Master of the Game
As mesmerizing as an elite athlete, Frank Deford commands his arena of professional sports coverage
photography by Bruce Plotkin
In the beginning, Frank Deford wrote about sports. He would become, some would say, the best in the land at it, before he blossomed even further and became what’s known on the gridiron as a Triple Threat—kingpin of the magazines, a TV presence on HBO’s Real Sports, and, most famously now, the opinionator on National Public Radio (NPR), waking us all up on Wednesday mornings with those larky broadsides against a sports nation in danger of losing its way. No, wait, make that quadruple threat—he has been writing fiction since the age of nine and recently published his tenth novel. And so as to not further damage the psyches of writers everywhere, best to leave aside the screenplays.
Frank Deford, somewhat of a giant, reflects easily on all this, much as he seems to reflect easily on almost anything, as he strolls through his Westport house. His cat, Hendrix, shambles along. Deford’s office with the giant-screen iMac is a converted bedroom facing the street. Photos, declarations and oddments crowd the corners. He’s been patrolling this house for thirty-eight years. “I remember the day we moved in: August 10, 1974. It was the day Nixon left office,” he says.
Now the house is for sale. He’s been giving truckloads of his books away to his beloved Westport Library. No one is quite sure what will happen to what he calls “The World’s Largest Collection of Hotel Shampoo Bottles”—some of the booty earned during his half-century on the road to good stories.
He does not Twitter nor subscribe to any social media. What he does do is get up every morning and write. The act of writing still charges him up and he wonders gravely about writers who dare complain. Writing, he peeves, seems to be alone of the arts in that its professionals bitch about it so much. “You never hear a violinist complain about having to perform,” he sighs, wearily. “An actor would perform if it was only for four people in a closet. But writers? We enjoy being tormented.”
He is not tormented. For this and many other reasons he’ll get around to, he feels extraordinarily blessed. So much so that he refers to it as if it were a Broadway smash, The Deford Luck.
His fame rests on the fact that he doesn’t merely write about sports—rather, he takes readers into the lair of human behavior; he penetrates the psyches of its practitioners; he sees the flags of history snapping on distant ramparts; and he finally is able to summon it all up in breathtaking narratives.
The major stroke of luck as a young, ink-stained wretch, however, was that he was able to get the sort of access to his subjects that sportswriters today can only dream of. The salary divide between athlete and reporter was then not so unbridgeably huge. Players and reporters rode buses together, drank together, killed time together in airports in the middle of the night.
“One of the main changes to sports happened when players no longer needed jobs in the off-season,” he recalls. “It’s hard to believe but when I was starting out in the ’60s, they all had extra jobs. They needed jobs. When the season ended, they couldn’t just go to a gated community and hang out with a personal trainer for the next six months. With their posse. They needed work. And that was one reason they liked writers, because we could give them publicity and help them get a job.
“They’re different today. They don’t need writers as much because, like politicians, they can speak right over our heads. Simply the fact that you are a multimillionaire at a very young age makes you different. That’s not to say that many are not really nice guys…but they’ve been idolized from such a young age. Now you’re a star in the fifth grade. It’s amazing that more of them aren’t more spoiled than they are.”
He offers a knowing look. “But don’t get the idea that sports stars are worse today than they were. In the nineteenth century, those guys were really running wild. Nobody wanted his daughter to marry them.”
The perfect Deford touch—a casual wave of the kerchief toward the vintage tintypes of history.
He stares into the middle distance. “There does seem to be more violence off the field now, particularly with football players. That’s the one thing,” he says.
He saw, in brief, the playing field before it became the province of television. He was a witness when TV reporter Howard Cosell went “mobile,” slogging into the locker room with what appeared to be an astronaut’s pack on his back.
“Young writers are often astonished when I tell them of the year after the NBA Finals; I spent ten, fifteen minutes with Jerry West in the Laker locker room, then I went across the way and spent fifteen minutes alone with [Celtics star] Bill Russell. The idea that you would be even a minute alone with a star today under such circumstances is impossible. “ESPN, you see, was then on the horizon. Which allowed us to know athletes much better and, over time, with much more intimacy.”
Over time. He’s fully aware that his sentimental strides through the smoky gin mills of yesteryear has the dated appeal of an episode of Mad Men. In fact, Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell, taken with that period-piece show two years ago, asked Deford to write a remembrance of those days when the business was a boys-only playground. (Women in the office, Deford notes, really were called “the girls” back then.) The story went over so well it led to his new book, an autobiography. His wife of forty-seven years, Carol, came up with the title, Over Time.
