Baseball Men - The Sportswriter

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Frank Deford, six-time ‘Sportswriter of the Year'.

Conventional wisdom says that Frank Deford is our greatest living sportswriter.

 

Conventional wisdom is right.

 

Like many great writers, Deford has been versatile. In the 43 years since he first joined Sports Illustrated magazine, he's covered nearly every major sport under the sun, from the majors to bowling and roller derby. He's profiled important athletes from all walks of life and covered every athletic event worth covering. His byline has appeared on screenplays, short columns, long essays, and full-length books. He's even gone beyond print - Deford has produced National Public Radio commentaries for more than 20 years and has served as a correspondent for HBO's 'Real Sports' for the last several seasons. 

 

Heck, Deford's talent is so far-ranging that even the wide world of sports hasn't quite contained it. Over the years, SI's premier writer has been a speaker at dozens of major conferences and visiting professor of American Studies at Princeton University. He's branched out to produce fictional works like 'The Other Adonis', a psychological thriller, and 'Love and Infamy', a historical romance set in the World War II era. He's penned original motion picture screenplays for the films 'Trading Hearts' and 'Everybody's All American', with another two new films due out within the next year or so. In 'Alex, The Life of a Child', Deford also released a heartbreaking personal memoir, one chronicling his late daughter's battle against cystic fibrosis. 

 

For all of that diversity and range, however, the prolific quantity of Frank Deford's work is absolutely stunning. The same fluid, elegantly-constructed prose that made his name has been attached to hundreds of pieces over the decades, along with 14 major books. An overall literary output of over two million words saw a recent addition in ‘The Old Ball Game', a bestselling tale of the friendship between Giants Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson and John J. McGraw.

 

Oh, and the quality of Frank Deford's work? Countless sports fans have made their own judgments, but consider a resume that features no less than six peer awards for US Sportswriter of the Year. A Washington Journalism Review Award for Magazine Writer of the Year. A GQ Magazine citation as the nation's finest sportswriter. An induction into the Hall of Fame for the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. And hardware, including an Emmy and a Peabody.

 

All of the above is reason enough to talk to Deford about his thoughts on sportswriting and baseball, but I'd be remiss if I didn't disclose a personal motivation for the following conversation. Deford's brilliant SI essays helped inspire me to learn more about the game as a kid. He happens to live near my hometown, so his unmatched local reputation as a leader of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation inspired me to help out charities as a young adult. Finally, within the last two years, his encouragement has meant a lot to me as a novice columnist.

 

I was more than a little nervous when Mr. Deford welcomed me to his Connecticut home on a recent afternoon. Those who have had the privilege to meet the man know he is even more than our greatest living sportswriter.

 

 

When did you first start thinking about sports as a future career?

 

I never had any delusions about being a player. I was a good high school basketball player, but that's all I was - a good high school basketball player.

 

I sort of backed into sports. I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn't necessarily want to be a sportswriter. After college, I wanted to go to New York and the best offer was at Sports Illustrated, initially as a researcher. Yeah, I liked sports, but I liked the writing in Sports Illustrated. It was never my intention to remain a sportswriter; it was just something that worked out.

 

I very nearly left after about five years to go to the Saturday Evening Post; I remember that distinctly. I've always sort of wrestled with it, and always wrote books that had nothing to do with sports, but it's been a very happy situation for me.

 

In the past, you've mentioned looking up to athletes like Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson when you were growing up in Baltimore in the 1950's. Did you have any role models among writers?

 

I don't think I had any idols. I just admired good writers, starting with Shakespeare, Dickens. I remember reading ‘Catcher in the Rye'; when I read that, it was like a religious experience. I just admired good writing.

 

I do remember reading the New York Herald Tribune and Red Smith, of course, was the lead columnist. From him, I saw how sportswriting could be a great craft. I think, still, I don't think no one's been a better columnist than Red Smith. Even writing 600, 700, whatever it was, 1,000 words, he just wrote so perfectly.

 

Were you still active as a basketball player while you were an undergrad at Princeton?

 

I played on the squad but I never suited up; I was not on the team in any real sense of the word. I mean, I knew all the players and I'd go practice with them, but I was a redshirt and played JV games through my sophomore year. I loved it, but I just wasn't any good.

 

Even so, you overlapped on the team with a guy named Bill Bradley.

 

Well, I was a senior when Bill was a freshman. I'd watch Bill score as many points as he wanted to in a game. The next year, when I was at Sports Illustrated, I told about this guy. That made me look smart; like I'd discovered Bill Bradley. And I did write the first major article on Bill Bradley.

