Frank Deford was to sports writing what Secretariat was to horseracing, what Babe Ruth was to baseball, what Michael Jordan was to basketball, what Ali was to boxing, what Pele was to soccer: the undisputed master of his craft.
There were contenders, to be sure, among the ink-stained wretches of the last half-century. Red Smith, W.C. Heinz and Dick Schaap could match Deford on any given day. But for longevity, consistency, versatility, reporting, storytelling and word craft, Deford was hard to beat.
I met him twice in the flesh: at a reception at Poynter after he had delivered a talk at a local college and again at a book festival in Tucson. He had a physical presence and demeanor that I found curious and compelling. Gangly would define him. He was quite tall, with wide bony shoulders and arms so long they seemed to stretch to his knees. Match those features to his slicked-back hair, pencil-thin mustache and snappy outfits and the effect was of a kid who might have played basketball at Princeton in the fifties and then decided to become a private detective.
I featured Deford in my book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” That might surprise readers who knew Deford primarily as a book author and long-form writer for Sports Illustrated. But he was also famous for his pointed public radio essays on “All Things Considered.” He could write long or short; fast or slow; fiction, nonfiction, or memoir. He wrote for newspapers, magazines, radio, television and books.
No matter the topic, length or media platform, his work had a quality essential to good writing in any genre. He had focus. If you want to write with focus, you can do nothing better than to read the work of Frank Deford.
Here’s how I put it in “How to Write Short”:
Even when we read long works, we can still read for focus. While the big parts need a focus, so do the smaller parts: sections chapters, vignettes, anecdotes, paragraphs. Frank Deford, one of America’s most popular and versatile writers, knows about focus. In this paragraph he homes in on the practical economics in the year 1898, as exemplified by the Uneeda company’s charging five cents for a package of crackers:
Uneeda knew pricing. The nickel was king in America at this time. It was so common a currency that the dime was, often as not, called a “double nickel.” You didn’t want to get stuck with a wooden nickel. The ultimate depth of worthlessness was a plugged nickel. What this country needed was a good five-cent cigar. At a time when laborers in New York made twenty cents an hour and a good meal would set you back fifteen cents, you could go into a saloon and, for a nickel, get a stein of beer and free bread, salami, pickled herring, and hard-boiled eggs for the asking. “Barkeep, I’ll have another beer.” When the subway opened up, naturally a ride was pegged at a nickel. This was the same as for streetcars, which particularly crisscrossed Brooklyn, so the players had to be nimble to negotiate streets to reach the ballpark: hence, the borough’s team of Trolly Dodgers. The new movies not only charged a nickel, but were not called what they were, but what they cost: nickelodeons. A cuppa coffee cost a nickel. So did a soft drink. “A Moxie, please.” “Sure thing, mister, that’ll be a nickel.” Ice cream was a nickel. Likewise a Tootsie Roll.
This single paragraph from the book "The Old Ball Game" stretches to 207 words, which, as a set piece, falls within our standards for short writing. I don’t want to define focus in the way a Supreme Court justice once defined obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
When I saw this paragraph for the first time, I knew it was focused. I could see, speak, and hear the feeling that all the parts of this paragraph were working in concert and that the author know the one thing he wanted to say and then marshaled the evidence to support it.
The first sentence, “Uneeda knew pricing,” serves as a transition from the previous sentence about the cost of a package of crackers. It is the next sentence that expresses the key point: “the nickel was king in America at this time.” Take out the prepositional phrases, and you get the focus in four words: “The nickel was king.”
Prove it! says the reader to herself. Show me!
And he does. I count eleven examples that coronate the currency, the first three embedded in familiar idioms of the day, and the next seven an inventory of things that cost five cents: a cigar, a beer, a movie, the subway, coffee, soda, ice cream, and candy. The passage is nailed tight with repetitions of the word nickel — 10 in all.
If the nickel was king of coins back in the day, Deford was king of sports writers – and a gentleman to boot.
Upon our second meeting in Tucson, we conducted a writing workshop, along with author Jonathan Eig, at the Arizona Daily Star. Afterwards, I told him that my daughter Alison in Atlanta was an admirer of his weekly essays on NPR. “I’m not always that interested in particular sports,” she once told me, “but he makes things so interesting and comprehensible.”
Standing next to Deford, I dialed her number.
“Alison,” I said, “there is someone here who wants to say hello to you.”
“Hello, Alison, this is Frank Deford.”
From five feet away, I could hear her squeal of delight.