Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter

Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter

by Frank Deford


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Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter is as unconventional and wide-ranging as Frank Deford’s remarkable career, in which he has chronicled the heroes and the characters of just about every sport in nearly every medium. Deford joined Sports Illustrated in 1962, fresh, and fresh out of Princeton. In 1990, he was Editor-in-Chief of The National Sports Daily , one of the most ambitious—and ill-fated—projects in the history of American print journalism. But then, he’s endured: writing ten novels, winning an Emmy (not to mention being a fabled Lite Beer All-Star), and last week he read something like his fourteen-hundredth commentary on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

From the Mad Men-like days of SI in the ‘60s, and the “bush” years of the early NBA, to Deford’s visit to apartheid South Africa with Arthur Ashe, and his friend’s brave and tragic death, Over Time is packed with intriguing people and stories. Interwoven through his personal history, Deford lovingly traces the entire arc of American sportswriting from the lurid early days of the Police Gazette , through Grantland Rice and Red Smith and on up to ESPN. This is a wonderful, inspired book—equal parts funny and touching—a treasure for sports fans. Just like Frank Deford.

Praise for Over Time

“Equal doses of self-deprecating humor and anecdotal history of American sports journalism are the essence of Frank Deford's entertaining new memoir.”— Chicago Tribune

“Deford is the Holy Grail. He's simply one of the greatest sportswriters of all time. ... [ Over Time ] has a little bit of everything — great stories about interviewing everyone from Richard Nixon … to Jerry Jones. … Deford played with the Harlem Globetrotters, introduced the world to Bill Bradley, really disliked Rodney Dangerfield, edited the only national sports daily in our history ( The National ), and has great takes on the history and characters of Sports Illustrated in its formative years. . . . Deford's the best.”—Peter King, SI.com

“He sketches insightful remembrances of stars like Wilt Chamberlain and Billie Jean King and lavishes affection and admiration on Sports Illustrated colleagues Andre Laguerre, Dan Jenkins, and the ‘tortured’ writer Mark Kram … [Deford is] sports writing's Sinatra.” — San Francisco Chronicle

“Endearing... Over Time imparts a sense of a life well lived and fully enjoyed.”— New York Times

"The mixture of homage to sportswriters who came before him, such as Grantland Rice; sometimes wistful vignettes of sports figures like Arthur Ashe; and his own personal reflections on the evolution of sports journalism combine to offer a cultural perspective that transcends a mere job." — Publishers Weekly (Top 10 in Sports)

"Deford's cred is incredible, his accolades deserved... He does not pull a punch when it comes to boxing or even to the tastes-great, less-filling Miller Lite commercials he once made... [Deford] has long been the genuine article." — Los Angeles Times

“A cool ride through Deford’s career.”— Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Frank Deford is the best there is. His memoir Over Time is beautiful, funny, poignant and poetic.” —Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights and Father's Day

“A wonderful book. Over Time is both a treasure and a treasury.”—Sally Jenkins, Washington Post columnist and New York Times bestselling author of It’s Not About the Bike

“Frank Deford is the best sportswriter I’ve ever read. If there’s a Mount Rushmore of sportswriting, Deford is up there, purple ties and all.”—Tony Kornheiser

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802146069
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/30/2013
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 539,087
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

The author of eighteen books, Frank Deford has worked in virtually every medium. He is senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, where his byline first appeared in 1962. A weekly commentator for NPR's "Morning Edition," he is also a regular correspondent on the HBO show "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." As a journalist, Deford has won the National Magazine Award for profiles, and has been elected to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. Voted by his peers as U.S. Sportswriter of the Year six times, he was also cited by The American Journalism Review as the nation's finest sportswriter and was twice voted Magazine Writer of the Year by the Washington Journalism Review. He has been presented with a Christopher Award and awards for distinguished service to journalism from the University of Missouri and Northeastern University. Deford and Red Smith are the only authors with more than one piece in The Best American Sportswriting of the Century , edited by David Halberstam. For his radio and TV work, Deford has won both an Emmy and a George Foster Peabody Award.

Read an Excerpt



I was still enough of a child to think that anger could best be expressed with perversity.

An American Summer, 2002

After my junior year at Princeton, it another desultory academic lay-by, I decided I might as well go into the army and get it over with. In those days of the draft a healthy enough American boy had to do that for at least six months. I chose the least. This was during that peaceful lull separating Korea from Vietnam, though, so I was but a tweener, passing through when nothing much was going on in a martial way.

