Frank Deford, Mozart of Sportswriters

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by Irvin Muchnick


The headline is inspired by apocrypha that Mozart was so gifted that he could write an entire movement of a symphony on a single bumpy carriage ride, without once lifting quill pen from paper or resorting to a single palimpsest.

Frank Deford was kind of like that. He could write anything about anything — beat story, profile, shaggy-dog rumination — long or short, with equal grace, humor, warmth, and felicity. Those of us who devoured Sports Illustrated in the late 1960s and 70s, when it was probably the best-written magazine of any genre anywhere, marveled at his prodigious production of back-of-the-book bonus features — ranging from an installment of his account of life on the road with the Roller Derby, to a musical play script, libretto included, about the early season slump of reigning American League Most Valuable Player Boog Powell of Deford’s hometown Baltimore Orioles.

Today they call it “long form” and the template is as precise as it is wooden: first the anecdote, then the quotes, then the thesis graf; then line drop, rinse, repeat. In its golden age and in Deford’s hands, we just called it a magazine article. If you wanted to be a sportswriter and you were at my impressionable age, you read one of his pieces and you never wanted to do anything else yourself.

Of course, not all of us can be Frank Deford, a writer’s writer. Most of us mere mortals are more like scriveners, married to editors.

In his 2012 episodic autobiography Over Time: My Life As a Sportswriter (in which Frank, unbelievably, honored me with an acknowledgment — more below on our long but arms-length friendship), he tells the story of having an office at SI next to that of Mark Kram, the brilliant boxing writer who penned that classic deadline account of the 1975 Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila.” Deford was perplexed when he heard Kram loudly gnashing his teeth, moaning and groaning in agony over each and every word, and over the juxtapositions of the phrases combining them, seemingly substituting his blood for the ink on his typewriter ribbon. Such a concept was foreign to Frank, for whom the wordsmithing came naturally, almost criminally so; he concentrated on tapping into the humanity of his subjects.

Just as seamlessly, he went multi-platform with the changing times: commentaries on National Public Radio, correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports, even a ham acting stint during the original Lite Beer from Miller commercial campaign “Tastes Great! … Less Filling!”

Some of Frank’s best work was fiction. Everybody’s All-American was an early anti-football novel. The Entitled, which incorporated baseball and jock sexual assault, also contemplated U.S.-Cuba relations — roughly formulating, “Imagine Elian Gonzalez, the boy caught in a transnational custody fight, as an adult superstar athlete.”

Those who might see Frank’s career arc as simply charmed or privileged should know that he got into Princeton from a working-class background, and even if he was in the right place at the right time when SI blossomed, he mastered and transformed its brand. He also endured, without self-pity, the private tragedy of the death of his daughter Alex from cystic fibrosis, and wrote about the experience in a beautiful and poignant book that is a bible for all families similarly afflicted. (I talked briefly with Frank about the death at 10 of my own contemporary first cousin.)

In 1990-91 Deford helmed the fiasco that was The National Sports Daily newspaper. Its billionaire Mexican backer had thought through exactly nothing about the enterprise, most especially a delivery system. Frank freely acknowledged that he knew little about how to manage such a complex operation. As the face of the paper, he was mostly a figurehead who, oh by the way, occasionally tossed off some of its best articles. One, on the life and sexual politics of long-ago women’s wrestling star Mildred Burke, was just about the finest thing ever written about the sport. I believe Frank was going to expand the material into a book, but he abandoned the project, and a Burke biography, The Queen of the Ring, would be done later by Jeff Leen, a Washington Post investigative reporter.

Before the start-up of The National, I applied to Deford for the position of pro wrestling columnist. I had written some major magazine articles, most notably one on the Von Erich wrestling family for Penthouse, that were somewhat pathbreaking in their serious treatment of this industry and its footprint on American culture. (Which did not wind up doing me or anyone else any good when the stars aligned for Donald Trump to hijack the presidency.)

