Last King of the Sports Page
The Life and Career of Jim Murray
By Ted Geltner
University of Missouri Press
Copyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
The Connecticut Years, 1919–1943
Whatever my fears, I felt that one day I would come upon the meaning of my life, or its lack of meaning, in some flash flood of self-revelation. I think that Aristotle (unless it was "Bugs Baer") called this "the moment of recognition." I called it "the idea."
—Gene Fowler, Skyline: A Reporter's Reminiscence of the '20s
A Place Called Sligo
The first line of Jim Murray's autobiography reads, "I was a Depression child." In fact, Murray first came into the world just three days before the dawn of the 1920s, the Jazz Age, the beginning of a run of unprecedented American prosperity. It would be in Murray's formative years that he would suffer along with the rest of America through the Great Depression. The suffering he would live through as a young child, including two near-fatal diseases, the divorce of his parents, and the constant shuffling of the adults in his life, was his and his alone.
Murray was born on December 29, 1919, at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. By then, the Murrays had been in America for two generations. Before that, the Murrays were a close-knit clan from near the small village of Knockawer, outside Tobbercurry in County Sligo in the farm country of northeastern Ireland. Family records show that Jim's great-grandparents on his father's side, Martin Murray and Margaret Killoran, lived in the hills of Knockawer on land owned jointly by members of the Murray family. The family subsisted on cattle and sheep farming, as did their neighbors and the rest of the rural region around Knockawer. It was an isolated existence. Occasional trips for supplies to the town of Sligo were the extent of contact with the outside world. Jim's paternal grandfather, Michael Murray, was born October 14, 1861. He had five siblings, all of whom would join the second wave of Irish immigration during the final third of the nineteenth century. According to family lore, Michael Murray had the same feeling about Ireland that Jim would have eighty years later about Connecticut: a strong desire to be somewhere else. Michael left Ireland at the age of seventeen and always said he would have left much sooner if he had known how to swim. "He always used to say, if Ireland was a little bit of heaven, he hoped it was from the poorer section of it," Jim wrote.
Michael Murray and his siblings were part of a wave of Irish immigration to the United States that had been going on for most of the century. The Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849 caused unimaginable hardship in Ireland and left a population ripe for exodus, but the tide of immigration was already going strong by the time the famine began. Including the Great Famine, there were five catastrophic famines between 1818 and 1847. About two million people died of disease and starvation, which constituted nearly a quarter of the Irish population. The Great Famine, though, was a turning point. Many Irish believed they were sacrificed for the survival of the British merchant class. Feeling toward America, however, was just the opposite. Help came from those who had already made the move to the United States. In most major American cities, organizations raised funds for victims of the famine. American relief ships brought cargoes of corn and clothing. The federal government and members of the US Congress became involved in relief efforts. The response to Irish suffering played a large role in convincing the population of Ireland that the United States was their promised land.
In 1860, around the time that young Michael Murray and his siblings came to America, the Irish made up about 40 percent of the foreign-born population of the United States. Irish immigrants were coming to America at the rate of about fifty thousand per year. The majority of them ended up in the Northeast or Illinois. By the end of the century, the Irish population of America exceeded the population of Ireland itself. The first generation of Irish immigrants generally found work as laborers, doing the heavy lifting that was needed in urban America. They were masons, bricklayers, carpenters, and sweatshop workers, longshoremen, street cleaners, tailors, and stevedores. Michael Murray settled in Hartford, Connecticut, in the late 1870s. He had married Bridget Gallagher prior to immigration, and by the early 1880s, he was employed by the Pratt and Whitney Company of Hartford, where he would work for the rest of his life as a machinist. Pratt and Whitney was a successful firm that produced industrial machinery, and later in life Michael Murray spent his working days building airplane engines for commercial and military use. He was a dedicated employee and would arrive at six in the morning and smoke on the steps of the Pratt and Whitney factory until it opened at seven. Once, he was injured on the job and still reported to work, sporting a cotton ball on his head to cover the wound. His occupation was a stable source of income that kept the family fed and clothed and helped the next generation of Murrays live through the Great Depression. The Murrays lived comfortably in Hartford and before 1920 moved to West Hartford, a small, affluent suburb of Hartford. Michael and Bridget Murray, Jim's grandparents, were his primary caretakers for most of his childhood and would play an enormous role in his development. They died within four months of each other in 1934.
James P. Murray, Jim's father, was the third child out of the eight Murray siblings, born on October 31, 1889. Jim wrote very little about his father, so little written description of him exists. James was by all accounts a good student and a sparkling wit. In fact, he was supposed to be the first of the Murrays to attend college. A display of Irish stubbornness, however, kept that from happening. Late in his senior year of high school, James came to Latin class without having completed the day's lesson. He asked the instructor not to call on him, and after agreeing, the instructor called on James anyway. James stood up in class and said, "Look, you son of a bitch, I told you I didn't do the lesson. Why'd you call on me?" He was sent to the principal and thrown out of school. Even after a deal was struck in which an apology would get James back into school and back on the road to graduation, he refused to apologize. He never graduated from high school, and instead of matriculating to Trinity College, where his son, Jim, would go twenty years later, he became a pharmacist.
