comes to having the credentials to write a book like this.
- Geoff Metcalfe/KSFO Radio, San Francisco
This is a fascinating book written by a man who knows his subject matter inside and out.
— Irv Kaze/KRLA Radio, Los Angeles
Travers . . . established himself as a writer of many dimensions . . . a natural.
— John Jackson/Ross Valley Reporter
Steve Travers is a true USC historian and a loyal Trojan!
— Former USC football player John Papadakis
Pete Carroll calls you "the next great USC historian," high praise indeed.
- Rob Fukuzaki/ABC7, Los Angeles
You’re a great writer and I always enjoy your musings, particularly on SC football – huge fan!
- Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane
Steven Travers is one of the most accomplished sports journalists in our nation today and One Night, Two Teams is his defining work to this point.
Travers, a USC grad, portrays the game and USC’s victory as a tipping point in the integration of college football and the South, a triumph for the forces of equality . . . his larger view of the game hits home in most respects, and he provides a compelling account- drawing from dozens of interviews with participants, coaches, drawing from dozens of others - of a clash between two schools with decidedly different approaches to the composition of their football rosters . . . All in all, an intriguing premise and a well-told story.
- Wes Lukowsky, Booklist
The book is not just about sports but how sports and that September 1970 game in particular relate to the intertwining of sports, race, politics, history, religion and philosophy.
- Harold Abend, In Scope
One Night . . . is a tour de force.
- Marin I.J.
Travers combines wit, humor and historical knowledge in his writings.
- University of Southern California
Wow what a great job!!!! . . . I love the book . . . It's one of those you look forward to reading at special times . . . I can't say enough!
- Lonnie White, Los Angeles Times
This is a book about American society. It sheds incredible light on little-known events that every American must know to understand this country . . . In 20 years, people will say of this book what they said about Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer.
- Fred Wallin, Business Talk radio
Steve is the USC historian whose meticulous attention to detail is a revelation. He is the best chronicler of USC ever.
- Chuck Hayes, CRN Sports Corner
This is fabulous, just a terrific look at our history. Travers is one of the best writers around.
- Rod Brooks, Fitz & Brooks Show, KNBR/San Francisco
You have created a work of art here, an absolutely great book. We love your work.
Bob Fitzgerald, “Fitz & Brooks Show,” KNBR/San Francisco
When it comes to sports history, this is the man right here.
- Gary Radnich, KRON/5, San Francisco
Author Steven Travers discusses his new book . . .
- Orange County Register
. . . Join Steve Travers . . . at the Autograph Stage . . .
- ESPN Radio
. . . Steve Travers, author of One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation . . .
- Los Angeles Daily News
Steve Travers, a sports historian . . .
- Los Alamitos News-Enterprise
Hear this dynamic speaker tell how this famous game changed history.
- Friends of the Los Alamitos-Rossmoor Library
This is a fabulous book.
- Michaela Pereira/ KTLA 5, Los Angeles
Travers presents this particular game in 1970 as a metaphor for the profound changes in social history during the emancipation of the South.
- Publishers Weekly
. . . Explored in rich, painstaking detail by Steve Travers.
- Jeff Prugh, L.A. Times beat writer who covered the 1970 USC-Alabama game
You're a prolific talent.
- Curtis Kim, KSRO Radio, Santa Rosa
Is there anything you've not written?
- Vernon Glenn, KRON/4, San Francisco
You are the Poet Laureate of the USC Program! Please keep writing.
- Tony Pattiz, USC class of 1980
A's Essential: Everything You Need To Be a Real Fan offers a breezy history . . .
- Bruce Dancis/Sacramento Bee
What A’s Essential does give us in heaps is the history specific players and other A’s personnel . . . Travers manages to dig up plenty of interesting quotes and his knowledge of other writings about the A’s is voluminous. He finds enough fascinating material . . . interesting and add(s) to the reader’s experience with the book . . . A’s Essential can be a useful source to those who are students of A’s history
- Brian James Oak/www.atthehomeplate.com
As an Oakland fan, I was therefore interested to find A’s Essential when browsing on Amazon recently
- Matt Smith, MLB.com
(The chapter in One Night, Two Teams) on Martin Luther King - the description of the civil rights movement - your insights, the research - what an education I received from reading it. It should be required reading by every student in America! Every citizen. No wonder there were so many African Americans on the Mall a week ago! . . . I am sure there are many blacks who would say it is impossible for a white man to really understand the struggle. And, in one sense they are definitely right because you are not black. But, wow - I think you did an excellent job in bringing it together - telling the story and making me think!
- Dwight Chapin, former Nixon White House appointments secretary
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism