Frank Deford is one of America's greatest sportswriters, and although his new memoir, Over Time, probably isn't the place to discover why, it's an engaging, raffish ramble through his 50 years in the peculiar business of writing about sports.
Deford has always stood out from his peers with an outsize and charismatic personality. He is tall, handsome and photogenic—you may recall seeing him in the old "Miller Lite All-Stars" television ads of the 1980s. In his younger days, he was athletic enough to have played as a ringer in a game against the Harlem Globetrotters.
And like an athlete, Deford has always had a naturally willful ego—he freely admits to pomposity in Over Time. He graduated from Princeton in 1962, got his foot in the door at the Time, Inc. magazine conglomerate (Deford and his colleagues called it "Timeink") and brashly announced that he wasn't interested in the plum jobs at Life, Time, Fortune, etc. He wanted to write for Sports Illustrated.
At the time, that demand was both bizarre and slightly blasphemous. Sports Illustrated, founded in 1951, was in the early 1960s a money-losing, redheaded stepchild in the Timeink family. But interest in spectator sports was about to take off, and Deford helped create what his memoir suggests was a golden age of sportswriting—particularly the long-form, essayistic kind, which suited what Deford calls his "more expansive, embroidered style."
Over the next three decades, Deford's star rose steadily. He reached his apex when he was asked to be the editor in chief of The National Sports Daily, an ambitious endeavor—the first of its kind—bankrolled by a Mexican billionaire. But The National was plagued by problems from its inception and lasted only a year and a half, although it has since achieved legendary status.
Meanwhile, Deford continued his regular commentary spot on National Public Radio, which led to the invention of an alter ego he dubbed the Sports Curmudgeon, "who rails at foolish things in sports." Deford retired the Curmudgeon after "[running] out of things to bitch about," but that's partially because, over the years, Deford, now 73, has basically subsumed the character. (His commentary, "Sweetness and Light," airs every Wednesday on Morning Edition.) This trait works well early in Over Time, when Deford is smashing false idols. He declares, for example, that the hallowed sportswriter Grantland Rice ("Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again," etc.) was not actually very good, that Muhammad Ali got more credit than he deserved for his supposed wit, and that the disgraced Pete Rose is "more dumb than venal."
The memoir proceeds mostly in brief anecdotes. It's too bad that this long-form master (hunt down "The Rabbit Hunter," his great 1982 profile of Bobby Knight, which appears in Best American Sportswriting of the Century) limits himself here to what amount to short columns. These tend to grow crankier as the book goes on, with intolerant and crusty snark about soccer, the Internet and other topics he probably would have been better off leaving alone. Generally, the latter part of the book attends to potshots, apologias, the airing of grievances, a touch of mawkishness and a couple of victory laps carrying the banner of sportswriting.
"I know I'm whining," Deford allows, but "I can't apologize for pointing out what slights we in the profession so regularly receive. Sports journalism has been such a crucial economic part of the daily press that it ought to be recognized more, if only because it's kept a lot of newspapers in business."
Deford occupies an unusual niche in the literary world. He has actually published more books of fiction than nonfiction, and he bears less resemblance to most of his peers than to someone like Pauline Kael, another gifted, charismatic (and often cranky) writer who might have been more highly esteemed had she not confined herself mainly to genre criticism, which sportswriting tends toward as well. Deford carries his awareness of the limitations of his field like a chip on his shoulder and has spent his career heeding the words of his editor at Sports Illustrated, Andre Laguerre: "Frankie, it doesn't matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A curmudgeon reflects."