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What Frank Deford Meant to Sportswriting

31 May 2017

From The Ringer:

No one ever described Frank Deford as modest. He wrote sentences and tucked handkerchiefs into his lapel pockets with the aim of getting attention. But as he gazed over his career, Deford, who died Sunday, understood the particular legacy he had carved out. He would be seen more as a great sportswriter rather than a great writer, full stop.

Deford thought out loud about this (again, no one accused him of modesty). And he decided — though he was more talented than many writers who pass through the gates of The New Yorker — that he was more or less comfortable with the slur. So a sportswriter Deford remained, and a sportswriter he always will be. One of his collections was called The World’s Tallest Midget.

The first thing to know about Deford is that he came from Baltimore — or, more precisely, escaped from Baltimore, like John Waters and James Wolcott would after him. “At Princeton, Deford was expelled for a year after being caught with a woman in his dormitory,” Michael MacCambridge reported in his history of Sports Illustrated. When Deford went for a postgrad interview at Time Inc., he denounced Henry Luce’s mothership: “Time is group journalism.” He wanted a real byline at SI.

. . . .

The first thing Deford did for Sports Illustrated was inform the magazine of the existence of basketball, which was still in the sub-basement of American sports. He pitched a profile of Bill Bradley — Bradley had been a freshman at Princeton when Deford was a senior. Deford noted in his memoir that no one at SI had heard of Bradley. The piece got his ticket punched. “Why, I was as much a prodigy in my line as Bradley was in his,” Deford wrote.

. . . .

Deford’s prose style was inviting, easygoing, never seeming to try too hard. From “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was” (1984):

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan. Also, at times he was known as Big Bob or Shotgun. He was the most unique of men, and yet he remains utterly representative of a time that has vanished, from the gridiron and from these United States.

Link to the rest at The Ringer

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One Comments to “What Frank Deford Meant to Sportswriting”

  1. Frank Deford was the only sportswriter I ever truly listened to. I learned more about sports than I really wanted to know, but was entertained by every word.

    We’ve lost another great writer.

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