My military highlight, such as it was, came when the sergeant said to me: "DeFord, you wanna be the guide-on?" I had no idea what that was, but it sounded OK, so I said, yes, I'd like that. Good answer. The guide-on, I discovered, is the guy who carries the flag that the other soldiers follow after. Guide-on would not have been a good job, say, on Pickett's Charge in 1863, but at Fort Dix in 1961, when no one was firing live rounds, it was an excellent vocation.

It wasn't even that I had earned the job of guide-on. It was just that I was the tallest man in my company, so for most of my military tenure I played retirement ceremonies, just holding a flag and standing tall, which I can do perfectly well. I was no better a soldier than I was a student. In fact, in some respects I've never grown up. Primarily, I don't think I've ever learned to do anything new since I was about nine years old, when I first discovered that I had some facility for writing and speaking. Well, I did learn about sex later on. But that's instinctive, so I don't think it can necessarily be counted as another arrow in my quiver.

Anyway, as a "returning serviceman," I put mufti back on and reconnoitered Princeton for one last year, there to officially conclude my education and contemplate my future. The main thing was, I wanted to go to New York, which is where I knew writers went to write and live life large. Prefiguring LeBron James, you might say, I decided to take my talents to midtown. But while Gotham beckoned me, I was not the sort of virtuous artiste who was willing to live in a garret and wait tables while I wrote the Great American Something. At a minimum, I needed a comfortable roof over my head and some walking-around money.

Fortuitously, one day I saw a notice that Time Incorporated would be interviewing on campus. The company's celebrated, respectable magazines — Time, Life, and Fortune — were not, I thought, the right sort of showcase for my presumed ability, but I'd been a reader of Sports Illustrated and very much admired the writing in the magazine. Whereas it had a lot of yummy stuff about yachts and show dogs and what tweeds to wear when tailgating at the Yale Bowl, there was, in counterpoint, some awfully good writing in it. I also figured that, as a starter course, a magazine would be a better fit for me than would a newspaper, as I imagined that the larger canvas was better suited for my more expansive, embroidered style.

I bundled up my choice clippings and went to see the interviewer. He was a Mr. Titman — a name Dickens had somehow missed. At first Titman told me that he really wasn't interviewing people who wrote, that he was just after business types — information I found a little disconcerting, coming from a publishing company's talent scout — but as I was about to scoop up my clips and depart, something crossed his mind. Titman was a Princeton man himself, and he recognized me from articles I'd written for the alumni magazine, and so, as a loyal Tiger, he very nicely said he'd go the extra mile and look into getting me an interview. So, there: thanks to Titman, now I was an official cog in the celebrated Old-Boy Network. My vaunted Princeton education — uh, affiliation — had already paid off.

Of course, understand: in 1962 it was hard for someone like me, an Ivy League Wasp, not to move to the head of the line, for certain rather prominent subgroups — notably the female gender and all racial and ethnic minorities — were not taken seriously at that time. Diversity was not yet a concept. In many distinguished places of business in New York then, what passed as diversity meant making sure not to hire too many Andover graduates at the expense of Exeter. Plus, I was born at the right time; I was that rare specimen, a Depression Baby. Better yet, I had been conceived early in 1938, at a time when there was a recession in the middle of the Depression. Except for my dear parents, almost nobody in America with any sense was having babies around the time I was born. So when I got out of college, there were only a handful of us coming onto the job market in the United States of America. It was actuarial affirmative action. While all those subsequent oodles of War Babies and Baby Boomers would have to go all-out Darwinian all their lives, we Depression Babies got a pass.

Because of this demographic serendipity, it was a seller's market extraordinaire, and I could approach job interviews with aplomb. So it was, on my appointed day, that I took the train into New York and boldly presented myself at the Time Incorporated personnel office. There, I was handed two things. First, a list of the editors I was scheduled to see. Second, a folder with my name on it: Frank DeFord. I was advised to hand the folder to each big-shot Timeink editor that I met. Now, nobody told me not to look inside the folder, but even if anyone had, I would've had to be inhumanly incurious not to. So, first chance I got, I sneaked a peek. Samples of my writing were in there, but on top was sort of an assessment of who this particular Depression Baby candidate might be, and here were the very first words typed there to sum me up:

"Not very bright ..."

