Frank Deford’s latest book a must-read for those serious about sports journalism

Chicago Sun-Times                                                        
May 21, 2012

Frank Deford has a mustache, and he has had it for a long time.
‘‘Since, I guess, the mustache era came in,’’ he says on the phone from his home in Connecticut.
The facial hair is part of him now, but being the concerned, perceptive, psychologically involved writer he is, he has more to say about the artifice.
‘‘Some people say, ‘Why the small mustache?’ ’’ he says. ‘‘And the reason is that I’ve got a pinhead. A big, bushy one would swallow my head, make me look like a cartoon character.’’
When I’m done laughing and Frank has finished chuckling, he continues.
‘‘I probably should cut the damn thing off,’’ he says. ‘‘I mean, it’s turned gray. Not very charming, I suppose.’’
Deford, 73, is the handsome, swashbuckling man of sports journalism. For 50 years, he has been issuing perhaps the greatest writing the realm has known.
The cover of his new book, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, shows him with his arms draped over his beloved antique Olympia typewriter, wearing a ribbed sweater in his favorite color (purple), looking out at the world with smiling, whimsical, perceptive amusement.
And the little mustache sets him apart. As it absolutely should.
Deford, who stands a slender and graceful 6-4, is unique in that he brought his giant talents to the world of ‘‘the toy department’’ — sportswriting — and relentlessly has stayed in the department and made it one that now contains stories, reports and books that only can be called literature.
The autobiography is exactly what it says it is, but it informs us of vastly more than the Deford Leather Co., the family’s former business gold mine, or Frankie’s growth spurt before his senior year in high school and the amazing jump shot that was suddenly ‘‘there.’’
The jump shot was a skill Deford found amusing and entertaining because of its abrupt, unasked-for appearance, and he displayed it with teen arrogance in front of Baltimore crowds, breaking the school scoring record in the process.
Of that jumper, he says now: ‘‘It was amazing. I grew so late, the last one to have his voice change, all that. And I just . . . well, there was this jump shot, and I’m 6-4, playing outside, everybody else doing everything, and they give me the ball and I just shoot — in 1964!’’
Deford, who does TV work for ‘‘Real Sports’’ on HBO and radio essays on NPR and keeps writing for all sorts of venues, has a jaunty good cheer to him that allows him to analyze his jump shot as though it were, say, an old pack of gum pulled from a desk drawer.
‘‘I was cocky, you know,’’ he says. ‘‘I was just a ham. A teammate said, ‘How come you always do better at night?’ And I guess it was because we would have bigger crowds than for day games. But I was smart enough to know the jumper wouldn’t last. This level was it. Plus, I was so skinny.’’
That’s you on the back of the dust jacket, dribbling the ball in your Gilman High game T-shirt, right?
‘‘Yes,’’ he says.
And the knee pads worn around the upper calves instead of on the knees?
‘‘I wore those because my legs were so skinny,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t think they served any sports purpose at all.’’
The showman, the skilled-since-childhood writer, the young man with the understanding at age 17 that sports offered as many lessons about life as, well, life. It was the genesis of the man who become the master of long-form magazine writing.
That he wrote about sports made him a pioneer, blazing the trail of dignity for those who aspired to follow him. Deford’s 1985 Sports Illustrated piece about boxer Billy Conn, his demons and his love-torn life outside the ring widely is regarded as one of the best long-form articles ever written. Some have it as the best, better even than a piece by the late David Foster Wallace about Roger Federer or all the masterful work done by writers for the Atlantic, Esquire, the New Yorker, etc.
Read this book and see if the easy, conversational tone doesn’t lure you from page to page like a soft, lovely breeze. You think that’s easy? From Wilt Chamberlain to Bill Russell, from Jimmy Connors to Jimmy the Greek, the stories flow as though a group of people is sipping gin and tonics on a second-floor porch shaded by oak trees, the sun a soft pastel, while a man spins tales the group wishes would never end.
‘‘I sort of want to defend sportswriting without getting on a soapbox,’’ Deford says of his goal with Over Time, a title suggested by his wife of 40 years, Carol.
His praise for Grantland Rice, Jim Murray and Red Smith is gracious and supreme. And, indicative of the man himself, he praises them most because, as he says: ‘‘Everyone loved them. I mean, Rice had people everywhere who talked to him. He was so generous. Nobody ever said anything bad about those men.’’
They were giants of the craft.
Let’s add one more.