Frank Deford's Quest to Bring Humor and Grace to Sportswriting

An interview with the writer about his half-century-long career and his new book, Over Time

meroney_Frank Globetrotter_post.jpg
Courtesy Frank Deford

Frank Deford basically looks the way he writes. He's 6'4," trim, wears silk ties, French cuffs, and natty sports coats. He has a pencil mustache and slicks back his hair. During the Christmas season, he's probably the only man in all of TV gallant enough to wear a red blazer on the air.

That's pretty much the same swath Deford cuts through his sportswriting, which for him is never simply about the game. "It should be the best writing," he once explained. "You're writing about young, vibrant people; there are wins and losses. In other words, it's great drama." He brings a streamlined elegance to every subject, whether it's old football coaches in the Deep South, retired prizefighters in the steel belt, or tennis champions at Wimbledon.

"I can't believe it's been 50 years since I started writing for Sports Illustrated," he told me last week, marveling at how time moves. The work came easy for him, too. After all, this is a man who once equated writing with the joy of sex. "I think I would die if I couldn't get to the typewriter every day. I really need that. I think it's a sexual experience," said Deford in an interview.

His jobs include founder and editor-in-chief of the first and only coast-to-coast daily sports newspaper, The National (it was one of the most audacious experiments in journalism, lasting only a year and a half in the early 1990s); correspondent on HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel; and commentator on NPR (a position he's held since 1979). He's also written 18 books, 10 of them novels. Probably his most evocative book has nothing to do with sports—it's about his daughter, Alexandra, who died from cystic fibrosis when she was just eight years old. Hollywood made a TV movie from it in 1986, Alex: The Life of a Child. Craig T. Nelson played Frank.

He's now 73, and if you're expecting him to say that the most interesting person he's interviewed is some major athlete such as Mickey Mantle, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, or Arthur Ashe (Deford co-authored a book with him), you'd be wrong. "It's Teddy Tinling," he says. "Nobody's much heard of him, and everybody wants to hear a big name." (For the record, Tinling was a tennis champ. He also designed Gorgeous Gussy Moran's lace panties.)

I caught up with Deford as he was starting a 20-city book tour for his new memoir, Over Time.

meroney_Over Time cover_post.jpg

Your 1984 Sports Illustrated article about Coach Bob "Bull" Sullivan, "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," is regarded as a classic. In it, you chronicle this man from East Mississippi Junior College, who's still a legend down there. How do you rank that piece with the other things you've written?

I think the best thing I've written is a story called "The Boxer and the Blonde." It's a piece about Billy Conn, the white would-be heavyweight champion of the world, who lived in Pittsburgh. I love the Sullivan story, though. Both are favorites because they deal with time and place. But Billy Conn is a love story, too.

One of your reporters at The National, Ed Hinton, said of the Bull Sullivan story, "The 120th paragraph is as good as the lede, and the ending is better than all of it."

Well, you see, Ed's from the South. If you find somebody who's from Pennsylvania, they'd put Billy Conn at the top.

Over Time is full of references to sportswriter Grantland Rice. "You certainly can't compare any individual, ever, in American journalism, to what he was," is one of your lines about him. What made Rice unique?

He dominated his area of journalism more and for longer than any other single individual, from Walter Lippman to Walter Winchell. The only thing that compares to Grantland Rice is ESPN.

Was he a good writer?

Yes, but he was nothing special. When he started at the beginning of the 20th century, sportswriting was just a couple of decades old. And he dominated it for the next 50 years. Somehow he simply managed to rise about the crowd. He was like certain movie stars who aren't the most beautiful or handsome but somehow they achieve a greater stardom.

Speaking of ESPN, do you read its website, Grantland, named for Mr. Rice?

Occasionally. I was sort of seduced into it because it launched with an oral history of The National. The piece was entertaining and also complimentary about what we did with that newspaper. So they seduced me. Bill Simmons, who runs Grantland, had enough sense of history to name it after Grantland Rice.

But, "there's no poetry in ESPN's soul," you say in this new book. Is it really that bad?

ESPN is all meat and potatoes. It's pretty much scouting reports. There isn't a great deal of humor, and when there is, it's pretty sophomoric. The people at ESPN feel that their charge is simply to deliver just the facts, ma'am—inside baseball all the way. They don't have any sense of trying to be poetic or graceful.

Spoken like a man who works for HBO Sports.