James married Jim's mother, Mary O'Connell, shortly thereafter. Mary, known as Molly, was born in Ireland. The O'Connells had come to America in 1896 when Molly was five years old and settled in New London, Connecticut. Molly worked as a nurse through most of her adult life. James and Molly had three children. Mary Elizabeth, known as Betty, was born in 1918, Jim in 1919, and Eleanor two years later. During these years, James was a successful druggist, at one time owning three separate pharmacies in the Hartford area. It was in the early years of Jim's life, however, that James's career and marriage would fall apart and send young Jim's life in another direction.
A House Full of Uncles
When he was four years old, Jim Murray had what his family called a nervous breakdown. What he actually had was an obscure disease called Saint Vitus' dance, or Sydenham's chorea, which causes the patient to lose control of his limbs, to lose the ability to walk, to twitch wildly, and to exhibit facial grimacing. Saint Vitus' dance is often associated with streptococcal infection, such as strep throat, and can last for months, which was likely the case with Murray. A disease of this nature can throw a family into chaos even with modern medicine, and at the time there was little in the way of treatment. Murray's parents apparently were not able to care for him sufficiently, and he moved in with his grandparents for what would be most of the rest of his childhood.
Things had already been going badly for the family at the time of Jim's disease. In the first years of his life, the family had been living in Hartford, with Molly's sister Agnes, an insurance clerk, living in the household as well. Prohibition had been in effect since 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified. Though the temperance movement had the political strength in the country, the national thirst for alcohol remained, and consumption was pushed underground. Many druggists of the era supplemented their business by selling illegal liquor. Jim's father was no different. He kept a water cooler filled with gin in his shops, as did almost every other pharmacy in Hartford. Liquor laws were indiscriminately enforced, and after James got into a feud with a local cop, the law came down on him. At two o'clock on the morning of January 13, 1922, police officers took him from his bed and brought him to the Hartford Police Station for booking. He was bailed out by his father for one thousand dollars twelve hours later. The arrest made the front page of the next day's edition of the Hartford Courant. The newspaper reported that police had arrested a bootlegger named Michael Delaney two days earlier. Liquor valued at thousands of dollars had been stored and sold out of James Murray's shop, and the police had been looking for him for two days. Justice moved quick in Hartford at the time; Delaney was already serving a sixty-day sentence in Hartford County Jail by the time James Murray was hauled down to the precinct.
James Murray pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case went to court on January 28. In just two weeks' time, all of his drugstores were out of business. The state's case hinged on the testimony of Delaney, who claimed to have sold nine cases of scotch to Murray that were part of a shipment of liquor that had been stolen from Delaney. As reported in the Courant, it is difficult to understand why Murray and his lawyer fought the charges in court. Murray admitted to agreeing to buy the scotch from Delaney and admitted to receiving the scotch. His lawyer offered no defense after Delaney's testimony. Upon rendering his decision, the judge said there seemed to be something deeper involved in the case than what was disclosed in court. With or without the truth of the matter, he sentenced Murray to twenty days in jail. James Murray's career as a business owner was effectively over.
Whether it was the strain of their legal and financial problems or the stress of a child with a major illness, the marriage of James and Molly could not withstand the difficulties. They split up when Jim was four, and from then on Jim was raised by committee, with his grandparents taking the lead. Divorce in an Irish Catholic family was a black mark of immense proportions and not to be discussed in public. Jim was now property of the Murrays, and they closed ranks around him. His mother, to them, was as unwelcome a subject as the divorce. Murray's cousin Carol Hamel, who was twelve years younger than Jim and later lived in the same household, said the subject was one that was never broached by family members. "In those days, that was that. That was the end. And the rest of the family hardly mentioned her name. I don't know if you know or not, but the old Irish would, well, they would write her off." Jim's sisters, Betty and Eleanor, remained with Molly, his father moved into an apartment, and Jim moved to West Hartford with the Murray clan.
