Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter
- Frank Deford
- Atlantic Monthly Press
- 354 pp.
- May 2, 2012
Inside-baseball anecdotes enliven this entertaining memoir by the legendary voice from Sports Illustrated.
Reviewed by Jay Price
Early in Over Time, Frank Deford posits the long-held belief that the best memoirs are full of anecdotes about other, more interesting people, “so that you might improve on the necessary duller parts of the narrative: e.g., yourself.”
He may be onto something, at least when it comes to sportswriters.
For affirmation, we have the latest effort from the prolific John Feinstein ― coincidentally, Deford’s first hire as editor of the ill-fated National Sports Daily ― whose retrospective One on One is enlivened by the subjects of his earlier books.
And, now, Deford’s own memoir, which is only marginally handicapped by the fact that unlike Feinstein, who apparently kept every notebook he ever filled, Deford is forced to recount much of the last six or seven decades from memory, his or somebody else’s.
Like a lot of people who graduated from the best schools (Princeton), started at the top (Deford’s first real job was at Sports Illustrated) and have spent their professional lives being hailed for doing what comes naturally, Deford’s attempts at self-deprecation fall flat.
And when he complains about the general lack of respect for sportswriting in the larger literary world ― when people mean to pay him a compliment, they tell him, “That was so good, it wasn’t sportswriting” ― even Deford realizes it sounds like whining.
Fortunately, a natural like Deford can’t write 300-odd pages, even off the top of his head, and hope to hide the craft that sent generations of Sports Illustrated readers rushing to the mailbox each week hoping for one of his nuanced, back-of-the-book pieces on Ted Williams, Arthur Ashe or Sir Edmund Hillary. Of course, that was before editors everywhere decided Americans have such short attention spans that, as one told me not long ago, “Nobody reads magazines or newspapers anymore. They just look at them.”
Pity. Because guys like Deford need to be read, whether he’s hanging out with swimsuit models or Japanese home-run kings, critiquing the management style of Olympic czar Juan Antonio Samaranch (“like Boss Tweed”) or revisiting an epic British Open duel between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, who couldn’t (wouldn’t?) remember the details of a match he lost. Or, for that matter, when Deford throws down with Victor the wrestling bear, who reminds him of why it’s never a good idea for a writer to attempt what his subjects do for a living. “You stay in character, you can deal with a bear,” he sums up. “But you get down to the bear’s level, and sometimes the bear will eat you.”
Not bad. You know, for a sportswriter.
Some of the best of Over Time is inside baseball from the heyday of the magazine trade, characterized by long lunches, longer cocktail hours and much admirable creative writing when it comes to accounting for expenses, topped by the boxing writer whose fear of flying forces him to take an ocean liner to England and back, resulting in the following voucher entry: “BOAT … $10,000.” It’s all very much like “Mad Men” the television series of a similar age (although Deford informs us that HBO got it wrong, having Donald Draper and his colleagues take their booze neat, since the whole idea was the camaraderie of the thing, which required a certain amount of pacing yourself).
More to the point for Deford’s readers, it was also a time, long gone, when the reporter from Sports Illustrated could sit down after the seventh game of the NBA finals and chat, one on one, with Bill Russell or Jerry West. Or both, if the writer had the time.
In the end, like just about everybody who works the same street corner long enough, Deford winds up running afoul of all manner of rules of the workplace, including his own.
Forgetting the lessons he should’ve learned from Victor the wrestling bear, he suits up for a game against the Globetrotters, avoiding embarrassment only because the Globies, realizing it might be a public relations faux pas to humiliate the guy who’s writing a story about them, go easy on him.
Deford gets personally involved in a story, cautioning Yankee manager Billy Martin against starting his work day by delivering an ethnic slur (along with the lineup card) to an umpire who’s displeased him.
He also violates every canon of journalistic ethics by accepting $100 from gambler Jimmy the Greek. But this lapse hardly counts, involving as it does two grown men grieving their dead children. So when Deford says it felt like the right thing to do, you’ll want to put your arm around him, the way he did with the Greek, and tell him it’s OK.
Finally, like so many writers of lesser talent, Deford has his head turned by the shorter hours and higher profile of radio and television work.
The first being a medium built on words, Deford is still at it, delivering commentary on NPR’s “Morning Edition” at an hour when many listeners are just waking up, prompting the story of the college president who announces at a crowded reception, “Why Frank, this is the first time I’ve heard you with my clothes on.”
Just as predictably, his first television gig is somewhat shorter. Deford is let go when Ted Turner, his employer at CNN, is scrounging for cash to buy MGM and can no longer afford the luxury of a moonlighting sportswriter. You get down to the bear’s level, after all, and sometimes the bear will eat you.
Jay Price, an award-winning columnist for the Staten Island Advance and Sport magazine, is the author of Thanksgiving 1959. Visit his website at: thanksgiving1959.com.