The intimacy he gained with his subjects led him to front-row seats at moments of historical change. Title IX might be celebrating its fortieth anniversary now, “but before that there was Billie Jean King,” he says, all aglow at the memory of the pepperpot tennis champ who was equally determined to campaign against sexist shibboleths as well as mow down tennis competition—often on the same day. “She was the one responsible for me seeing things in a different way,” he says softly. “I still see her for dinner now and then.”
With Arthur Ashe he saw two critical disruptions to the civic firmament. The first occurred when he accompanied Ashe to the still bitterly segregated nation of South Africa for a tennis exhibition. “Arthur was the first black performer to appear on the stage with a white man,” Deford says, eyes widening.
“As sportswriters, we get to cover a lot of big games, but we don’t really cover the big moments in history. At the time, you could not see apartheid ever ending in South Africa. You could not see it on the horizon. But Arthur opened up the curtain just a little bit. And after that South Africa never put it back.”
The second revelation he witnessed with Ashe involved a different sort of bravery. During a heart operation, Ashe had been given some tainted blood. It was the earlier years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and fear and misinformation were running high. Ashe confided in Deford and a handful of others, but the striking thing was that it stayed a secret. Respect for Ashe was so enormous, not a soul would betray him.
Deford recalls the day when hard-hitting investigative reporter John Feinstein burst into his office, confronted him and said bluntly that he knew about Arthur. Heartsick, Deford realized that the “sweet conspiracy” of silence was about to end.
But all Feinstein had to see was the look on Deford’s face. “Don’t worry,” Feinstein said. “I’d never do that to Arthur.”
The news did eventually come out. But before Ashe succumbed, Magic Johnson had made his landmark announcement of his HIV diagnosis and, slowly but surely, the world would come to understand that all was not so simple anymore.
Frank Deford doesn’t have to be so damned lucky, does he? It isn’t enough that he grew to an imposing six-foot-four with broad-beamed shoulders, he also got the suave good looks, which he burnishes with a rakish, riverboat-gambler’s mustache and the airy charm and conversational knack of his Southern forebears that proves so seductive.
Meeting him, it’s easy to see how he gains such intimate confidences with his story subjects. He is so magnetic, so easy and debonair, that anyone would naturally want to be on their best for him, give him their better stories. He actually says that a magazine interview is an extended version of a high-school date.
But he is not shy about referring to the Deford Luck and says he would only be “delusional” if he didn’t admit it. He even goes so far as to see it in the year he was born, 1938, which to anyone signals the depths of the Great Depression. But he sees otherwise. Since no one was having babies in 1938, the Baltimore lad had relatively few rivals when he ambled out of Princeton into a job market clamoring for new recruits, with no stopoffs in Korea or Vietnam, and certainly no tangling with Monster.com. In fact, in his time there was no worrying about the female competition or minority hires. It was a good old boys’ club, through and through.
The actual store he walked into was the empire then known as Time Inc., then the wealthiest, most influential publisher of magazines in the nation. Given a berth at Sports Illustrated, he rose to stardom in a field that was still given scant regard among journalism’s potentates.
There had been, to be sure, a long line of major sports columnists working for the dailies, writing in a variety of styles. Ring Lardner and Jim Murray were comedians who could do tragedy. Red Smith (whose work Deford adored) wrote in elegant, sun-dappled prose; typewriter-tough-guy Jimmy Cannon hit so hard, observed Hemingway, that he was
“going to leave writing dead on the floor.”
For all that, sportswriters were always the ruffian stepchildren of the business, rarely given major awards, usually kept out of view when important company visited.
Deford is one of the few who rose to a higher plane, and it isn’t just because of his pre-television access. He has a novelist’s eye for the larger picture. He came to specialize in “The Big Takeout,” the long bonus pieces at the end of the magazine, in which he painted indelible portraits of subjects such as Jimmy Connors. In his 1978 profile, “Raised By Women to Conquer Men,” Deford recognized that tennis brat/champion Connors learned his overwhelming style at the feet of a mother and a grandmother who subjected the boy to a belief that bordered on total
Or he would begin a profile of hot-tempered basketball coach Bobby Knight by ruminating on his dimples. One never knew where the train was going, but you had to jump aboard. After a tour of the Knight dimples came a portrait of a magnificently talented man who could not practice what he preached. Knight drilled his players incessantly on the need to avoid distractions—“Don’t go chasin’ rabbits!”—even as he himself chased rabbits by the dozen. There was a surprising sympathy in Deford’s analysis of the bullying Knight, who was, he said, “still a prodigy in search of proportion.”