By the time Jim made the move, his grandparents lived at 21 Crescent Street in West Hartford in a large three-story home built for two families. The house had three bedrooms and a second kitchen on the second floor and three more bedrooms on the third floor—plenty of room to harbor an uncle or two and a few aunts and some cousins and other assorted relatives. During leaner times, more of the extended family would take up residence in the home. The living arrangements throughout the extended family were fluid; at one point during the depths of the Depression, Jim, his father, and sisters all moved into the house at 21 Crescent Street, while Molly was forced to move back to New London to board with her parents. Jim also spent time living with his aunts Margaret, known as Peg, and Katherine, known as Kit. Both took on maternal roles in Jim's upbringing. At times, Jim shared a room with his uncle Frank. He was first exposed to sports by his father and his father's brothers, who would sit around the kitchen table, smoking cigars and arguing about the Red Sox or Jack Dempsey late into the night. The roster would change daily. It included Jim's father, along with Uncle Martin, a fireman who eventually became fire chief of New Canaan, Connecticut; Uncle Jack, a machinist who moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts; Uncle Frank, who managed and owned apartment buildings in Hartford and later owned a diner frequented by boxers; and Uncle Charles. "They were lively, funny, irreverent. Every boy should have uncles like these," Jim wrote.
But it was Uncle Ed, the black sheep of the family, whom Jim devoted the most ink to when he became a writer. Ed was a gambler, hustler, and con artist who Murray said "hated work so much, he didn't even like to watch it." Ed Murray dropped out of school in the sixth grade and from then on made his living with dice, cards, and assorted other cons. He was a stocky, curly-haired pug with a round face, a squashed nose, and a quick temper. He resembled Jimmy Cagney. In the underworld, he went by "the Gimp," because he had one leg shorter than the other. Murray remembered coming downstairs and watching Uncle Ed boiling eggs and dice in the same pan. "The eggs he ate. The dice he squeezed into a wooden vise until they got in a shape they wouldn't come up a '6' or '8.'" Ed would use the trick dice in illegal craps games. Once, the illegal dice slipped out accidentally, and Ed took a bad beating. Jim woke up to see his uncle's eyes swollen shut. He lanced them with a razor so Ed could get out of bed.
Murray looked up to Uncle Ed and reveled in the tours of Hartford's back rooms and pool halls he received from his uncle. While his father and the other uncles took him to fights and ball games, Ed brought him to places like the Greek-American Club and the Parkville Young Democratic Club, illegal all-night establishments where gambling went on. Throughout his life he repeated the many rules to live by that Ed shared with him: "Never bet on a live horse or a dead woman." "Never take money from an amateur ... unless he insists." "Never play cards with a man in dark glasses or his own deck."
As an adult, Murray usually played his Uncle Ed stories for laughs, but the Murray family held an honorable reputation in the community, and Ed often brought shame on the family. He was arrested on gambling charges more than a few times and often bullied Murray's grandmother into financing his schemes. As a child, Murray feared him and fantasized about knocking him out. When Murray was a bit older and money was extremely tight, Uncle Ed stole his shoes and slept with them under his pillow. Murray got up the courage and one morning jerked the shoes back from his uncle. When Ed did not attack him, Murray knew he was safe.
Ed also introduced Jim to horse racing. He took Jim to Agawam Race Track in Massachusetts, where Jim won his first bet, on a horse named Kievex. Ed played the angles in the horse game, too, always looking for a way to bend the rules. One scheme he was particularly successful with, for a time, was called past-posting. He worked the scam with his partner, Johnny Pachesnik. Ed would pay a spotter to watch the race and relay to Ed which horse was winning headed into the stretch. Johnny, meanwhile, would run up a minor losing streak, gaining the bookie's confidence. The bookie would get greedy and become willing to accept bets a minute or so after post time. Then Ed would come into the bookie parlor wearing a sweater with twelve buttons. The button that represented the winning horse he would leave unbuttoned. Johnny would place the bet, and the two would split their winnings. Unfortunately for Ed and Johnny, the bookie got suspicious when Ed came into the parlor wearing a sweater in ninety-degree weather. He found their spotter and paid him a little bit more than Ed was paying him. Pretty soon, Ed and Johnny were putting their money on losers, and the house, once again, got its money back.
Ed was generous to a fault when times were good and would be back under his parents' roof when the money ran out. Murray's cousin Marie Hewins, a generation younger than Murray, remembers Uncle Ed coming to Murray family reunions in later years. "He would have the backseat full of pastries, and all us kids just loved it. And another year he wouldn't show up at all. Later on in life, I found out why: he wasn't winning," she said. Uncle Ed's hard living took its toll, and he died in 1954 at the age of fifty-two. As much as anyone in the Murray family, Uncle Ed's outlook and attitudes are reflected in Murray's writing. Characters like Ed and his pals, who knew how to work angles and game the system, but ultimately found themselves on the other end of a con, populate Murray's columns. He would write about crooked fight promoters and shifty horse players with humor and admiration. He would form easy associations with Uncle Ed–type characters he encountered throughout his days in journalism. At Uncle Ed's funeral in 1954, one of the many questionable characters in attendance approached Murray's sister Eleanor and said of Uncle Ed: "They was better crapshooters and better pool hustlers. But for one man for two events by one player, I'd have to take Eddie. He was one of the best."
Excerpted from Last King of the Sports Page by Ted Geltner Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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