Obit for a Fine Sports Journalist

I was saddened to hear in late spring that Frank DeFord, one of America’s preeminent sports journalist, passed away at the age of 78 at his home in Key West, Florida. I and thousands of other sports enthusiasts and lovers of literate analysis of the human species at play will miss Frank.

I talked with Frank briefly in 2014 at the Union League Club’s Ring Lardner Awards. Frank was the print journalist recipient of the award given in recognition of Chicago fiction and sports writer Ring Lardner in whose stylistic debt writers like DeFord can be found. I was happy on that occasion that DeFord, one of the fiercest critics of the professionalization of college sports and the hypocrisies of its governing board, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, agreed with my idea that many of the problems of the marquee sports, football and basketball, could be solved if the players who put on the uniforms for Old State U need not be enrolled for classes at the university. No question that players are exploited under the fig leaf of amateurism and the mask of the student-athlete ideal.

While  periodically enjoyed his writing in publications like Sports Illustrated, I had not read any of the 20 works of fiction and non-fiction that he published across his illustrious career dating back more than four decades. My principal contact with his wit and wisdom came in the form of his regular Wednesday morning sports commentary contribution to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

The three to four minute radio essays that he produced were models of finely crafted commentary, perfectly shaped packages of insight and eloquence. His versatile, theatrical voice conveyed an array of tones; one week he could be in high dudgeon about cheating in pro football and in the next whimsical about the spread of the baseball cap across the culture or the way that “guy” now refers to both genders. One week he was the professor at the podium, the next the buddy at the end of the bar. He was learned without being pedantic; he peppered his prose with allusions to Thucydides to Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to other sports writers, like say, Ring Lardner. He was the best kind of sports anthropologist, explain how a sport reflects the culture in which it is imbedded. Indeed, this tribute labors under the attempt to write as well as Frank did.

Frank would not mind being called a “wordsmith,” because he delighted in the power and peculiarities of American written and spoken language. Frequently his columns turned to the ways sports talk spread into the wider lexicon and the ways in which sports vocabularies stole liberally from other domains. He dissected clichés (like “the Celtics now have the momentum” ) or pat assumptions (like the idea of the “clutch hitter’)  like a surgeon in the anatomical theater.

He was a great style copycat: in 2004 he cast the lament of the Boston fan, long deprived of a World Series Championship, in the form of the Gettysburg address and wrote the 2008 Super Bowl coverage a la Shakespeare with lines assigned to Kornheisercranz and Wilbonstern (of Pardon the Interruption) and appearances by football royalty, the fair-haired (Tom) Brady and his noble rival, the younger Eli (Manning).

He was no one-trick pony, for his curiosity ranged across the whole sports universe. He covered the obscure world of the America’s Cup, the diminished world of professional boxing, and the mass-mediated world of the sports movie. He wrote with great insight and sensitivity about race and gender and theorized about how sports both reflected and produced changes in the world beyond the lines.

DeFord had a sharp critical tongue but his most touching writing came from his sentimental side. While he liked to ferret out human vice, he was most at home celebrating human virtue, especially in portraits of the decent participants in the world of athletics: Yogi (catcher Berra) and Shoe (jockey Bill Shoemaker), and Coach Al (McGuire of Marquette). That two of the above are “characters” lets you know about the kind of sports figures to whom  Frank was drawn – men and women who, like Frank, didn’t take themselves too seriously. I don’t think DeFord would mind at all calling him by his first name.

For the last twenty years I have had many “driveway moments,” lingering in my car once I had arrived at my morning destination to listen to the ending of one of DeFord’s jewels of commentary. Fortunately I have been able to experience once again the pleasures of Frank because of the publication of I’d Know That Voice Anywhere (2016), an anthology of close to 100 commentaries curated by the man himself. If you know and like DeFord, here’s a chance to get reacquainted. If you’re new to Frank, he’s a great and quick way to know one of the best sports writers of the last 40 years.

You could savor this box of chocolates one confection a day, but I’ll bet you’ll go through all the rich carmels at one sitting and be tempted to go on immediately to the fruit and nuts.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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