Well, whether I'm on HBO or NPR, I try to leaven my pieces with a certain amount of humor and grace. I just don't think you see that on ESPN.

In 1971, you wrote There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. I read that book and loved it. Reviewers did, too. But There She Is bombed. What happened?

The Miss America insiders were the only ones who wanted to read 350 pages about Miss America.

Even with the critical raves it didn't catch on.

There are some books that get huge numbers of positive reviews, but reading them satiates people. They say, I've read enough now.

But when it went out of print, it almost developed a cult following.

Yeah. For a while, every Miss America contestant wanted to read it. If they'd only bought it when it was published it would have been a runaway success. [laughs] I guess people who watch Miss America don't read a whole lot of books. At the end of the day, maybe that was the real issue.

In 1966, you wrote the first big story about hockey star Bobby Orr. Years later, you say that he gave you the best definition of what it means to be blessed with great talent: "I don't think most people can understand what little pressure I felt out there," said Orr. "It was like skating in a little balloon. Only you can't take that balloon anywhere else with you."

That's an absolutely brilliant thing he said. He was in his 40s at the time. I don't think any 20-year-old could understand that statement.

Did it remind you of all the other great athletes you've covered?

That statement isn't just about a great athlete—it's about anybody who's extraordinary at something. They're inside this protective cocoon. What they do is so good, so special, that they're untouched by pressure, never mind by the other players. They float above everyone else. Once Bobby climbed off the rink, he was human. Not just human, but vulnerable.

You've purposely avoided participatory journalism. Your philosophy is, "I would never try do with any of my subjects what they do for a living. Leave that amateur hokeyness to the local TV reporters."

That's right. I remember once when I was reporting a story on John Newcombe. He was married to a tennis player called Angie, who was ranked 112th in the world. At one point, I played tennis with her. She eviscerated me. That drove the point home: never mind trying to hit with John Newcombe—I couldn't even hit with John Newcombe's wife. [laughs] So I told myself, Don't make a fool of yourself. Then, of course, I went out and broke that promise.

What made you decide to break it?

I had a chance to play against the Harlem Globetrotters and wrestle a bear. Actually, I batted .500. I did very well with against the Globetrotters, and then very poorly wrestling the bear. So I retired from that kind of active competition. You see it on television all the time, even on 60 Minutes. If they're doing a story on a basketball player, the reporter shoots hoops with him on the court. Maybe I'm being too highfalutin' here, but I'd rather sit on the sidelines and watch.

Nevertheless, one of your Sports Illustrated colleagues, George Plimpton, made a pretty solid career of participatory journalism.

Well, George didn't do it first. That was Paul Gallico, who got knocked down by Jack Dempsey. [laughs] I think George acknowledged that's where he got the idea. Part of the reason I avoided that kind of thing is I didn't want to be the poor man's George Plimpton.

In Over Time, you write that Dan Jenkins was exactly what a Sports Illustrated reporter was supposed to be like. I now stand corrected because for the longest time I thought Frank Deford was exactly what a Sports Illustrated writer was supposed to be like.

Maybe I rose to be Dan's successor, but I was never the man about town that Dan was. I was this younger writer looking up to him. So much of my career was spent alone. But Dan was always in press boxes. He was in the Masters Clubhouse. Dan was running the salon. I was the lone wolf. In movie terms, Dan Jenkins was Fred Astaire. I was Gary Cooper. I would ride into town, but Dan was already there.

In this book you have a memorable scene of Jenkins—he's at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills drinking both a strong cup of hot coffee and a glass of Scotch.

I've never seen anyone else do that. What a stomach Dan must have. I checked that story with his daughter, Sally Jenkins, to make sure. I didn't want to call Dan up and say, Did you really drink coffee and Scotch? I imagined he'd answer, That sounds weird, I'd better deny it. But Sally said, "Yes, that's Dad."

Sally confirmed it.

She confirmed it, absolutely. I remember some guys drinking milk before they went out, hopeful it would somehow line their stomachs. But hot coffee and Scotch at the Polo Lounge? That's strictly Dan Jenkins.

Did you drink a lot when you were reporting stories?

Well, if I was writing a story on a coach and he was a drinker, then I'd drink with him. When you're writing about someone, you try to show him a similar side of yourself. I was with Jerry Jones once and he autographed a waitress' breast. So I followed suit. If Jerry's going to autograph a boob, goddammit, I'll autograph a boob, too. [laughs]

Most of your novels have sports as a theme, but you argue that sports fiction usually doesn't work.

