By In Stuff

A toast to the best

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Apologies in advance for how personal this tribute will be but I don’t know how else to do this. When I was 20 years old, I was scared, confused, entirely unsure about what I could possibly do with my life. All of my childhood dreams — to play second base for the Cleveland Indians, to play wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, to play point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, to be Elvis Presley — had been popped long before.

And the adult routes all seemed pretty well closed off to someone of my meager gifts. Doctor? No. Lawyer? No. Engineering? Please. Accounting classes had been a bust. Business principles eluded me. Couldn’t draw. Couldn’t sing. Had no ideas. My one summer in the knitting factory had been eye-opening in so many ways. I lacked stamina.

I had, by then, lucked into a part-time sportswriting gig for the local Charlotte Observer but I had no faith that I could actually make a living doing that. I was of the belief then that talent was what mattered, talent was what made the winners in life. And I had no talent. My educational road was littered with Cs in English and teachers who seemed to believe I was lucky to get those. Every day, I waited for someone at the paper to pull me aside and say, gently: “Uh, you will of course want to find another line of work.”

And then — well, I bought this book. I’m holding it right now. I pull it out of the bookcase every three or four months just to remind myself. There are chocolate stains on pages 70 and 71. This book changed my entire life. More than that: One paragraph in this book changed my entire life.

The day remains crystale clear. It was afternoon; my guess is it was Sunday. I was reading in bed at my parents house in the room that would have been a garage had I left home when I was supposed to leave. And I was reading a story about a boxer named Billy Conn. The story was called “The Boxer and the Blonde.” I thought it was interesting. I had never heard of Billy Conn. And then I got to the paragraph.

To set it up: Conn was fighting Joe Louis on June 18, 1941. The war had begun but the United States was not in it. Joe DiMaggio was in the midst of a 56-game hitting streak. And to end the 12th round, Conn landed a left hand flush, rattling Joe Louis. Conn was leading the fight. He was three rounds away from the heavyweight championship.

And this is the paragraph I read:

“Louis was slumped in his corner. Jack Blackburn, his trainer, shook his head and rubbed him hard. ‘Chappie,’ he said, using his nickname for the champ, ‘you’re losing. You gotta knock him out.’ Louis didn’t have to be told. Everyone understood. Everyone in the Polo Grounds. Everyone listening through the magic of radio. Everyone. There was bedlam. It was wonderful. Men had been slugging it out for eons, and there had been 220 years of prizefighting, and there would yet be Marciano and the two Sugar Rays and Ali, but this was it. This was the best it had ever been and ever would be, the twelfth and thirteen rounds of Louis and Conn on a warm night in New York just before the world went to hell. The people were standing and cheering for Conn, but it was really for the sport and for the moment and for themselves that they cheered. They could be part of it, and every now and then, for an instant, that is it, and it can’t get any better. This was such a time in the history of games.”

I read that paragraph. Then I read it again. And then I read it again. And then I put the book down by my side, and I closed my eyes. I felt as if I had been struck by something like lightning. And with that one paragraph, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do, saw the mountain peak that I would climb toward for the rest of my life.

I just wanted to write LIKE THAT, even once.

That was Frank Deford.

Frank was the greatest sportswriter that ever was. It’s a silly thing to ponder because the greatest sportswriters were so different, Red Smith was literary and Jim Murray was a Dorscht Belt comic and Dan Jenkins was so bawdy and hysterical and Bill Nack could take you into a person’s heart (or a horse’s heart) and Gary Smith’s stories were magical and W.C. Heinz and Ralph Wiley and Mark Kram and both the Lardners and a thousand others including so many who write today. You can’t choose one.

And yet Deford was the one, the best of the best, because no one could reach his heights, nobody could reach out from the page and grab you and pull you down into the words the way he could.

When he wrote about Bob Knight 35 years ago: “The real issue is the rabbits. And Knight knows that. In the Indiana locker room before a game earlier this season, Knight was telling his players to concentrate on the important things. He said, ‘How many times I got to tell you? Don’t fight the rabbits? Because, boys, if you fight the rabbits, the elephants are going to kill you.’ But the coach doesn’t listen to himself. He’s always chasing after the incidental; he’s still a prodigy in search of proportion.”

What he wrote about the horrors of boxing in his classic “The Anglo and the Indian” What a shame it was that the two boys, the Anglo and the Indian, never knew each other except for two minutes and fifty-seven seconds one night in a boxing ring, pummeling each other’s faces in the haze, for the roar of the crowd and something dark in all our souls.”

