Frank Deford goes to his grave now and takes with him a style of writing about sports which is vanishing before our eyes.
He cared about the English language as much as the home run or the field goal. He valued the poetry of the games as much as the raw statistics. Every time he sat down to write about the athletes, he wished to commit a kind of literature.
He did it for a couple of decades at Sports Illustrated, back when that magazine was still regarded as the bible of sports writing. Then he did it for several decades more over at National Public Radio. And he did HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and, across the years, found time to write more than a dozen books.
Deford grew up in North Baltimore and went to Gilman, where he played basketball. Then he left town pretty much for good, though he often came back to see his family and never stopped calling Baltimore his hometown.
He died last weekend at 78 in Key West, Fla., his reputation widespread as arguably the finest writer of sports of his generation.
He was, in that sense, one of the last of those who pointedly call themselves writers who happen to cover sports – as opposed to “sportswriters.” Put him in the same big league lineup with Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, and Jim Murray and Shirley Povich.
They’re all gone now. Deford’s notion of covering games was descended from theirs.
Today, the sports stories choke you with statistics and miss entirely the human element – what does it feel like to put your body, and your emotions, on the line in tense athletic competition, with thousands roaring in your ears?
Deford told us.
Today, the sports pages are cluttered with coverage of salary arbitrations and long-term contracts and free agency. If we want to read that stuff, we should stick to the business pages. Sports is supposed to be escape from dreary business talk.
Deford offered us athletes we thought we knew, and told us what they were really like. That’s not so easy anymore. The ballplayers have learned to isolate themselves, to spout clichés for 60-second spots in front of the TV cameras, and then they duck away.
Deford came of age at a time when Brooks Robinson was just beginning to perform miracles around third base, and Johnny Unitas was teaching America that Baltimore was more than just a city of marble stoops and municipal insecurity.
We got to know them not only as athletes but as human beings, in ways that we never get to know today’s athletes. Deford was a product of that era’s writing, too. He caught the romance of sports. He knew there was more to the games than raw muscle.
He got us to the heart of things.
Top photo: Frank Deford (Photo courtesy the Povich Center)
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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