Jimmy was born in San Francisco, California, on Minna Street, between 7th and 8th, in September of 1894. His parents were Irish immigrants, who owned a fuel and feed store which fronted on Mission Street, behind the family home on Minna. This area of San Francisco was called "South of the Slot" by locals in those days, and comprised a sprawling ghetto of mostly Irish immigrants and their children who, in those days, made up the majority of the local labor force.
In 1906, Jimmy's mother died during the April 18 earthquake and fire. Jimmy's father left him in the care of his cousin, San Francisco firefighter Lt. Tom Murphy (later to become San Francisco's Fire Chief and recognized as one of the pioneers of modern firefighting in San Francisco) and his wife, Catherine. There are no records as to the whereabouts or fate of Jimmy's father after 1906. It was not unusual in those days for single fathers to leave their children in the care of relatives and go "traveling," hopefully to find a new wife.
Jimmy lived with the Lt. Tom and Catherine and their five children in a house in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco until late 1907, when Jimmy's mother's brother, Judge Martin O'Donnell of Vernon, California (now part of East Los Angeles), sent for Jimmy to come live with them.
In Southern California, Jimmy attended Huntington Park High School and commuted to and from school on a motorcycle given him by Judge O'Donnell. He became an expert rider and mechanic and, a few months short of graduation, opened a garage with a friend, developing a clientele of motorcycle and automobile owners from the Los Angeles area.
Jimmy began his racing career as a riding mechanic, back in the days when racing cars carried a driver and a "mechanician." He rode in winning driver Eddie O'Donnell's (no relation) Duesenberg at the 1916 Corona road race, their car achieving an average speed of 85 miles per hour, a truly terrifying speed for those early days.
Jimmy rode with some of America's greatest drivers of the time, including Ralph DePalma, Harry Hartz, Eddie Rickenbacker and Tommy Milton. During a short stint in the Army during World War One, Jimmy was convinced by Air Ace Eddie Rickenbaker to try his hand at driving once the war was over.
After the war, Jimmy's career as a driver was spotted, but he showed promise to those who knew "the racing game." Through the influence of Duesenberg's Number One driver, Tommy Milton, Murphy was given a factory car to drive in the inaugural race at the Beverly Hills Speedway, a superfast, 1.125 mile high banked, wooden speedway. To everyone (except Milton's) surprise, Murphy won that February 14, 1920 race. He went on to win regularly and became a popular champion on the circuit.
In 1921, as part of a team of Duesenberg's sponsored by French immigrant Albert Champion, he became the only American to have ever won a Grand Prix race in a truly all-American car, by winning the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. Jimmy's mechanician in that race was none other than Eddie O'Donnell, with whom he rode to victory at Corona in 1916.
In 1923, Jimmy placed second in the National Championship, even missing several races to go to Europe and race for Los Angeles race car builder, Harry Miller. He placed third in the Italian Grand Prix that year, in a race whose Grand Marshal was Benito Mussolini.
Jimmy's success continued in 1924. Jimmy finished third in the Indy 500, and by the last weeks of the season, he had accumulated an unbeatable lead in the points toward the Championship.
Although not an accomplished dirt racer, he agreed to appear at a race promoted by a friend, at the Syracuse, New York fairgrounds dirt track on September 15, 1924. As he charged for the lead late in the race, his car slid sideways and crashed through the inside wooden rail. A large piece of the rail was pushed through Jimmy's chest, and he died before he could be taken to the hospital.
James Anthony (Jimmy) Murphy was buried in Los Angeles at the Holy Cross Cemetery, in Vernon, Los Angeles County, in the O'Donnell family plot. His death made headlines across the country. His funeral was attended by most of the great drivers and racing entrepreneurs, engineers and promoters of the time. In a precedent-setting move, the American Automobile Association's Competition Board awarded the 1924 National Championship posthumously, to Murphy. At the funeral, Fred J. Wagner, Chief Starter for the AAA's Contest Board, said in his eulogy,
Sportsmanship, like every other moral quality is not instinctive. It must be acquired. Jimmy Murphy, as no other, possessed the quality of a 100% sportsman. Invariably, when he won, he attributed his success to the goddess of fortune. He carried his honors more blithely than any other man I have ever come in contact with in my 30 years as an official. He accepted victory without a sneer or a strut, and defeat without a whimper. He was one in a million.
Information on Jimmy's life has been gathered from various sources, including the original record books of the old AAA's Contest board, from newspapers of the time including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and the Los Angeles Times; from the annals of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, Mr. Jerry Grant of the Champion Spark Plug Company, and the public relations department of the AC/Delco Division of General Motors, as well as a personal interview with the late Mr. Peter DePaolo, who was a contemporary of Jimmy's.