In January of 1979, as he prepared to cover Super Bowl XIII for the Los Angeles Times, columnist Jim Murray lost his vision. He underwent emergency surgery for a detached retina, but that procedure –- as well as follow-up operations –- was unsuccessful. His left eye was useless.
Meanwhile, Murray had developed a cataract in his right eye. Doctors didn't want to operate immediately, for fear of permanently damaging that retina. At age 59, as the vision in his "good" eye deteriorated, Murray faced the possibility of permanent blindness.
As Murray waited for the right moment to have his cataract surgery, sports editor Bill Shirley assigned John Scheibe, a night desk assistant, to assist his section's most prominent voice: to drive Murray to games and interviews, to read him the box-scores, and to travel with him to the press box and the locker-room. It turned out to be an eventful time: The Angels won the American League West, while the Rams, in their final year playing in the Coliseum, reached the 1980 Super Bowl. Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley passed away, and Earvin "Magic" Johnson joined the Lakers.
Scheibe has written an account of this period, entitled "On the Road With Jim Murray." The self-published book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online outlets; you can also check out Scheibe's website. Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. After cataract surgery, Murray regained vision in his right eye. He was able to resume fulltime writing duties (although Scheibe played chauffeur for a while). Murray also hadn't lost his sense of humor: "Scheibe," he deadpanned when he first encountered his assistant after cataract surgery, "you're a white man."
Murray went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990. He passed away in 1998.
I recently spoke with Scheibe, who still works at the Times, about the book.
LA Observed: When you worked with Jim Murray, did he ever complain about his condition?
John Scheibe: I didn't hear him complain very much. I remember once we went to an Angels game. They were going to play the Yankees, and we had just pulled into the parking lot. It was one of his first trips to a ballgame after he came back to work. He said something like, "The way things are, it's not easy being funny."
I think going to the ballpark cheered him up, seeing all his colleagues and all the players. The atmosphere was a good thing for him. And, he always had hope that the cataract would be taken care of. He had the best doctors at Jules Stein at UCLA.
LAO: In his condition, how did he go about writing his column?
JS: It went several ways. If he was at home and, say, had talked to Maury Wills, he'd pre-write it in his head and dictate the column into his tape recorder. Then, he'd play the tape to the transcription department at the Times.
Another way was, he'd write it in longhand on scratch paper, in giant letters. It would take him, like, ten pages for a column. I'd retype it on regular paper and send it to the paper. Anytime he was covering something live, he'd write it in longhand.
LAO: Did he ever talk about the difference between typing out his column and tape recording his column?
JS: He and some of the editors noticed that the columns he tape recorded tended to go longer in length. He couldn't see what he was writing, and it kind of got away from him sometimes.
LAO: Did his condition change the way he approached his column?
JS: Not being able to see who he was talking to obviously didn't help. So, I think he tended to write about people he knew. He knew Tommy Lasorda and Reggie Jackson –- he knew what they looked like.
He'd ask me -– like, if the Cardinals were coming into town -– he'd say, "Who's playing well on the Cardinals?" I'd say, "Keith Hernandez." If he knew that player –- if it was somebody that he'd interviewed before -- he'd lean toward writing about them than writing about somebody he didn't know or hadn't seen before.
LAO: What did you learn about reporting and writing from hanging around Murray?
JS: It was a good situation for me because I got a chance to see what it was like to cover ordinary ballgames and then what it was like to cover the playoffs and the World Series. It gave me the chance to go into locker-room and get quotes for him. He told me what he wanted, what he was going to write about, and then I'd go and listen for something or ask questions that would help him with his column.
LAO: You quote from columns that he produced during this time. How do they compare with other Murray columns?
JS: I couldn't really tell any difference. They were the same Jim Murray columns, whether he was writing about Lasorda or about Nolan Ryan coming close to a no-hitter. I thought that the column he wrote the night the Pirates won the seventh game of the World Series, with Scott McGregor giving up the home run to Willie Stargell, was one of his best columns. I mean, he was writing it on deadline.
LAO: Why did you wait until now to publish this book?
JS: I didn’t feel comfortable writing this while he was alive. Also, I couldn't take time off from work to do it. A few years ago, a couple of people at the Times suggested that it might be a good time to write the book. Gradually, I got more comfortable thinking about it. In 2003, I spent the summer writing most of it. Then, I spent a year trying to find an agent and a publisher and got no takers. Finally, I read a story in the Wall Street Journal about a writer who had self-published a book about baseball statistics. I did some research and signed with Arbor Books. And, here it is.