Now, fair's fair: if it was strictly based on my (ahem, gentleman's) grades at Princeton, this was a perfectly reasonable assessment. Still, talk about carrying your own cross. Sure, the offensive introduction was followed by something like "... but perhaps may have a passable way with words ..." But still: I walk into an office and hand over the folder to Mr. High-and-Mighty Editor behind the desk, and the first thing he sees is "Not very bright ..." Then he would look up at me, surprised that at least I wasn't drooling.

I remember the man in a backwater Timeink position, he being in command of the company newspaper — which was little more than a mimeographed wraparound for classified ads from one Timeinker to another. After seeing that analysis of my intellect he then allowed, well, maybe if I got some experience out in the hinterlands, maybe ... maybe there could be a place for me there as an intern in a couple of years, reporting to him on things such as the Timeink blood drive.

Well, let me tell you: there's only so much a Depression Baby will take!

So, rather nicely but firmly, I advised all the editors I met (who didn't want a dummy like me anyway) that I didn't want anything to do with them, either, that I was merely humoring them because the only magazine where I wanted to work in the whole lousy company was Sports Illustrated.

This was heresy! Here was this snotty young apostate who actually was giving Time and Life and Fortune, not to mention the crappy company newsletter, the back of his hand. Nobody had ever dared do such a thing in the Time-Life Building.

But, although I certainly wasn't smart enough to have cannily plotted this strategy, this blasphemy made me immensely attractive in the one right place, for somehow this information lasered back to the twentieth floor, to Sports Illustrated HQ, and there I became an instant hero. You see, at this point, in the hallowed halls of Timeink, SI not only was considered déclassé for its sweaty content but was losing money as well. As a consequence, rude members of the other, fancy-schmancy magazines would, on the elevators, mutter aspersions at random Sports Illustrated employees for damaging their profit sharing.

But, one man's meat ...

So, ipso facto, I suddenly found myself invited up to the elite company dining room for cocktails and lunch with Sports Illustrated editors. Moving right ahead at warp speed: I was escorted down to the magazine domain itself, and rushed toward the inner sanctum, the very office of the managing editor, Andre Laguerre, himself. I felt like one of those quarterbacks that the NFL and AFL were fighting over at the time.

I didn't know enough to be nervous. I had no idea that the "managing" editor was the boss editor, that this was the guy. I had no idea that Laguerre was an icon who put the fear of God into all and sundry. No, by now, I was just rockin' and rollin'. Watch my smoke. Hey, as Chuck Berry sang: "Yeah 'n' I'm doin' all right in school. /They ain't said I broke no rule. /I ain't never been in dutch. / I don't browse around too much. ... Anyway, I'm almost grown." I was more interested in chatting up Laguerre's pretty secretary, when the great man interrupted my patter, asked me in, and told me he'd heard so much about me and was so pleased to meet me.

Hey, not very bright, my ass.

There was an opening as a researcher in the baseball department, because, of all things, I learned later, on the night during spring training when Laguerre had taken the incumbent researcher out to dinner, the witless lunkhead had written down on his expense account that he had himself entertained some ballplayers. Even at Timeink, where a liberal amount of expense-account fairy taling was accepted, this was beyond the pale. Creativity was one thing, stupidity another. They fired the guy. Hence, a spot on the roster had miraculously opened up. When could I start? Hell, I was ready to roll up my sleeves and pitch in right there, but there was this nasty little detail about finishing certain statutory requirements in order for me to get that precious Princeton diploma. Well, all right, they would hold the job for me till I could go through the motions and take my final exams.

I popped up to the Time-Life Building as soon as my last exam was finished, and while that meant I had to miss my graduation, nobody missed me either. And so it was that I got ahead of the curve and was gainfully employed, on my way to becoming a bona fide sportswriter. "I don't run around with no mob. /Got myself a little job. ... /Don't bother me, leave me alone. /Anyway, I'm almost grown."



The whole point of man, the essence of us all, is contradictions.

Love and Infamy, 1993

But enough about me.

I have always believed that, ideally, your memoirs should be filled with anecdotes about other, more attractive people so that you might improve on the necessarily duller parts of the narrative, i.e., yourself. David Niven, for example, wrote memoir after memoir, because he knew all the stylish folk in the world, and wherever they were together, in the Hamptons or Gstaad or on yachts in the Mediterranean, they all had big names and they absolutely adored lunches, so they ate and drank long, languid midday repasts and threw off priceless bons mots, one after the other, for Mr. Niven to dress up his own memoirs with. Alas, although it was not my life's intention at the time when I chanced to become a sportswriter, I have thereafter mostly remained a sportswriter; and I'm afraid athletes don't traffic in bons mots, whether or not I am in their presence with a notepad.