If I'd had any sense, I'd have started by writing lawyer or cop books. They do a lot better than sports novels. Dan Jenkins had a great hit with Semi-Tough—but that's almost the exception that proves the rule. Semi-Tough was just flat-out funny sports. The Art of Fielding, which was published last fall and is a bestseller, is more about a character trying to grasp his sexuality. It's tangentially about sports.

Why don't they work?

They're competing against the real thing. Real sports are exciting and real law is boring. The best sports novel I've written is called The Entitled—but it's more about sex. It's an athlete in that balloon that Bobby Orr talked about, and the sense of entitlement that comes to athletes. Sports movies, on the other hand, work very well.

Speaking of movies, did Craig T. Nelson get you right?

I'll tell you about that movie—my wife and I were so scared about how it would turn out because this was such a personal story of ours. But the result was a beautiful picture. It was also a tremendous success in bringing attention to cystic fibrosis. Now, about Craig T. Nelson playing Frank Deford: you should know that Frank Deford actually played Frank Deford in an Arliss episode and I think he beat Craig T. Nelson. [laughs] I don't think there was any comparison. Frank had the character down. It was just like Phillip Seymour Hoffman getting Capote right: I killed it. [laughs]

You pay tribute to Peter Ueberroth in Over Time as the man who saved the Olympics in 1984.

I think he did.

Mitt Romney is now claiming that he saved the Olympics in a different era. This is one of the main reasons he says he ought to be elected president. How do you compare what Ueberroth and Romney did?

The difference is that Ueberroth saved the Olympics. They'd just about bankrupted not only the city of Montreal, but also the province of Quebec. Years before that, there was the massacre at Munich. Nobody wanted the Olympics. There were only two cites that bid for them and one was Tehran under the Shah. He was deposed, so almost by default, Los Angeles ended up with the Olympics. Peter Ueberroth came up with a commercial scheme of how to make them work again. He got the right kinds of sponsors—for example, McDonald's built a swimming arena. Peter Ueberroth worked it out.

In 2002, the Olympics were tainted with corruption, and Romney got involved to try to fix that.

But there's no comparison between Ueberroth and Romney and what they did. In a way, this is unfair to Romney because nobody was asking him to save the Olympics. They were only asking him to straighten out the mess of Salt Lake City.

What do you think of the campaign claim, "Mitt Romney saved the Olympics"?

There's a huge difference between saving the Olympics and straightening out the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

What do you mean when you say that the revolution in sports is over, that they're not really interesting anymore?

What I mean is all the great changes are behind us. Think about 1946, when Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. There were only 16 teams and they'd been that way for 50 years. Then television came along. Basketball became prominent, the NCAA tournament started developing. Professional athletes began to get free agency. And probably the single most important thing that's happened in the last half-century is women in sports. All this exploded in a very short period, from 1946 through the '80s. Now things are pretty settled.

One of the criticisms about the NCAA is that football and men's basketball generates hundreds of millions of dollars and the players don't get paid. Do you think that's the biggest issue in sports today?

That's what's left. The NCAA is a dictatorship. It handles players like they're chattel. The other thing that's emerged in the last couple of years is the concern for athletes' heads. The idea that football is this really dangerous sport seems to have just occurred to us. [laughs] How we avoided that fact for a hundred years or so I don't know.

How do you predict football will handle it?

There's a major problem when the most attractive thing about the sport is also the thing that damages the people who play it. There's no question in my mind that the greater and greater popularity of football is based largely on the appeal of violence. But if you try to distill the violence out of football, how do you still have football? To a lesser degree, you have the same problem with hockey, but hockey players don't tackle each other—they bang into them. Every play in football ends with a tackle. That's the way it works.

Where do you predict football be in a few years?

Well, it's a national craze that's threatened. I wonder if at some point a conference, the Ivy League, or a major municipal school district will say, We can't play football. There are too many lawsuits. Our players may get hurt.

Is it true that that the last time an athlete impressed you was in 1999, when you met Sir Edmund Hillary?

