Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriteris as unconventional and wide-ranging as Frank Deford’s remarkable career. For nearly fifty years, Deford has been dissecting American and international sports like no other, using his novelist’s skill for detail, story, and extraordinarily expressive prose.
He has covered just about every sport, in every medium, and he touches on it all inOver Time.As a kid, Deford was a copy boy at theBaltimore Evening Sun. As an undergraduate, he was at the top of theThe Daily Princetonianand talked his way into an interview atSports Illustrated. They hired him before he could graduate, and thanks to a few great scoops—he “discovered” fellow Princetonian Bill Bradley and a Canadian kid named Bobby Orr—he earned the cherished nickname “The Kid.” Deford wrote widely for the magazine, covering many sports, including the early “bush” days of the NBA. Players made so little in those days, Deford could count on them coming out with him after games to drink on his expense account. The league didn’t get much press, either. With no national television contract, one of the networks would cherry-pick the finals on the cheap. Deford writes that one year after the Celtics beat the Lakers once again, a TV production assistant rushed down to get Red Auerbach up to the booth for an interview. Red waved him off with his cigar and asked “Where were f@#k were you in February?” then threw an arm around Frank, declared “I’m going with my writers,” and together they marched off the court.By 1988, Deford had risen to a great position atSI, but nearing his fiftieth birthday, he wanted a change. A yearlong sabbatical in London seemed like just the ticket, but then a more compelling offer came along. A Mexican billionaire named Emilio Azcarraga—known as “El Tigre” he owned Univision and Televisa—wanted to start a sports newspaper, a nationwide daily. The format had worked well around the world for decades, but it hadn’t been done here. Azcarraga said he’d spend an unheard of $50 million. As editor-in-chief ofThe National Sports Daily, Deford put together an incredible dream team of writers and editors. It was a tremendous undertaking, one of the greatest gambles in the history of sports journalism. But there were problems from the start. With four timezones where games ended late at night, a fledgling satellite data system that took many minutes to send a single page, and customers spread throughout the suburbs of America, the paper was doomed. Deford knew they were in trouble when he—the guy who ran the thing—couldn’t get reliable delivery at home in Westport, Connecticut. El Tigre lost $150 million.It should come as no surprise that Deford does a phenomenal job bringing these moments to life. He shows what it was like to be on the road with players in an age before teams had private jets. His descriptions of the staff, drinking habits, and racial and sexual politics ofSIin the Mad Men 1960s are absolutely fantastic. He even captures his brief moment of stardom in high school basketball. Here are brushes with a huge cast of characters, including Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Pete Rose, Howard Cosell, Colonel Sanders, Billie Jean King, Jimmy the Greek, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Don Budge, Spiro Agnew, Barry Levinson, Jimmy Cannon, The Lite Beer All-Stars, Gloria Steinem, Graydon Carter, Kingsley Amis, and many many others.Over Timeis far from a conventional, chronological memoir. It reads rather more like the most engaging, story-packed fishing weekend ever. Deford mixes things about, moving around in his career and family history with ease. There’s a lot to write about. Deford covers his wealthy and fascinating ancestors, his parents and his upbringing, and touches on the big moments of his adult life, including the death of his daughter from cystic fibrosis (the subject of his bookAlex: The Life of a Child”).Over Timenever loses your interest. It’s funny, irreverent, touching, and insightful.This makes it easier to incorporate the other major element of this wonderful book: the history of sportswriting. Deford essentially tells the entire arc, from Grantland Rice to today’s Grantland.com. He draws on a lifetime of reading and working: who he read as a kid, and who was still writing when he was coming up, his contemporaries atSIand elsewhere. The characters are fantastic, especially Grantland Rice, who wrote an estimated 67 million words and was “sort of the benevolent godfather of athletics.” Another favorite is Bernard Darwin, Charles’s Grandson, a snob who peppered his writing with Dickens quotations. Deford covers not just the changing type of figures who covered the game, but the way the relationships switched, and the way the resulting writing changed. In particular, we get the rise of the vapid locker room interview, and the demise of poetry. No more "Casey at the Bat." Definitely no more of Rice’s “When the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,/ He marks—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.” Instead we had “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”As can be seen from this description,Over Timeis a wide-ranging book, stuffed to the endpapers. It is long and it is deeply satisfying, a real treasure for sports fans and all those who love to listen to Deford on NPR.
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