Also, I have read dreadful memoir-like remembrances of times past by sportswriters, who go after the Great Man in History of Sports, retelling profiles of stars who never said die and had no quit in them. A little of that goes a long way, let alone to read, and certainly to write.

I mentioned this to my wife, Carol. We've been married for forty-six years, after a whirlwind courtship. She was a model, absolutely alabaster gorgeous, but fragile to the naked eye because models had to be frightfully skinny then in order to sell clothes no other women could possibly fit into. My mother made the mistake of reading too much into that. "She's very nice," she said, "but I don't think she looks like she's able to be tough enough on you."

Mothers should know not to judge a book by its cover. Carol has done just fine in the toughness line, thank you. We lost our daughter, Alexandra, to cystic fibrosis, and Carol was the one who was so much better at handling that than I. And she was the one who was smart enough then to say that we had to move ahead and adopt another daughter and get on with it. That turned out to be Scarlet, and she was a gem, and we did get on with it.

Yet for all Carol's innate savvy and sweetness, there are two postnuptial agreements vis-à-vis my work that have kept the marriage intact for these many moons.

1. Whenever I write something, I do not show a word of it to her until it is set in print. It absolutely amazes me when I read how writers explain on page ii of the preface or foreword how they could not have done this work without the support of their dear, supportive, etc., wife, who advised and typed and proofread and consoled and did God knows what all else. The reason I never show Carol anything I write is that if I do, then:

a. If she says she likes it, I immediately assume she's just saying that to be nice, and I sulk and dislike her for patronizing me. Or:

b. If she says she doesn't like it, I hate her and there go forty-six mostly good years down the drain. Maybe that's — what? Active-passive? Passive-inactive? I don't know. But lose-lose for sure.

Isn't marriage tenuous enough without begging for trouble?

2. Carol never has to attend an event where I am speaking, especially if it involves a head table. From her point of view, that's probably more important than item 1.

The only codicil to this will is that when I'm invited to speak on a luxury cruise ship, a package deal which includes her, then Carol must attend my speeches because she dresses up the crowd, and because otherwise the cruise director might say, "Even his wife didn't come to hear him speak" — thereby ruining any chance that I (and, hence, she) will be invited for a return engagement on another luxury cruise.

So, when I told her I didn't plan to accept the offer to write a memoir, she said, "Aw no, you can put in all those things you always say in your speeches." And, she added, ruefully, eyes rolling: "All those stories I've heard you tell guys over drinks."

So, that pushed me over the top, and here we go.



High schools are our commonest common denominator. Good Lord, they even all smell the same, that stale institutional odor that can be disturbed only by another ringing bell. The children fall out into the corridors, moving with a special rhythm, at a pace they will never again employ in life. Nothing else in the human experience resembles the break between classes.

"When All the World Was Young, Lad," Sports Illustrated, 1977

Besides prefaces counting their pages in Roman numerals, the other thing about books that always confounds me is that we authors go on and on, tediously, with acknowledgments (see page 353), but we usually make a mystery of our dedication. So, here is who this book is dedicated to: my high school adviser and my high school basketball coach.

You see, since much of this book is about writing and sports, it is especially appropriate to dedicate it to them.

Jerry Downs not only was my adviser but he taught me English, and (although I could've done without the Thomas Hardy) he showed me how to appreciate great writing — Shakespeare in particular, of course — and he wonderfully encouraged my own writing and helped me improve it without ever being pedantic. He also directed me in school plays (struggling mightily with me when I was in my James Dean period), where I believe I learned to appreciate actors more than athletes. He was everything good that a high school teacher should be, and he was a wonderful influence on me, but, of course I was a teenager then and therefore I didn't let him know that I thought that.

Nemo Robinson — square name: John — was my varsity basketball coach. I had no idea, until forty years later, that he had been a certified hero at the Battle of the Bulge. That was revealed to me only when the History Channel devoted a whole program to a re-creation of his incredible courage, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star with valor. In deep snow, out in the open, Lieutenant Robinson led an assault on an entrenched, well-fortified German position, then crawled back and forth under the enemy machine-gun fire to rescue several of his wounded men, dragging them to safety — even as he suffered a hernia for these extraordinary exertions.


