Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Smoothly written romp through sportswriter's lucky life
YOU don't have to be an athletic supporter to enjoy Frank Deford's smoothly written romp through his lucky life as a sports journalist.
Just sit back and listen to his armchair creak.
In addition to writing for Sports Illustrated magazine and appearing regularly on U.S. National Public Radio and HBO, Deford, an American now in his mid-70s, has denuded entire forests with 17 previous books.
They are divided almost equally between fiction and non-fiction, including one about his daughter who died as a child.
He has even published The Best of Frank Deford. Many writers would call that a career. But in Over Time, Deford mounts his hobby-horses for another run: "boxing really goes against our very Christian-Judaic ethic," "big-time college sports is, of course, a complete fraud, a fountain of deceit," and "soccer is the coitus interruptus of sports."
Deford acknowledges that "some of what is found on these pages was referenced earlier in various other books of mine and publications."
Parts of Over Time gallop at the frenetic pace of a highlight reel; several of the 46 chapters are only a couple of hundred words long. But, unlike many sports raconteurs, Deford stitches his chapters into a true narrative.
Other literary charms include the footnotes.
Several offer salacious tidbits, such as the claim that 19th-century prostitutes wore underwear in the colours of the Princeton or Yale football teams, "the better to please their elite young clientele." Others comment on the author's own comments, for example, "God, but that's a great verb for line drives: 'lacing.' "
This self-deprecating humour starts on the title page, which lists the author as "Frank Deford, as told to Frank Deford" -- perhaps a dig at ghost-written tales by athletes more familiar with bookies than with books.
Deford acknowledges that his birth in 1938, when few people were having children, and his upbringing as an Ivy League WASP, guaranteed him an almost free ride. Skating though university and avoiding the Korean and Vietnamese wars, he walked into a lifetime writing job at Time Inc.
"Diversity was not yet a concept," he notes drily.
Yet, underlying Over Time is a recurring defensiveness about a life spent observing the playpen.
"Sports journalism has been such a crucial economic part of the daily press that it ought to be recognized more, if only because it's kept a lot of newspapers in business. And yeah, I know, it's the toy shop. But some toys are very well made.
"Really, we aren't the pole dancers of journalism."
Readers who are interested in strong sports writing based more on reporting and less on repetition and assertion than Deford's style have plenty of choices.
Robert Lipsyte, a writer of the same era, has enjoyed a career almost as fortuitous as Deford's, only with more variety in writing styles and topics. He tells all in the elegant and moving 2011 memoir An Accidental Sportswriter.
Jane Leavy's superb 2010 biography The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood is thoroughly researched and dramatically written but free of cliché.
Tom Verducci has just published a revealing piece in Sports Illustrated looking back on the baseball steroid scandal he uncovered 10 years ago.
None of these three is ready for an armchair.
Duncan McMonagle was always picked last for school sports teams, but now he teaches journalism at Red River College. Follow him on Twitter @dmcmonagle.
My Life As a Sportswriter
By Frank Deford
Atlantic Monthly Press, 354 pages, $29
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 J7
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