Then I remembered it’s been more than a year since his weekly contributions were cut back to a monthly basis, partly because of the public radio outlet’s push for diverse voices, and not long after a churlish outcry over his segment on media coverage of women’s sports.
The asinine “shoot the messenger” posturing from new media hipsters (including rife usage of “mansplaining,” the ridiculous concoction of an easily triggered millennial media) brought to mind a letter I wrote to Deford years ago, before today’s snarky web kidz were born, when he was the editor of the late, great The National.
News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture
Also In This Issue: Sports Docs Old and New; Kentucky Derby Photography; The ‘Big Mac’ Baseball Encyclopedia; Jesus Shuttlesworth, Holocaust Educator; Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Remembering Ueli Steck and Adolph Kiefer
My query was also related to women’s sports, as I was pitching coverage to newspapers and magazines, hoping that anybody would respond.
Deford was one of the few who did, albeit not in the affirmative. While I can’t find the letter, I recall that he was sympathetic to my desire to write about women’s sports, but as he put it with his tactful elegance, he wished there was a greater audience for it.
Like today’s huffy-puffy “woke” bloggers, I didn’t like reading any of that. I wanted to crumble up his letter and toss it in the trash. I wasn’t even a full-time newspaper sportswriter yet, so I thought my anonymity was part of the issue. As far as I was concerned, Deford was getting away with some thinly disguised sexism. I easily took offense instead of understanding the bracing honesty and nuance that has been the hallmark of Deford’s career, and I’m glad I was wrong.
At least I got a reply, but at the time it didn’t feel like a consolation. Although I had been familiar with Deford’s masterful work for Sports Illustrated, I hadn’t paid much attention to his books. Eventually, I started digging into some of them, and realized what a treasure his writing was, well beyond the boundaries of sports.
The paperback version of his 2016 collection “I’d Know That Voice Anywhere: My Favorite NPR Commentaries,” is due out May 16. That follows his splendid memoir, “Over Time,” that sums up a life in journalism that transcends sports in so many vital ways (excerpt) and that lends itself to a broader, generous appreciation.
The author of more than 20 books ranging from commentary to sports history to fiction to grieving family memoir, Deford in recent years has justly been getting his due in the realm of the humanities.
In 2012, he was honored as a National Humanities Medalist by President Obama, and each year since 2010, the University of Texas in Austin invites a guest speaker to deliver the Frank Deford Lecture on Sports Journalism.
His full evolution as a humorous, humane writer and observer stems from his immense talent and deep curiosity. I believe that “Alex: The Life of a Child,” his 1983 memoir of his eight-year-old daughter who succumbed to cystic fibrosis, cemented his reputation as much more than a sports commentator.
In an interview last year, Deford explained how he adapted from the longform world of SI to “going short” on the radio, and finding a gratifying creative outlet at a place that isn’t a hotbed of sports fandom.
Indeed, many of the fare-thee-well messages offered Deford on social media came from NPR listeners who admitted they didn’t follow sports closely, but eagerly tuned in to him for a few minutes on Wednesday mornings.
As he told NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in a final interview, he wanted to go off the beaten track in sports, as he does now as a 78-year-old resident of Key West.
Some public-radio aficionados who also support diversity measures bemoaned the reduction of his NPR work, but I think we’re long past expecting that the Frank Defords of the world will be called on to be mentors to those succeeding them. Which is an absolute shame.
To younger audiences seeped in cultural identity and eager to blast away at the sports traditions of their elders, Deford comes across as a crank. He was never enamored with soccer, and chided its American fans as being especially thin-skinned. As someone who likes and has covered soccer in America since the mid-1990s, I think he’s not wrong about that.
In his swansong this week, Deford took a final, defiant shot at “the yakety-yak soccer cult,” and true believers responded with a “good riddance” message in kind. And so it goes.
Yet for those who chafe at reading, or hearing, what they don’t like, they should do what I did and read Deford anyway. As much as they can. The classic stuff, especially the SI pieces that created his legend and that remain richly rewarding:
- “The Rabbit Hunter” (on Bob Knight);
- “I’ve Won. I’ve Beat Them” (on Howard Cosell);
- “The Boxer and the Blonde” (on Billy Conn);
- “The Toughest Coach That Ever Was” (on Mississippi junior college football coach Robert Victor Sullivan).
There are so many more, as well as the books. Frank Deford is easily the most versatile and wide-ranging sportswriter I’ve ever read, and I wonder if anyone will come close to his output, in terms of range and volume as well as authentic human touch.
“To see the glory in sport, where somebody comes from behind and does something, sinks a shot in the last second or throws a touchdown pass or hits a home run, there is a beauty in that, and at the end of the day, that’s why we love sports more than anything else.”
Sports on Film
- This brought back some fond memories: Jason Foster, baseball editor of The Sporting News, dug into the backstory (and here) of one of the first contemporary sports documentaries, but that has been seemingly lost to history: “It’s A Long Way to October” documented the 1982 Atlanta Braves team that won the National League West, and signalled a new media powerhouse in the early years of Ted Turner’s ownership of the team. Producer Glenn Diamond was one of several Emmy Award-winners who worked on the film, which aired on Turner’s local WTBS station in Atlanta, and which eventually became the Turner Broadcasting Service;
- Another Atlanta-based film entity is screening a new documentary history of the Ladies Professional Golf Association at festivals around the country. “The Founders,” which debuted over the winter at the Atlanta Film Festival, is finishing a brief run at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas. That’s the creation of Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis as a vehicle for greater diversity in the film industry. Only four founding members of the LPGA remained when the filming began, including a reluctant Louise Suggs, who didn’t live to see the film come to the screen;
- “Forbidden Games” is the subject of a new documentary about Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay soccer player in Britain and who committed suicide in 1998. His brother John talks to Daniel Harris of The Guardian about his troubled relationship with his sibling;
- A film version of “The Art of Fielding,” Chad Harbach’s whopping, 544-page baseball-themed novel, is in the works, and it’s part of a new series of sports films being produced by IMG and Mandalay Sports Media. I posted last summer on why I couldn’t get into the book (and it had nothing to do with length). Usually I don’t like movies that are from books I like (an exception being Alfred Hitchcock), so I have no idea what to expect with this.
