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The Poet: The Life and Los Angeles Times of Jim Murray by Steven Travers (review)
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Jim Murray was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 1961 until his death in 1998. Within a short time Murray became the best known, most imitated, and in the eyes of many in and out of sports, simply the best sports columnist in America. He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and went to Trinity College in Hartford where he was campus correspondent for the Hartford Times. Upon graduation in 1943 he went to work for the New Haven Register from 1943 to 1944.

Steven Travers is a graduate of the University of Southern California, played Major League Baseball for the Oakland Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals, and has written twenty books on sport, most notably One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changes a Nation in 2007. He has also written for the Los Angeles Times.

It is clear that Travers believes that Jim Murray is the greatest sports columnist ever, that the Los Angeles Times under the tenure of Otis Chandler was the greatest newspaper in the United States and likely the world, and that Los Angeles is the greatest city in California and perhaps in the world. These strongly held convictions make The Poet something less than objective and at times quite irritating.

Despite these problems and others, The Poet does paint a portrait of Jim Murray that is illuminating and at times insightful. Travers offers a sensitive and moving treatment of Murray’s problems with his eyesight to the point of near blindness, the drug problems with two of his sons and the resulting death of one, and the death of his first wife Gerry.

The story of Murray’s tenure in Los Angeles is nicely coupled with the growth of the city and the Times, and the result is a strong feel for the heart of Los Angeles and its recent history. As the leading sports columnist in the city Murray’s career parallels the sport history of Southern California, and to some degree all of the state. Moving through the chapters the great sporting events, teams, and athletes of Southern California are showcased or make cameo appearances. It is striking just how many great events, teams, and athletes crossed the Los Angeles stage in the second half of the twentieth century, and therefore just how many of these touched and were touched by Jim Murray.

In the end however the book fails of its own weight. The writing style, if it can be called that, is one that flits from one subject to another often developing nothing and jolting the reader as topics change without notice. There are nearly no transitions, just quick shifts, giving the prose a hyperkinetic style that conveys the feeling that you are reading under a strobe light as things are flashing all around. This effect is compounded by the fact that sports are mixed, often for no obvious reason, with political, economic, and social events. Again this is more kinetic than developmental and results in frayed nerves and a feeling of vertigo. Beyond that identical points are made repeatedly concerning Murray’s views on San Francisco, Los Angeles, the modern athlete, and contemporary culture.

Travers does an additional disservice to Jim Murray by using this book as a device to grind his own political and social axes. His myopic and L.A.-centered gaze results in a book that is provincial at best, even when treating issues of wider state, national, and world importance.

In the end Jim Murray comes through despite these problems, but anyone interested in Jim Murray would be much better served by reading Murray’s autobiography and his columns. There is no doubt Jim Murray was one of the great commentators on sport in his time, and nothing can diminish that fact. But Jim Murray did have his shortcomings as a writer. He did not age gracefully and was overtaken by social change. There is only a hint of that to be found in The Poet, and that is the real shame of it all.

Copyright © 2014 North American Society for Sport History
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Richard Crepeau. "The Poet: The Life and Los...


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