To many Americans, Frank Deford is the tall, dapper correspondent for HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” or the erudite, longtime sports philosopher for PBS, or perhaps the author of 18 books, including the novel-cum-hit-movie “Everyone’s All-American.” Long before there were blogs or tweets or podcasts, or an entire genre of television built on columnists arguing with one another, Deford was the original multiplatform sports journalist.
But to anyone who has ever fashioned a career out of capturing on the printed page the spectacle and drama of the games grown men play, Deford is, first of all, one of us: a sportswriter. Not only that, he is a god.
His long features for Sports Illustrated (do yourself a favor and go online — right now — and read “The Boxer and the Blonde,” from 1985, for my money the greatest sports feature ever penned) elevated the form to the level of literature. In the early 1990s, the short-lived, much-loved daily sports newspaper experiment called the National gained much of its legitimacy from the fact that Deford was its editor in chief. If there are pockets out there in which this line of work is still considered a noble one, it is largely because of Deford, now 73, and the sheer grace and humanity he brought to the craft.
It was comforting, then — at least for this ink-stained wretch — to see the lengths to which Deford went in his new memoir, “Over Time,” to identify himself, first and foremost, as a sportswriter. It is right there in the subtitle, “My Life as a Sportswriter,” and it is a thread that runs throughout the book, which is partly a history of sportswriting and partly a defense.
“Another fifty years from now when some old man says that, back when he was a boy, he’d read sportswriters in newspapers and magazines — that is, in print — I hope he speaks kindly of us,” Deford writes. “Otherwise, no one will appreciate what sportswriting was really like at its apogee. I fear all you’d know would be blogs and/or statistics — the pole-dancing of sports journalism.”
“Over Time” is, at other times, a meandering, almost stream-of-consciousness tale, its 354 pages broken up into 46 chapters, many of which read like vignettes or mini-essays — on everything from his schoolboy basketball days in Baltimore (and its notoriously seamy red-light district, “The Block”), to the early glory days of Sports Illustrated, to his role in the old Miller Lite commercials (“Tastes great! Less filling!”), to the brilliant, short life and untimely demise of the National.
When well-meaning people tell him that the National, with its daily statistics and updates, would have been perfect in the Internet Age, Deford says he typically just agrees. But, he writes, “the whole trouble with newspapers and the Internet is that the Internet destroys newspapers. The people are right, of course: The National would have been perfect for the Internet. It’s just that the Internet would have been terrible for the National. But at least we beat the rest of the newspaper crowd. We went out of business on our own before the Internet could do it to us.”
Oddly, though — considering how strongly Deford identifies as a sportswriter — fans of his unparalleled magazine work and his books are the ones who may come away disappointed. He says little about the craft behind his best-known pieces, and the anecdotes he offers about such memorable figures as Bear Bryant and Bobby Knight are mostly short and tangential.
Although “Over Time” is, of course, exceptionally well-written, there are only a few moments when it replicates the poignancy of some of his best magazine work. He writes powerfully about his good friend Arthur Ashe, the pioneering tennis great who died in 1993 at the age of 49; gambler and commentator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, with whom Deford shares a tragic history, each having lost a child to cystic fibrosis; and basketball star and politician Bill Bradley, who, like Deford, went to Princeton.
There is also a wonderful essay about the particular sort of joy that comes from being The Kid — that is, when you, “as a novice, are accepted by your elders into their privileged company. You are not quite a peer. You are tolerated more than embraced, on trial, but you are at least allowed to step into the penumbra of the inner circle, permitted there to sniff the aroma of wisdom and humor and institutional savoir-faire that belongs to those old hands who have already made it.”
What follows is a tale of drinking with the Sports Illustrated boys, of bar games and gambling, and of a crazy tale whereupon the SI gang, to test the claim of a Volkswagen commercial, drove a Beetle into a river — on the magazine’s dime, no doubt — to see if it would float. “I didn’t understand it then,” Deford writes, “but just as I wanted to grow up, men who are older seek to hark back to when they were The Kid themselves.”
The sentiment is universal; The Kid could be a ballplayer, a politician or a jazz pianist. But to hear Deford tell it, never has The Kid been more enthralled by his young life’s gifts than when he was a sportswriter.
My Life as a Sportswriter
By Frank Deford
Atlantic Monthly. 354 pp. $25