Patiently, Frank — though a fellow wise proponent of the proposition that wrestling is real and it’s the rest of the world that’s fake — explained that he was looking to treat the subject with more calculated irony than I brought to the table. A subscriber to Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter since its mid-eighties liftoff, Frank selected Meltzer, whose approach was actually anything but light. Needless to add, Meltzer was oodles more knowledgeable and better-sourced than myself, and he did a great job.

One of these columns — calling into question the judgment of WWE honcho Vince McMahon in exploiting the Persian Gulf War for a WrestleMania angle — led to a spat with Deford in which the vengeful and ever-juvenile McMahon, along with henchman Pat Patterson, pranked him by stealing his shoes at a mutual friend’s Connecticut country club bowling alley birthday party. Years later, McMahon would brag about the incident in cringeworthy Congressional testimony regarding his company’s drug-and-death pandemic.

Deford’s greatest feat at The National may have been the story — confessed in Over Time — of how he concealed from his staff knowledge that tennis great Arthur Ashe had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion … just because Ashe was a friend he didn’t want to put under extra stress. Frank was secure enough in his own skin not to need to have his headstone engraved with the words “hard-boiled journalist.”

In 2003 the Los Angeles Times Magazine ran an incomprehensible and pathetic hit piece, out of nowhere, on the gentle, bullet-proof Deford. The writer’s root source was a caddy at a golf course who informed him that Deford was overrated and made numerous factual errors. This became the writer’s basis for traveling across the country to ambush Frank with a handful of picayune charges in an interview conducted while he was behind the wheel of a car. The most cursory review of this shoddy journalism showed that any such “errors” were not chronic but, rather, needles in the haystack of Frank’s voluminous output. They were also out of context — for example, his profile of Anna Kournikova, the beauteous but fleeting tennis star, was guilty of fan-mag hype, not of inaccuracy.

By coincidence, a year earlier I had been asked by the LA Times Magazine to do an article about the issue of paying college football players. The editor proceeded to snip out what I thought was the most important passage, on the death of Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern University. So after the publication of the Deford attack, I wrote to the editor and ripped it apart. Frank may be the Mozart of sportswriters, but I am the Caravaggio of burned bridges.

Talent is one thing. What really set Frank apart were his accessibility and generosity to lessers. He was a notorious easy touch for book blurbs. I asked him for one for my first book, Wrestling Babylon. I don’t know whether he thoroughly read or just skimmed the page proofs, but he came back with: “Irv Muchnick knows wrestling like Anna Wintour knows fashion,” adding that I wrote “with passion and savage humor.”

Hey, I’m no dummy. I know that “passion” is code for “He has an appalling field goal percentage but he always hustles back on defense.” Or “She has a nice personality.” But it was a Frank Deford blurb!

My second book, Chris & Nancy, on the Benoit murder-suicide, became a magnet for oppo research during the first failed U.S. Senate campaign of Vince McMahon’s wife Linda McMahon, now head of the Small Business Administration under Trump. Frank, a contributor to the successful campaign of Democrat Richard Blumenthal, told me he told Blumenthal, “Just read Muchnick’s book.”

Before the publication of Over Time, Frank blew me away by telling me that he would be acknowledging me in it. The personally inscribed copy of the book is one of my most cherished possessions.

In the acknowledgments, he cited my “magnificent investigative journalism,” and when my third book, Concussion Inc., was published, I asked him for permission to publish that phrase alone as the only promo copy on the jacket, front or back.

His reply: “There was a love song called ‘Three Little Words,’ you know. And these 3 are alsofinr. Good luck.”

I last corresponded with Frank Deford last Friday, just two days before he passed away. I had told him I enjoyed his farewell segment on NPR and would miss his commentaries there, and I amused him with the information that the person who had forwarded the link to me called him “DeFord,” in the common coat-of-arms misspelling of his name. For his part, Frank said he liked my piece on the deceased crazy sportswriter and pro wrestling historian J Michael Kenyon.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “I am laid up in a hospital rehabbing from pneumonia.”

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick