SUNDAY, OCTOBER 24, 1982, SPORTS
Copyright 1982/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
There’s Been No Change of Heart
When Lefty Gomez was going in for open-heart surgery, the old Yankees pitcher was worried. He wanted to know which way to bet, as usual. “What are my chances?” he asked. “Aw, don’t sweat it, Lefty,” the doctor told him. “A piece of cake. We have a 98 percent success rate.”
Suddenly, Lefty went home. Almost immediately, his phone began to ring. His cousin from Visalia called. Her brother had the operation, and he was out climbing mountains. A neighbor called. Same thing. His father had the operation and he was years younger. An old friend called from New York. He had come through with flying colors. An ex-teammate called. He had it and was OK.
Suddenly, Lefty broke into a cold sweat anyway. “I suddenly realized I was up to 68 percent. Two more phone calls and I was an underdog. I shut off the phone.”
I bring this up because, I, too, recently had heart surgery. But it wasn’t well-meaning friends who gave me sleepless nights. It was the medics. For openers, the surgeon, Dr. Jack Matloff, the old Yale football player, came in the night before and told me all the things that could go wrong. He made it sound as if I should get points in this game. “First of all,” he said, “you could die.” And that was the good news.
Part of the bad news was, they were going to replace my worn-out valve with a pig’s valve. My doctor, Gary Sugarman, was quick to see the obstacles in this. “That means you’re ‘trafe,’ ” he said. “That means you can never go in a Beverly Hills delicatessen again as long as you live.”
“In that case,” I told him, “this will be the first operation in history to save a heart and a gallbladder at the same time. Irving Caesar used to say that pastrami killed more Jews than the Pharaohs.”
Another doctor on the case, Jeffrey Helfenstein, was even more helpful. “Look at it this way: When your readers write in that you’re a pig, they’ll be part right.”
But, my problems were more metaphysical than medical. What I was worried about was the big picture, the effect all this would have on my career. I reasoned this way: The heart is the seat of the emotions, right? Now that I had a new set of emotions, how would this affect my whole approach to life? I mean, would I now become Mr. Nice Guy? No more Mr. McNasty? Would I now start seeing two sides to every story? Would I start to admit it when I was wrong? Would I stop being an opinionated jerk? Would I get that fatal columnists’ disease, fairness? Would I start to like Cincinnati?
The thought was too appalling to contemplate. Would they scalpel malice right out of my system, and leave me a journalistic eunuch? One of those guys who says, “On the other hand . . .?”
You know, when I went in for the operation, a lot of the wags were ready: “Jim Murray had a six-hour heart surgery. Took ‘em one hour to fix it and five hours to find it.” And so on.
You know, when I first came to California way back in ’43, I realized I would have to guard against the local diseases — cheerfulness, optimism, tolerance, sympathy, orange juice poisoning of the brain, kind of like you watch out for malaria in the tropics. I guarded against the symptoms night and day. When I covered the movies, for instance, I didn’t like any of them. I even ripped Academy Award performances. Especially Academy Award performances. I only liked pictures nobody went to see. If Spencer Tracy wasn’t in it, I knocked it.
Then, when I got into sports, I was horrified at the attitude of the fans out here. They were, if you can believe it, well — “understanding” is the word. Patient. Sympathetic. Terrible flaws in a sports fan.
I used to sit behind them and heard them implore: “Please, Steve, don’t strike out.” Good Lord! This is no way to spectate. Brought up in the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, I knew the real procedure: “Hey, Steve, strike out so they’ll know you! I hear you’re writing a book, ‘My Greatest Days in Baseball.’ It’ll be thinner than the Texas social register. Hey, Steve, is your nickname ‘Popeye’ or ‘Pop Fly?’ Hey, Steve, one more strikeout and that school they named after you is ‘Lincoln Junior High’ once again. Can they carry out decimals in that school far enough to find your batting average? Hey, Steve, does your Rolls Royce have stained-glass windows — or just a chair in the back and incense? Do they call you ‘goody, goody’ because you’re bucking for saint or because that’s what the pitchers say when you come up? The next time you go to Lourdes, bring your bats.”
You can sit there, as fans do here, and murmur encouragements like, “We’re with you, Fernando, baby!” You have to go for the jugular, shake him up. “Hey, Fernando, show us how to throw a home run. Hey, Fernando, who takes care of your pet gopher when you’re on the mound? Hey, Fernando, two more pounds and they have to tether you. They’ll put a propeller on you and take pictures over the Rose Bowl next New Year’s. Hey, Fernando, the movies want you! They’re doing a remake of the Hindenburg disaster. You’re gonna play the Hindenburg. Hey, Fernando, how do you say ‘ball four’ in Spanish? Better learn, you’re gonna be saying it a lot!”
In horse racing, the accepted form of cheering in the stretch here is, “Come on sweetheart, stay there! Only an eighth of a mile, you can do it, baby!” The universal hate form on the other hand is, “Don’t die now, you damn dog, you got all my money ridin’ on ya! Hold on, you bucket o’ glue! Jockey, hit that snivelling quitter — or are you in on the fix, too?!”
Soft-heartedness is the graveyard of sportswriting, too. The minute you think, let alone write, “Well, the poor fellow was doing his best,” you are through. The instant you lead off with “Steve Garvey gave it his all yesterday, but took a called third strike to write finish to the Dodgers’ pennant race,” you are ready for the copy desk and the condo in Chula Vista. You have lost the hop on your hard one.
If life, they say, “No news is good news.” In journalism, they say, “Good news is no news.” You have to put a stone in your heart and a sneer on your lips and write, “Steve Garvey liked the pitch so much he couldn’t bear to bruise it. So he stood there like a guy getting his first look at the Mona Lisa, overcome with awe and admiration. He looked as if he had come to paint it, not hit it. Of course, the Philistines were screaming, ‘Swing, ya dummy! It’s a strike, not a work of art!’ But what do they know of works of art?”
I took up the problem with Dr. Sugarman, when he found fluid around the heart. “You don’t think it’s the milk of human kindness, do you?” I wondered anxiously. Gary shook his head. “No,” he said.
“You can tell that from the stethoscope?” I pressed.
“No,” he said, “from the column you wrote about the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116
What is the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation?
The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, established in 1999 to perpetuate the Jim Murray legacy, and his love for and dedication to his extraordinary career in journalism. Since 1999, JMMF has granted 104 $5,000 scholarships to outstanding journalism students. Success of the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation’s efforts depends heavily on the contributions from generous individuals, organizations, corporations, and volunteers who align themselves with the mission and values of the JMMF.
Like us on Facebook, and visit the JMMF website, www.jimmurrayfoundation.org.
A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.
Our mission is to empower women of all ages to succeed and prosper — in and out of sports — while entertaining the reader with Jim Murray’s wit and hyperbole. An excellent teaching tool for Women’s Studies.
Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization providing sports journalism scholarships at universities across the country.