This is one of those self-indulgent pieces I vacillate between wanting to write all the time and thinking I should never write because I have no idea how many readers have the same interests I do. The latter is important to keep in mind all the time, but sometimes you’ve just gotta follow the instincts.
One need not read Frank Deford’s autobiography, Over Time, long before realizing he entered sportswriting at a time (the early 1960s) the profession was changing but still had many of the trappings that have long made it a dream profession.
TL;DR: The young Sports Illustrated features writer got paid to attend significant sporting events all over the world, meet the most interesting people along the way and write about everything he saw and heard.
Can’t ask for much more, can you?
Maybe the only other thing you need to know: He had an expense account at a time player salaries were nothing to write home about, so they would often want to hang out with him to get free booze.
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(How unimaginable is that compared to today? Also: Does anyone still have an expense account?)
Deford was mostly a magazine writer, so he had time to dig deep into topics and extract things perhaps not previously known – at least not well. That set him apart from the daily beat guys and columnists at that time, and it’s almost unimaginably different from what many of us spend most of our time on now.
(Of course there are still magazines and magazine writers, and we do have “long form” pieces online, but doesn’t it feel like they get drowned out by the daily din most of the time?)
He was truly a talented writer – able to turn a beautiful phrase, seemingly without much effort – so he not only extracted great information from subjects, his insights were expressed in a beautiful, ornate but still simple enough style.
There are still writers of great talent, but the push and pull of the internet has robbed us of much of the lyricism of our writing.
The need for speed is a big factor here, but so too, I think, is the volume of content we can consume.
While the almost limitless availability of information is great (if you can sort the truth from fiction), the time I spend trying to stay on top of all of it so I can feel informed too often means skimming and inevitably mimicking many of the common phrases and clichés that are all over the place in the name of speed rather than taking time to always find that perfect phrase.
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I am certainly not 1/100th as well read as Deford was, and I wish I could write as beautifully as he did, and I know all the great literature he had absorbed had a positive effect on his prose.
(There’s also a perception the average reader doesn’t want language that is too fancy or flowery, but I don’t know how true that is.)
So what does it all mean?
Well, maybe nothing, but it could be a reminder we can always be better.
Perfection is unattainable, but it’s a laudable goal.
It just might leave you with something like another of Deford’s books: My Personal Best.
Take the time not just to get it right but actually, you know, think about what’s happening.
Knee-jerk reactions can be useful and informative – in more ways than one – but they can also be wrong.
Anyway, Deford was a renaissance man in a time before it was understood sportswriters must do a lot more than just write.
He did radio for decades. He also produced pieces for TV.
Deford was a storyteller, and he had opinions.
He could endear himself to subjects, but he was not beholden to them.
He was entertaining and insightful, acerbic without being nasty.
Smart but not too highbrow.
(And, of course, his enduring disdain for soccer was a bonus.)
In short, the late Frank Deford evolved with the times without losing himself.
We should all be so lucky.