Similarly, baseball great Ted Williams, a brash player once scorned for his rudeness, comes across as a big, loveable softie, and the gentlemanly, oft-beloved Joe Dimaggio was seen as the cold one. Deford would write sympathetically of Wilt Chamberlain, “the most imposing physical specimen I have ever encountered on this earth,” as a bright, engaging man who, at the too-early end of his life, was beaten down and ashamed by one simple thing—he had carelessly bragged of sleeping with 20,000 women. The subsequent ridicule swiftly overshadowed all of the fame of his basketball records. Wilt, a proud man, found himself humbly begging Frank for an HBO special to remind folks again that he was once quite the athlete. Then he died before it could happen.
Bored of the usual sports beats, Deford traveled wide to meet roller derby queens, oddball coaches, forgotten men, a wrestling bear. He could take a story about a visit to the home of Billy Conn, a long-retired boxer in Pittsburgh, and rehash the night Billy came
thisclose to beating heavyweight champ Joe Louis, and turn it into a glorious whirl of prose and emotional moments (The Boxer and the Blonde, often talked about as a fitting subject for a movie). He came to call himself a “troubadour for sports.”
It was an era before Internet freebies, when magazines were rich and not only had the resources to send its writers and photographers down the Amazon in search of stories, but they were determined to build stars. Harper’s, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Newsweek, New York—all were run by editors who themselves gained a measure of fame.
At Sports Illustrated, Deford came under the tutelage of the now-legendary editor Andre Laguerre, who, during the war, had crashed in a plane, survived Dunkirk and served as General de Gaulle’s press attaché. As a magazine editor, Laguerre was a fearless leader who created an esprit de corps among his staff by, among other things, leading them in the after-hours drinking.
“There was a piece of advice he once offered me while standing at the bar. There were a lot of nights standing at the bar—you’ve seen Mad Men. He said, ‘Frankie, to be a good writer, you have to make a choice. You can either drink with the boys or chase the girls. But you can’t do both.’ ”
American society was overturned in the 1970s by many complicated factors. The sociology of journalism was altered, he thinks, by something simpler—a new piece of technology called the fax machine. “All of a sudden you did not have to come into the office,” he says. “You could send your material in. What was the point of dragging into the office if you didn’t have to?”
Thus, gone was much of the camaraderie, the competitiveness. “They’re not clustered together because…they’ve got machines! They don’t have to go out and drink at McSorley’s bar or wherever and get together and talk writing. They’re not face-to-face,” he says.
Another vast change hit journalism with the appearance of USA Today in 1982. It somehow convinced editors around the nation that short stories were the future.
Deford believes otherwise. “I believe that people remember the longer pieces. Not as many people do it today, largely because they don’t get the chance. So what you get now are short articles written long. People say, ‘This is too long.’ Well, if it was written right, structured right, more people would read it,” he says. “Now we’re inundated with statistics. So we’ve traded numbers for blood, so I think that’s a mistake. But anybody who predicts the future of journalism, never mind sportswriting, is just talking through their hat.”
Writers who silently tap out stories on laptops in coffee shops would no doubt be taken aback by Deford’s early tales of hammering out stories on manual typewriters that were so loud, people in the neighboring hotel rooms would complain, leading him to write on the bathroom floor with the shower running to drown out the noise. Finished stories then would have to be taken down to a Western Union office to be relayed back to the main office. Deford laughs, grinning that it all begins to sounds like Stagecoach.
His big body moves with more deliberation these days, and he wheezes now and then, explaining he suffers now from a sort of genetic emphysema, known as Alpha-One. Then, not bidding for sympathy but guffawing at the absurdity, he bellows, “I’m an old man now!” And having just done tours to promote his novel, Bliss, Remembered, followed by the memoir, Over Time, he alleges that he doesn’t know what he’s going to write next.
Then one reads his tremendous story on the history of the Olympics that recently ran in Smithsonian magazine, and it’s clear that the ol’ fireballer has lost none of the hop on his fastball. It’s just that old green-leaf Baltimore modesty in him, the smiling “Oh, pshaw!” to indicate that he’s just a fellow from the neighborhood and to disguise the solemn fact that he is one of the best at sports writing ever.