Frank Deford made language sing

Frank Deford made language sing

Published
Frank Deford speaking at the Bridgeport Public Library in Bridgeport, Conn., Sept. 21, 2007. (Bridgeport Public Library)

BALTIMORE – Frank Deford was one of the last carriers of a piece of American sports culture that’s now on the skids. He wrote about athletes but avoided the deadly box score statistic and the dreary salary negotiation stuff. He told us about the human beings who put their bodies, and their courage, on the line. And his intention was to get as close to literature as he could.

Deford died Sunday, at 78. How good was he? Years ago, when Inside Sports was trying unsuccessfully to become America’s top jock magazine, Kenneth Turan wrote a glowing profile on Deford headlined, “The Best Writer at the Other Magazine.”

The “other magazine” was Sports Illustrated, where Deford spent 20 years, most of them when SI was still regarded as the Bible of sports. Later he spent 37 more years at National Public Radio, and wrote 20 books along the way.

But he once declared, “I’m a writer who happens to write sports, not a sportswriter.”

The distinction was important. Today the sports writer trails after the 24-year old outfielder making $12 million a year and hopes the kid will belch a sentence fragment or two so there’s some meaningless cliché to slip into the body of his story.

Deford always went deeper. Partly it’s because he wasn’t writing under daily deadline pressure, and partly it’s because he consciously descended from a treasured line of sports writers – Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, Shirley Povich, Jim Murray, among others – who, like Deford, valued the English language at least as much as the home run or the blocked punt.

In a distant piece in GQ Magazine headlined, “The Death of Sportswriting,” Alan Richman wrote, “Our sports pages once bristled with writing that was as elegant as it was contentious. Now it’s just a numbers game.”

But here’s Richman quoting Tony Kornheister, who was then writing sports for The Washington Post:

“Frank Deford was the god of us all,” Kornheiser said. “Everybody wanted to be Frank Deford. Every time he wrote a takeout, there was a trail of broken hearts. Maybe it was that way with the painters. A real good French Impressionist is going along and then Claude Monet comes out with one and crushes you.”

Deford grew up in Baltimore at a time when John Unitas was coaxing the city out of its traditional inferiority complex every time he heaved a football across the horizon. Here’s Deford, in a Sports Illustrated piece headlined “The Best There Ever Was,” when Unitas died:

“Johnny U was an American original, a piece of work like none other, excepting maybe Paul Bunyan and Horatio Alger. Part of it was that he came out of nowhere, like Athena springing forth full-grown from the brow of Zeus, or like Shoeless Joe Hardy from Hannibal, Mo., magically transforming the Senators, compliments of the devil. But that was myth, and that was fiction. Johnny U was real, before our eyes.”

In the same era Unitas was leading the Baltimore Colts, Deford was a pretty good basketball player at Gilman. He set the private high school’s single-game scoring record.

This taught him a lesson. Deford was student body president and editor of the school newspaper – but neither gave him the same campus stature as being a star jock. He remembered this, as a professional writer, whenever he sat down to interview a ballplayer.

“You’ve got to remember,” he told Kenneth Turan, “that all professional athletes are stars, that every one of them, even the guy who’s just hanging on hitting .220, in high school or somewhere else, was absolutely adored. And once they’ve had a taste, like a lion eating flesh, they never get over it. Athletes are all vain. They never ask you about yourself, they’re easy to flatter – and they play right into your hands.”

Deford wasn’t using this insight to exploit the athletes, but to get past their defense mechanisms and find out what actually made them tick.

Today all stories are built around the incessantly ticking clock. And, for those sports writers given a little time to explain things, the games have been infiltrated by so much deadly auxiliary stuff – contract negotiations, salary caps, pay scales, arbitration, free agency – that readers need a private attorney to negotiate their way through a single paragraph.

Frank Deford made the language sing. He didn’t need the dull statistic to pad his stories, nor the clichéd quote. He wasn’t writing about the games exactly, but about the human beings who played them.

“To have people finish my pieces and say, ‘So that’s what he’s like,’” Deford said once. “That’s all I want to do.”

In his half-century or so of writing sports, almost nobody did it better.

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