 

Sure. By 1962, when you graduated college, you first started off at Sports Illustrated. It was a preeminent magazine at the time?

 

It was reaching that status because of a new editor named Andre Laguerre.

 

Laguerre had come in a few years before, and he changed everything. He really got the magazine on track because he said ‘Look, it's a sports magazine, so let's be honest about it. Let's write about sports'. By the time I got there, in '62, everyone felt pretty good about themselves. If I'd gotten there a few, three or four earlier, they wouldn't have, because they'd figure, ‘We're downscale, we're writing about sweaty sports'.

 

Within the next few years, consequently, the magazine got bigger and bigger and bigger as sports itself got bigger and bigger and bigger. That dovetailed perfectly. I think if I'd arrived a few years earlier, I wouldn't have stayed.

 

Was it a tough transition for you? I'd imagine that a big part of the challenge would be in the fact you had to cover a lot of ground.

 

In the beginning, I always covered basketball. It was perfectly alright to let some kid do it because nobody else wanted to do it - at the time, the sport wasn't nearly as important as it later became. I went to Spring Training two or three years; I starting covered tennis.

 

I always thought of myself as a generalist. Once I stopped as a beat writer, I think in 1970 or '71, I could write about whatever subject I wanted. It didn't make any difference what sport it was, as long as it was a good article. I mean, maybe the best article I ever wrote was about boxing [‘The Boxer and the Blond', about Billy Conn], and I can't stand boxing.

 

You seemed to develop a knack for switching back and forth, though. You started off with all those diverse subjects and eventually branched out into every format, from nonfiction biographies to fictional novels to short stories and, eventually, radio commentaries and television pieces.

 

I guess I'm too versatile for my own good. Maybe what I should have done is stay like Red Smith, who did one thing beautifully, whereas I'm all over the place. I think it's a question of what suits you.

 

I think it was very good for me that I could move around, though; I think it's kept my interest up. I've seen too many people stay in one game and become jaded. I didn't want that to happen to me; I wanted to write about other things. And the other things seemed to just come along.

 

If there's ever been a stranger to writer's block, if I may say, so it's you. I'd estimate that, everything included, you've written about the equivalent of 30 or more books - lengthy books - over the years.

 

Oh, I have no idea. I wouldn't even begin to count how many.

 

You're right, I've been very lucky in that regard. There have been times when, I wouldn't say I was blocked, but I was certainly stumbling. It wasn't all that easy. By and large, though, I'd find a way out of the maze.

 

I never have been all that traumatic about it. I've enjoyed writing. It's been fun for me and a terrific life for me. Again, that's why I keep going in these different directions - it's more fun for me.

 

I guess what stands out in a lot of your writing is the ambition, too. I mean, I've never come across a Frank Deford byline about ‘OK, the Cards are going to win the pennant because they've got superior pitching'. Most of your writing seems to touch on history, social commentary, ethics, and, definitely, psychology, and the like.

 

Oh, absolutely. That's what I tried to do, to connect it in some way or other, to find some element in a person that made the story. I've always seen my pieces in Sports Illustrated as short stories in many respects, rather than articles. I think that's very true.

 

I mean, many people think that writing a short story is like writing an article, only longer. It's not that way at all. The structure is very important, and I had a sort of innate feel for structure, for setting it up, for adding a little suspense, carrying some kind of a thread through it. That was almost natural to me, so I've always been lucky in that way.

 

Even though the magazine's subject matter was circumscribed as ‘sports', within that framework I could do just about every part. I was able to do a long series about religion, God knows I wrote about sex, I wrote about race, I wrote about business, I wrote about gender.

 

How did that kind of expansive scope come about? For instance, did your editor ever tell you - ‘OK, it's about Bob Feller, give me three thousand words by Thursday'?

 

Early on, they pretty much gave me my leave to do the things I wanted to do. Just as long as I'd do the things they wanted, too.

 

It's a situation like this, Peter. They don't want to come to you and say, ‘We want you to do a story on x', and you'd say, ‘Well, I don't want to do x', and then they'd say, ‘We want you to do it'. The chances are, a long story like that isn't going to be very good. They weren't in the business of forcing me to do things. Of course, I couldn't turn down everything - I had to be working. But a lot of it was me coming up with my own ideas and everything would be fine as long as I could stay one step ahead of them.