A Few Good Reads
- Famed horse racing photographer Barbara Livingston, who was shooting from the Churchill Downs track at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, talks to Scott Simon of NPR about what makes a great image in the sport, and why its majesty continues to compel her; her books on the subject are “Barbara Livingston’s Saratoga” (2005) and “More Old Friends: My Visits With Favorite Thoroughbreds” (2007);
- Less than a year into his NBA retirement, Ray Allen has plunged full-throttle into work that he did on the side during his playing days: Advocacy for Holocaust education. Recently appointed to the governing board of the U.S. Holocaust Museum by former President Barack Obama, Allen first began visiting the museum while playing for UConn in the early 1990s. These days he makes sure his own children are fully versed in the lessons of that terrible event in world history;
- At The Federalist, stock-car racing fan Mary Katharine Ham writes about Dale Earnhardt Jr., who recently announced his retirement and who represents one of the last few direct connections to the history of NASCAR, especially as it pertains to his (and her) roots in North Carolina;
- The New York Times’ offbeat approach to how it covers sports recently prompted an equally offbeat explanation from Liz Spayd, the paper’s rather offbeat (at the very least) public editor; I wonder what more traditional readers think about a story published this week about a Queens man paying homage to a fellow Mets fan by spreading his ashes in baseball parks across the country. While I like the offbeat approach, for the most part, I also found this observation by Spayd worth noting: “The editors say they’re looking for stories that surprise. Sounds alluring, but it only works if there is also a clear body of work that defines the core. Because when everything is a surprise, pretty soon nothing is;”
- At FiveThirty Eight, Rob Neyer goes long on “the Big Mac,” aka “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” which weighed 6.5 pounds upon initial publication in 1969. I forgot how many times I checked out future editions at my public library as part of a teenage obsession to list the season starting lineups for every major league team in a loose leaf notebook. Numbers weren’t my particular interest then, but Bill James purchased a copy of the second edition in 1974, and you know the rest of the story;
- Last week’s devastating layoffs at ESPN included top NBA writers and podcasters, including the well-respected Henry Abbott of TrueHoop, leading to speculation that is all but official: Scoopmeister Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports will be joining ESPN after the NBA playoffs, and may be bringing his full staff at The Vertical with him; this speculative backstory by Kevin Draper, if even partially true, is absolutely chilling. Deadspin likes to go overboard when it comes to ESPN, although Draper is moving up the food chain, soon to become the NYT’s new sports media reporter;
- Contrary to all the rantings and ravings of the past week (including my own), Derek Thompson at The Atlantic argues that ESPN is not doomed; for all the unbundling of cable television products, he writes, fans “are not moving toward a future where they stop watching sports on television;”
- “The Sports Reporters” goes off ESPN’s airwaves today, with a cast of regulars including Bob Ryan, Mitch Albom, Mike Lupica and Bill Rhoden. ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, whose father, Dick Schaap, was the program’s original host, offers his “parting shot” on its legacy;
- Happy trails to Wisconsin sportswriting greats Bob McGinn and Charlie Gardner, who are retiring from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a Gannett paper caught up this week in another round of reductions at more than 30 of the chain’s newspapers. Corporate officials still haven’t publicly acknowledged any of this, which is not unusual;
- McGinn covered the Green Bay Packers for more than four decades and is the author of a coffee table book about the team’s 1996 Super Bowl victory. In 2015, the so-called unofficial team historian also was not unafraid to call out team officials for intimidating a colleague who was reporting about domestic violence incidents involving players. After quoting an NFL assistant coach who told him that “we are in a sleazy business,” McGinn concluded: “He’s right, and the Packers are part of it.” That was not an easy thing to write in Wisconsin, where the Packers are more than just a popular, publicly-owned NFL franchise. They’re also a very powerful civic institution;
- Happy third anniversary to the U.S. Sport History blog, started by academics and which reviews a lot of books about sports history, including quite a few written for general readers;
- At the music and lifestyle publication Fader, Amos Barshad on how the world took over British soccer;
- Remember Robinho, projected as next great Brazilian soccer superstar at the turn of the 21st century but who never was? Trevor Murray at These Football Times explores what might have been, with Robinho now 33 and a fringe player for club and country.
- Even by the high-wire standards of the mountaineering community, Ueli Steck, 40, was as daring as he was fast in his competitive descents that left his rivals in awe. After the “Swiss Machine” was killed last weekend in an accident in the Himalayas, Doug Schnitzpahn offered this tribute at Men’s Journal, calling Steck “one of the greatest mountaineers in the sport’s history.” Steck’s ashes were spread near the top of the world, at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Mount Everest;
- Adolph Kiefer, 98, won an Olympic gold medal in swimming in 1936, and later trained American sailor recruits for duty in World War II. In his long post-war and post-swimming life, he stayed actively involved in the sport through other means, including with the Red Cross and as the founder of an activewear line that included the first nylon swimsuit. Of his brief meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin, Kiefer, the son of German-born parents, once quipped: “I should have thrown him in the pool and drowned him. It would have saved a lot of lives.”
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 82, published May 7, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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