The Writing Life

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By Frank Deford
Sunday, April 23, 2006

As a writer, the worst two things that ever happened to me were, number one: I had a happy childhood. Number two: I belong to the absolute and utter majority, bland across the board. I have no personal injustices to rail about. An agent of mine once said to me, "Frank, you are the last of the tall, white, male, WASP, Ivy League, heterosexual writers." Oh, we were Huguenots on my father's side, but the last time any of us was burned at the stake was 300-odd years ago, so it's hard to work up any angst or compassion for me on that account.

Perhaps this is why I ended up writing about sports. I didn't set out to be a sportswriter, but once I got into it I found that I rather liked having a cross to bear. If you've never been discriminated against, it's refreshing -- finally -- to be a brunt of prejudice. You see, generally, people -- especially those of the literary persuasion -- look down on sportswriters as sort of genial dunces. It is instructive to note, as I have pointed out often before, that it is actually impossible for sportswriting to be any good. This is because, if a sportswriter somehow manages to write a piece that seems the least bit competent, he will be complimented thusly: T hat was so good you can't really call it sportswriting!

As a budding stalwart at Sports Illustrated, I felt an exciting new sense of oppression in that the rest of mighty Time Incorporated -- which in those days consisted of Time, Life and Fortune -- not only sneered at us, but were generally aggrieved that Sports Illustrated's early deficits had diminished everybody's profits. So, we word jockeys were all further bound together as outcasts, reveling in our underdog status.

I was lucky, too, in that I came to Sports Illustrated at a confluence in journalistic history. First of all, this was the period David Halberstam dubbed "the golden age of magazines." That is, before color television and before all serious large-circulation magazines gave up and became weekly versions of USA Today . It was a heady time to be working on a magazine.

Also, it was the end of an era. There was the last gasp of antebellum romance to it. And, truth be told, I was lucky to catch the tail end. Bells still rang on the AP wire. Stories had to be written on mimeograph copy books. There was great camaraderie, most of it exhibited in bars, where we drank prodigious amounts of hard brown liquor, communicating through smoke as thick as that given off by those smudge pots that save orange trees from frost. I was The Kid, listening wide-eyed to tales of men who had fought and written during World War II, who had ridden in sleeper cars and known (what was always called) the depths of the Depression. We were all men. We were behaving exactly the way I had heard writers were supposed to behave. I had stepped into the past, and it was wonderful.

We talked of writing, sports and sex. I don't think we were misogynistic, just sort of a-female. Of course, it is true that when, one night at the bar, I told my boss that I was getting married, he immediately offered me a $3,000 raise to clear my head and remain single -- and I was only making $9,000 at the time. When I momentarily hesitated, a thrice-divorced pro football writer, who had previously been a catcher in a trapeze act, offered a $1,000 bonus out of his own pocket.

My boss was Andre Laguerre, a Frenchman. He had been DeGaulle's press secretary during the war, had walked down the Champs with him (well, of course, maybe a bit behind), when the French troops came back to Paris. You can see it in the newsreels. Andre couldn't write a lick himself; as a writer, he seemed proudest that he had handicapped horses in Paris under the nom de tipster of Eddie Snow. But, God, did Andre know writing -- and, it seemed, every writer of consequence in the world. It was he who told me not to feel self-conscious about being a disdained sportswriter, that all that really mattered was how well you wrote, never mind the subject matter. So, given Andre's Frenchness (and my own Huguenot-ness, too), I came to think of myself as a sort of tall Toulouse-Lautrec, both of us painting our respective demimondes .

We all argued about writing and writers. I'm sure we took writing more seriously there in the bar than in any pantywaist salon or college seminar. Writing was never honored more. Then, late at night, when we were all through puffing up our chests and sneering at the snobs who scorned us, we would play the match game, in which we tried to guess the number of matches our bar buddies hid in their fists. Apparently, newspapermen had played the match game for eons. It was very simple; actually the badinage was more important than strategy. It was unlike any other games I'd ever known, too, because the way it worked was, you never had a winner -- only a loser. There was no sense of triumph, only relief -- or shame if you were the dummy who lost and had to pay off everybody. I grew up and became a man playing the match game.

But soon enough the era really did end. I think I must be like one of those last Eskimos alive to speak a dying dialect. Do they play the match game anywhere anymore? Well, anyway, I moved on. True love won out over filthy lucre, and I married the girl. Sportswriters started drinking white wine and eating fish and saving their best lines for television instead of impressing the guys down at the bar.

Certainly, the rest of My Writing Life hasn't been nearly as interesting.

Of course, I did continue to write about sports. I was fortunate in that sports became a much larger opportunity, and for all that television usurped the role of the provider of the written word, TV did me a favor. Because it showed you the game, writers became free to roam and write about the rest of the athletic cosmos. When Ring Lardner was still a sportswriter, his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald sympathized with his limited scope, writing: "However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake still has the diameter of Frank Chance's diamond" (Chance being the manager of the Chicago Cubs). It's a much larger, many-tiered cake now.

I'm lucky, too, that I'm a natural writer. I don't mean that as a compliment to myself, merely an observation. There is, after all, only a fine line between natural and facile . I've seen that some of the best natural athletes don't end up as the best players, maybe because the playing comes too comfortably; the same can be said for natural writers -- same with natural anything, I suppose. But because I haven't had to struggle with writer's block, I've stayed at it. I've written novels now and then so that I come back to the arena refreshed. I'm lucky, too, that I'm versatile. Maybe too much so. I envy writers who stick to one thing and do it really well. I've always been all over the lot in my writing. Except for poetry. I've never gotten poetry -- even though they say all the old-time sportswriters use plenty of it. Maybe it's just part of what we do. ยท


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