 

Sports Illustrated wasn't an editor-driven magazine; it was a writer-driven magazine. They gave the reigns to the writers, so it was a wonderful place to work. I mean, that's one of the reasons why I never left. I was very happy and never felt constricted.

 

The other side of it is, for a guy who was often known for tackling ‘The Larger Issues', you've said you enjoy sports writers like Scott Ostler, Tony Kornheiser, and Rick Reilly, who are well known for their humor.

 

Well, maybe you always like someone different from you. There's a tendency to say, ‘Gosh, I wish I could do that'.

 

Did the fact that you worked for a prominent magazine have any drawbacks when it came to approaching athletes?

 

No, I thought that worked to my advantage. They knew what I'd done and figured, ‘This guy's pretty good. If I'm going to open up to anybody, I want to talk to him'.

 

Well, as the years went by, sports only seemed to grow more and more important in the national conversation. Why do you feel that's the case?

 

For better or for worse, it's so common. We all feel comfortable talking about sports, whereas we might not feel comfortable talking about politics or something serious. I suspect that there have always been a lot of people who have been more interested in the fun aspects of life, more than the serious side.

 

A lot of the positive reception for your writing, though, seems to be in the way that you made athletes so much more accessible.

 

We feel that we know them, in the same way we felt we knew Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. Actors are different. Actors are actors - they're playing roles. You don't know who they are.

 

Whereas, athletes you see them. In the case of basketball players, you see them practically naked. You see them playing their heart out, so we root for them, we want them to win. We get more comfortable with that. I was proud of the way I could let readers know who these athletes were.

 

Your career has been long enough that you've seen the transition from $40,000 per year athletes to $4 million per year athletes. Did the big money change the way you wrote about sports?

 

What made it tougher was the fringe figures who came in - the agents, managers, and so forth - and also the explosion of media on the other. You just didn't have the opportunity to get to know people as well. And, I think the players - some of them, anyway - figured ‘I don't need the media anymore. Why do I have to bother? I'm making $5 million dollars per year'.

 

I always thought I was there at the right time. I often tell a story about covering pro basketball; it was the final game of the NBA championship series between the Lakers and Celtics. I spent ten minutes, all alone, in the locker room with Jerry West and then ten minutes, all alone, with Bill Russell. They knew us, there weren't that many of us in the media. Today, you can't even get in the locker room, and that's what's changed - the access.  

 

I've often said that the thing that separates the athletes from now and then isn't just the fact that they make more money, lots more money. It's the fact they don't have to work a different job in the off-season. That brought you down to earth for at least those four, five months per year. Now, all they really have to do in the off-season is work out. They're usually surrounded by sycophants praising them and stuff. You can't expect that kind of money and adulation not to affect them. It would have affected me.

 

Is there any upside to the money explosion in sports, as far as you can see?

 

Well, when the athletes were only getting a few thousand dollars a year, it wasn't worth it to knock themselves out. I mean, seriously. Guys would retire when they were 31 or 32 because they were tired of the travel. They could go back to the hardware store, making almost as much money without putting up with all the crap.

 

The guys who succeed today have to struggle to do it. They have to give it their all, no question.

 

I guess one of my frustrations in a lot of the talk about baseball is the fact that, for all attempts to lump it into one catch-all world of sports, it seems to have a unique status among all games.

 

I think baseball certainly has deeper traditions, so we value it in a different way. It's the grandfather sport. It's stood the test of time. I don't think baseball's lost any popularity; I think other sports have come up in popularity.

 

Also, I think much more attention is given to the things that come up in the game - the drug situation, for example. I think in some ways the steroid issue is a credit to baseball, in that we care about it, that is more woven into our culture.

 

I'd like to ask about your experiences with baseball and baseball players in relation to other athletes you've been around. Is there something special, in your view, about covering the sport?

 

One of the things about baseball is that everyone gets their turn at bat, so you know baseball players as more discreet personalities than football players, for sure. That's the expression - ‘Your turn at bat'. Some guy hitting .220, playing second base, may turn out to be the hero of a particular game or even the World Series. That makes a big difference. ‘This is my turn; my turn at bat'.

 

And baseball players are often different in different positions; which is to say, a starting pitcher is an entirely different creature than a shortstop. And a relief pitcher is different from both. So there are sort of these circles and sometimes they intersect. A manager's job seems to be in the ability to handle all these guys with different rhythms, different paces, different needs, and so forth.

 

There seem to be opportunities for so many different kinds of stories, too.

