Deford: How Sportswriting Has Changed 'Over Time'

May 11, 2012
Originally published on May 2, 2017 9:58 am

NPR listeners normally hear from sports commentator Frank Deford for three minutes at a time Wednesday mornings, as he opines on the latest follies of the sporting world. But Deford fans have been getting to hear the veteran sportswriter at greater length lately. He's on a book tour for his new memoir, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter. When Deford stopped in Washington, D.C., NPR's Steve Inskeep had the chance to interview him in front of a lively crowd.

Deford says he was always "more interested in the people than in who was winning the games." He never wanted to follow one team through an entire season, so he didn't find beat reporting appealing.

But Deford says he greatly admires beat reporters. "The hardest thing in the world is to write something critical about someone and then show up the next day in the locker room," he says. "I mean that is not fun, and that takes an awful lot of guts."

He recalls the fallout from writing an article that was very critical of Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain. "As huge as he was, [Wilt] was not a man of confrontation," says Deford, but he didn't take criticism lightly. The next time Chamberlain saw Deford in the Lakers locker room, he sent his teammate Jerry West over: "Frank, Wilt would like you to leave," West told him.

Since press had the right to be in the locker room, Deford didn't have to leave. But, out of respect for Chamberlain, he did. "I said, 'OK, Jerry,' and I made a very quick exit," he remembers. "When I went by Wilt, he dropped his eyes. ... But that's the sort of thing that a beat writer has to do a lot of, and I never could have done that."

Deford has spent his career up close and personal with "a lot of tall, big guys" like Chamberlain. But he's found that the biggest players are often the most mild-mannered.

"The big guys — and I'm talking about any sport — don't feel the need to be tough guys," he says. "It's the little feisty guys ... the little terriers. They're the ones who're going to feel like they've got to puff their chest up and so forth."

Deford has culled such insights from his many close relationships with sports stars. Starting his career in the '60s, Deford says he had much more access to players, coaches and managers than journalists are afforded today.

"I was so lucky," he says. "If you watch TV, at the end of the game now, the manager will be shown now in what amounts to a press conference. He sits there with a bottle of water next to him and a microphone and a PR guy. When I was covering games ... you'd go into the manager's office."

Deford had long, unguarded interviews with Earl Weaver, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles (one of "the feisty little guys," Deford recalls). "I can just see Earl now in his underwear with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, holding court," he says. "That was the way it was done then, and you could sit and chat forever."

These days, Deford has been enjoying seeing his radio listeners in person. "I'm looking out, and everybody has their clothes on," he observed at the Washington, D.C., event. "Usually, people tell me they're undressed when they listen to me in the morning. So this is very unusual ... It's nice to see everyone dressed, listening to me, and not brushing your teeth or otherwise performing your morning ablutions."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Every Wednesday on this program we hear from sportswriter Frank Deford. He's been writing about sports for about half a century. And like many an athlete, he keeps working his way toward one more season.

FRANK DEFORD: Most guys hang on as long as they could. To use me as an analogy, I'm hanging on to writing as long as I possibly can, until, you know, they put me away.

INSKEEP: We were talking about this on stage. A couple hundred people joined our conservation at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, a performance space here in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Well, I want you to feel comfortable like it's a normal morning, a normal broadcast. So what I'm going to do is I'm just going to introduce Frank very briefly. And then he's going to rant about something for three minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: And then we're going to go and do the regular traffic and weather, and whatever, that we...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: ...that we have to deal with.

Actually, I had many more than three minutes worth of questions. We were talking of a long and eventful life. Deford's hair is gray now, but he still has the imposing height of a one-time high school basketball player. He's written a memoir called "Over Time, My Life as a Sportswriter." Those who know him for his work on MORNING EDITION may not realize that Deford started writing for Sports Illustrated in the early 1960s. He became one of the most admired sportswriters of his era.

He did that, not so much by focusing on the games, but on details that revealed the character of the people who played them. Deford never wanted to be a sports beat reporter, covering the same team for every single game all season.

DEFORD: I had great admiration for those guys, because the hardest thing in the world is to write something critical about someone and then show up the next day in the locker room. I mean that is not fun and that takes an awful lot of guts. And I never enjoyed that. I remember one time I wrote something very, very critical about Wilt Chamberlain. The next time I saw him - and Wilt was not a man, as huge as he was, he was not a man of confrontation.

And we were in the Lakers locker room and he sent Jerry West over. And he said, Frank, Wilt would like you to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: And let me tell you, I've been around a lot of tall, big guys. But there was something about Chamberlain, the sense of size which was just absolutely extraordinary. And I became friends with him later - and I didn't have to leave the locker room, the press had the right to be there. I said, OK, Jerry, and I made a very quick exit.

And, by the way, when I went by Wilt, he dropped his eyes. Like I said, he's not confrontational. But that's the sort of thing that a beat writer has to do a lot of, and I never could have done that.

INSKEEP: How - this gets to somebody's character. How could somebody who's avoiding confrontation like that, in an ordinary situation, be out on the basketball court pushing and shoving and contending with people the way you'd have to do?

DEFORD: My experience is that the big guys - and I'm talking about any sport - don't feel the need to be tough guys. It's the little, feisty guys. They're the ones - the little bull - little terriers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: They're the ones who are going to be - they feel like they've got to, you know, puff their chest up and so forth. I think of Billy Martin, most classically, for example.

INSKEEP: Manager of the Yankees and...

DEFORD: Manager of the Yankees and every other team.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: And Billy did have a problem with the demon rum. But it's interesting that when he drank too much, the meanness came out in him. Obviously I'm stereotyping 'cause there are a lot of big guys who are tough and a lot of little guys who are sweet. But generally speaking, that's definitely the case.

INSKEEP: I feel like you are describing relationships with players, coaches, managers -that are different perhaps than sportswriters would have today. You see these personal glimpses that are...

DEFORD: Oh, I was, oh so lucky. The chance that you got in those days, to get close to athletes, is so much more than the writers get today. Just a simple thing, if you watch television, at the end of the game now, the manager will be shown now in what amounts to a press conference. He sits there with a bottle of water next to him, and a microphone and a PR guy.

When I was covering games, and this is back in the '60s, and you'd go into the manager's office. I can still visualize Earl Weaver from the Baltimore Orioles - again, one of those little, feisty little guys. I can just see Earl now in his underwear...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: ...with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, holding court. And that was the way it was done then. And you could sit and chat...

INSKEEP: Some things are better today...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: And chat forever. And by the way, you said in the beginning, you know, pretend that, you know, I'm here giving a three-minute rant. And I'm looking out and everybody has their clothes on. Usually people tell me they're undressed when they listen to me in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: So this is very unusual.

INSKEEP: If anyone wants to go get a bathrobe and come back...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: ... they should feel welcome.

DEFORD: I actually was at a very fancy college not too long ago. And at the reception ahead of time, the college president - a very vivacious, very attractive and very loud woman - spotted me across the room and said: Oh, Frank, this is the first time I've ever heard you with my clothes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DEFORD: And there were a few (unintelligible) like that. So it's nice to see everyone dressed listening to me, and not only of if brushing your teeth or otherwise performing your morning ablutions. So this is great.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford, his memoir is "Over Time." In it, he tells a story of asking two great golfers about a tournament from years before. It was revealing, he writes, that loser seemed to have blocked out his memory of the tournament, while the winner recalled every detail.

So maybe it revealed something about Frank Deford's sportswriting life, that he seems to remember everything. And you can hear him read that passage at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.