The older I get, the more difficult it is to impress me. Had I covered politics, the President I met at 35 would probably be more impressive than one I met at 65. That's true in sports. As for Sir Edmund, he was the last one who made me a little nervous. It's different when you're talking to somebody who's on the $5 bill, like he was. That sets you back. The funny thing is, he was probably about the easiest person to talk to. He was just folks. Had a cat crawling all over him the whole time.

While we're on the subject of legends, did you meet the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio?

[laughs] No.

What did you make of Richard Ben Cramer's biography of DiMaggio?

It's terrific. What always fascinated me about DiMaggio is when you contrast him to Ted Williams, who was supposed to be the bad guy. Instead, Williams was this ebullient, enthusiastic, social creature who was full of fun and life. To me, that was astounding.

You say he was mostly just a cold fish. You include the famous line about DiMaggio that you say sums him up: "What kind of guy learns to love the most beautiful woman in the world only after she dies?"

DiMaggio was morose. There aren't really any stories about him. You don't ever hear, And then Joe did this and that... DiMaggio just sort of went his own way. Plus, he was very vain. He always made people introduce him as the greatest living player. That's tacky.

You write about of the all-time best scenes of Ted Williams. He's 80 years old, preparing to speak to the Society for American Baseball Research, championing Shoeless Joe Jackson for the Hall of Fame. He's using a walker and you write, "He raised himself up as tall as he could, thrust out his chest, and in that great bombastic voice, this is what he hollered as an introduction: 'Are there any fucking Marines in here?'"

Oh, yeah. I love that—"Are there any fucking Marines in here?" Williams just blew these little nerdy guys out of their seats. At first they were astounded, but then they loved it.

Bob Feller was with him.

Yes, and I remember Feller looked on like the master sergeant ready to take names. [laughs] They both once told me how they used to sit in their respective hotel rooms, thinking about facing one another on the field—the greatest pitcher versus the greatest hitter of their time. That's classic stuff, and I don't think you have that anymore.

Some of your best pieces are about former athletes and coaches reflecting on past triumphs.

Well, I love old guys. They're great because they go through a period where they are these stars—everybody's constantly bothering them. Then they just disappear from the game. They start to miss it. And as they get older, they want it back. They want people to ask them questions. They want to relive that time when they were great.

How would your life be different if you'd worked for a newspaper instead of Sports Illustrated?

I wouldn't have lasted. At a paper, the goal was to be a columnist, to write like Jimmy Cannon, Red Smith, or Shirley Povitch. They had 600 words on the left column with their picture there. I would have gotten tired of the routine—spring training, the Masters, then the Kentucky Derby. I'm not built that way.

How long did it take to write a story such as "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was"—a few months?

No. I work fast. I'm impatient. Maybe I have a short attention span, which is odd for a long-form writer. But I've always had a habit of leaving the party before it's over.

The writing comes easy for you.

Yes. On "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was," I was in Mississippi for three days. I made lots of phone calls. I'd found out enough and wanted to go while I was still excited. I'd rather leave a few things out but still have my enthusiasm. Let's get writing—that's my whole idea.

You reveal that the best advice you ever got in your whole life came from Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken: "Son, if you want people to listen to you, wear a white suit."

That's true. [laughs]

What's the best advice you ever got about writing?

It was from a guy called Dick Johnson, the number two man at Sports Illustrated. He said, "If you're angry at an editor, sleep on it before you say anything."

What's your assessment of Keith Olbermann, whose tumultuous broadcasting career began in sports?

Keith needs a good woman. When he comes home, he needs a wife there who can say to him, Hey, take it easy. Calm down. I love you, darlin.' Sit down, have a martini, let's talk about this. You don't have to get mad. Everything's going to be fine. Back when I was doing commentaries on CNN in the 1980s, Keith was just starting out there. Even then, people were saying, This guy's really good. But, man, is he a piece of work. He's trouble.

You say that the finest piece of writing to ever appear in Sports Illustrated is a 1975 story entitled "Lawdy Lawdy He's Great" written by the late Mark Kram. The piece is about the fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Manila.

It's an absolutely magnificent piece. Mark was the closest thing to a genius—and he reached greatness a couple of times, such as with that story. However, like Olbermann, he couldn't be happy. He worked himself to death, and at a certain point, he started fighting writing—it became his enemy. Once that happened, it was all over. I used to give him advice. I'd say, "You know, Mark, you're like one of those pitchers who can throw a hundred miles an hour, but you have to aim every pitch. Don't always aim. Sometimes just throw the sonuvabitch."