 

Somebody once said, ‘Momentum stops with a good starting pitcher'. Every game is different, totally different, because you change the pitchers. That's why a seven-game series is justified in baseball. I don't need a seven-game series in basketball or hockey because it's the same thing over and over again. The same guys play every game, sometimes they change, but it's essentially it's the same ingredients.

 

The difference is - if you go to a basketball or football game to see a star, you've got a pretty good idea what he's going to do. Yeah, Kobe Bryant can have an off game, but he's still going to get 18 points and he's going to handle the ball and so forth. If you see Alex Rodriguez playing, though, he may very well go 0-for-5.

 

Have you found that there's a different temperament among ballplayers, as opposed to other athletes?

 

All athletes, whatever the sport, pretty much compete the same way. ‘They care so much', ‘They want to win', all those clichés. Baseball, horse racing, whatever.

 

But there's so much in the fact that baseball's an everyday game. They start in March and then all the way to October. I can remember, so well, seeing Earl Weaver when the Orioles were really riding high. I was doing a story on Weaver and they'd lost something like three in a row or something. [Reporters] were gathered around him like it's the end of the world, and Weaver's sitting there with a cigarette and a can of beer. He said, ‘This ain't football.' He was right! You're going to lose three games in a row; you're going to lose seventy games. Take it easy. In that sense, yeah, baseball people are different.

 

Also, the game simply doesn't allow showing off, exhibitionism, braggadocio. I make a sack I go like this (thumps his chest). There's no trash talk [in baseball]. I mean, they always say there are certain catchers who will chat with you, but it's not trash talking. They'll never say, ‘Hey, he's going to throw that curve right by you'. It's never like that. It's much more congenial. I don't think players get up for the game by thinking, ‘I'm going to kill that guy'. I don't think there's any of that.

 

That's not to say that baseball players are better people - it's just a different arena. I'm sure that, for example, Deion Sanders trashed-talked in football but didn't trash-talk in baseball.

 

Part of that may be in the different education you get in the game. For all the blanket talk about ‘spoiled athletes', young baseball prospects don't come of age in some kind of high-profile NCAA program. They have to start in the minors.

 

That's very true. Baseball players don't get coddled in the way that football and basketball players get coddled.

 

Even if you're champion of the world, drafted first, what do you have to do? Go down to Lynchburg, Virginia or Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's got to take the wind out of sails. No matter how good you are, ‘Hey, you're not that good, pal. There's stuff you don't know'.

 

Whereas if, you're a football or basketball player, you start off at the top [in the NCAA]. Then, even if you are a star - I mean a star - in the minors, nobody really knows you exist. You're playing before small crowds, so a third string [college] football player is better known than the best player on the baseball team.

 

Do you find that ballplayers think about their sport in a different way, too?

 

There's a certain apprenticeship, because it's a craft more than other sports. You have to learn more things.

 

Running backs - I'm not taking anything away from them, because they're extraordinary - basically all they have to learn is to hold on to the ball and cut. That's the truth of the matter. Of course they don't have to go down to the minors in Lynchburg - they play the same brand of ball in college than in the pros, just with a little less quality.

 

Plus, the game of baseball is so humbling. Nobody's – ever - going to think ‘I've got this thing beat'. Somebody extraordinary, let's say Ted Williams, was so very assured and confident, and he should have been for the fact that he could play the game that well. Roger Clemens, maybe, when he steps on the mound right now. At the same time, though, there's an atmosphere that tells you, ‘I better keep this to myself'. It is so humbling that it brings you down.

 

You know, I've never heard of football or basketball players getting into slumps for multiple games, let alone weeks on end.

 

‘Slump' is a baseball word! It's totally a baseball word.

 

There's luck in everything. You can get very unlucky in baseball, hitting the ball right at them. And that's true in every sport, but much more so in baseball. It's very humbling.

 

What are your plans as far as future projects?

 

I go back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. I'm working on a novel now. I'm doing a little work in movies, I have a movie coming out in the fall about Roger Bannister [‘Four Minutes'].

 

I don't think I have any set goals now. When you reach my age, and I'm 66, you simply want to keep working as best you can for as long as you can. Obviously, I don't have long-term goals (laughs).

 

Because I'm happy with what I'm doing. You have to understand that - a lot of it has nothing to do with ambition, talent, or anything like that. I'm happy with what I'm doing and that's what's important. I'd go crazy if I stopped working. Work is too much fun.

 

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