Excerpted from "Over Time"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Frank Deford.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. A Not Very Bright Boy,
2. Something of a Vote of Confidence,
3. In Which I First Encounter Faster Guns,
4. Roamer,
5. Granny,
6. Walking in Place,
7. Old-Timers,
8. The Vietnam War Is Finally Over,
9. Push On,
10. The Best Advice I Ever Got in My Whole Life,
11. Scribes for the Cranks and the Fancy,
12. El Tigre,
13. In Which I Finally Discover the Difference Between Winning and Losing,
14. Bawlmer, Merlin, My Hametown,
15. Gee Whiz,
16. Beauty and the Beasts,
17. This Just In: Writing Can Be Fun,
18. In Which I Happen Upon an Eye-Opener,
19. Kingsley,
20. My Damn Name,
21. It Happens to the Best of Us,
22. The Way It Was. Really,
23. The Kid,
24. Andre,
25. Mr. King Will See You Now,
26. Hobey and Danny and Bill,
27. The Most Amazing Feat in Sport in the Twentieth Century,
28. Hub Tales,
29. My Man,
30. Anglophile,
31. Remember "Consciousness-Raising"?,
32. Fun in the Sun,
33. Summer Songs,
34. Roadie,
35. With Ease or Angst,
36. Lost in Translation,
37. The Anchor Leg,
38. The Sweetest Thing I Ever Saw an Athlete Do for a Member of the Fourth Estate,
39. You Won't Believe This,
40. The Most Amazing Thing I Ever Saw an Athlete Do,
41. Red,
42. The Amateur Voice,
43. The Best I Ever Was Fired,
44. Naked Slept the Commissioner,
45. Taboo,
46. Last Call,

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Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Groovygoat More than 1 year ago
I was expecting a collection of sports stories from Frank Deford's career, of which there were plenty, but I also got a schooling on the history of sports writing. Sometimes I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of names, places, and events that seem to be grouped by topic, not by time. There can be multiple paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of side stories between the start of a thought and the finish. Which makes me wonder, since he went to Princeton (brought up many times in the book), am I just dumb, or is this the way a good book is written? I think it might be me, there are at least 10 words I had to look up on my nook. The writing, to me, exudes quality and it was refreshing to escape the PC crap that's impossible to avoid nowadays. Sometimes I would literally laugh out loud. Other times I was sucked in by the interesting history. To be truthful though, I did zone out during his family histories and some droning about past sports writers. I know a couple people in my life that would really enjoy his unique view of sports history. So I will be buying a couple more as gifts.
bjmitch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
First, in deference to one of Frank Deford's pet peeves, I have spelled his name correctly. It is not DeFord as so many people write it. Drives him nuts. I can relate; no one could pronounce or spell my maiden name either and it gets really old after a while.The subtitle of this book is My Life as a Sportswriter and I encourage you to get a copy as soon as it comes out in May. He is in my opinion one of the best writers around. People place sportswriters on a lower level than "actual writers" for some reason, but Deford is just plain great. You may have heard his pieces on NPR on your morning commute as I did for many years. If so, you know he has a somewhat jaded opinion on sports, but since he knows whereof he speaks, it is an opinion that we should take heed of.In this memoir he writes about his wife Carol, his great friendship with Arthur Ashe, the characters he's met in all his years of covering sports, self-deprecating accounts of his eventful life in sports, and other memories. I hadn't realized how much credit should be given Arthur Ashe for his work in Africa and in trying to create an equality in sports, tennis of course, but also sports in general. I also didn't realize what a great sense of humor he had or his knowledge of topics such as apartheid. As a person with COPD, I was interested to know that he has lung disease, and that he had a daughter who inherited his abnormality and died of cystic fibrosis. Later he and his wife adopted a little girl from the Philippines, a daughter they adore. He also writes wonderful stories about his son.Deford grew up in Baltimore and I loved his description of "Bawlmer, Merlin" the way it was in his childhood. In fact, I enjoyed his memories of his personal life more than his sports memories if that's possible. You also get a sense of how sportswriting has changed in Deford's lifetime, from the journalists like Grantland Rice (who, gasp, he doesn't have a lot of respect for) to the television personalities of the current scene. The sportswriters with genuine writing talent don't come any better than Frank Deford. Long may he write. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Go Cater. Whatever this is for. :D
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CR8N More than 1 year ago
As an avid NPR listener, as well as a sports fan, this book definitely was great reading. Frank DeFord( Deford)writes like you speak, he is just so easy to read. His recollections stirred old memories that really hit home. One of the best books I have read in a long time. I immediately looked for more of his works.
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