What he wrote about the wonder of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First:” “On the afternoon of March 3, 1959, right after the Dodgers went off to spring training, Bud Abbott turned on the television in L.A. to watch an old Abbott and Costell movie. Who’s on First? was in the film. Near the end of the routine, the phone rang, and Abbott answered it. He was told that Lou Costello had died. ‘Tell me,’ Abbott would often say after that, ‘why did I happen to be watching that picture at that time? Will you tell me why?’

“Probably because all along, surely, the rightfielder in the routine was God.”

It seemed like everything Frank ever wrote was like that, every word in its perfect place, every phrase as lyrical as a Cole Porter song. I asked Frank about that once, about music in his writing, and he said that it was very different from music but perhaps he had a knack for pacing, a talent for making the words read faster and slower and then faster again. He was right, of course. Pacing was the purest of his many talents.

And endings. Nobody wrote more gripping endings.

I think often of this one about Jimmy Connors: “It is strange that as powerful as the love is that consumes the Connorses, Jimbo has always depended on hate in order to win. And all along that must have been the hard way. There is no telling how far a man could go who could learn to take love on the rise.”

Frank died on Monday at the age of 78. A full remembrance of Frank Deford would note his countless classic stories — Bill Russell, Al McGuire, “Bull” (Cyclone) Sullivan, Pete Dawkins — the truckload of awards, his success as an author and writer for the screen, his accomplishments as a television correspondent and radio commentator, his 10 honorary degrees … but, as mentioned, this is a personal tribute. Frank Deford was my friend. But, even more than that, he was my North Star, the writer I have never stopped trying to be even though I figured out long ago knew that I would never get there.

Heck, I knew even 30 years ago, when I was on my bed in my parents would-be garage that I would never get there. But those words about Billy Conn gave me purpose, and that’s what my life needed. I told Frank Deford that story once. I knew, even while telling it, even while I was reciting the “Boxer and the Blonde” paragraph word for for word, that it was a silly thing to do, that Frank had heard similar stories again and again in his life, and that there’s really nothing to SAY when someone says, “This is how you changed my life.” But I wanted to tell him anyway. I thought he should know.

“I’m proud that the words meant something to you,” Frank told me. It was just the right thing to say. But, of course it was.

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36 Responses to A toast to the best

  1. Pat Saysoff says:

    What a wonderful tribute. I had come to know of Frank DeFord through HBO’s Real Sports. It led me to a treasure trove of books and articles online. I had the chance to sit in the Unity Temple a few years ago when he was a guest of the Rainy Day Bookstore. I was blown away that he was so eloquent and genuinely happy to share his stories in that setting.
    When I read your post I had no idea he was such an influence on you. But after years of reading your columns in the Kansas City Star and now on this blog I should have put the pieces together. You may feel as though you yet to reach his level as a writer, but from where I sit you are right there with him.

  2. Len says:

    Joe, you assuredly are some very talented kid’s own Frank Deford.

  3. NevadaMark says:

    Joe, never apologize about ANYTHING you write.

  4. Aaron Johnson says:

    I am more convinced every day, that Joe Posnanski is the best spoortswriter working on America today. I’m grateful to have been able to read his work in the Kansas City Star.

  5. Crout says:

    I count my lucky stars that I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated when DeFord was making magic on the page.

  6. Rebecca Dalton says:

    Great piece. I liked Frank Deford because of the book he wrote about his daughter Alex.

  7. Tony Wrisinger says:

    Thank you for this great read. I loved Frank DeFords commentaries on CNN with Nick Charles and Fred Hickman. Your “North Star” reference was epic. Like Bucks Red Dress reference.

  8. Brad says:

    Some year Joe, sadly, there’ll be a young sportswriter, several probably, who will write similar tributes to you.

  9. Kevin says:

    I thank Frank Deford for “The National” and I thank him for his influence on you Joe. You, to me, is what he to you happens to be.

  10. German Andrade says:

    When you write that ‘Frank was the greatest sportswriter that ever was’, you remind me of the Sports Illustrated story written by Frank Deford that I read 33 years ago: https://www.si.com/vault/1984/04/30/630220/the-toughest-coach-there-ever-was. Now I have to read ‘The Boxer and the Blonde’….

  11. Shaun L Kelly says:

    When I read about Frank holding a bottle of Fanta in 12 items of less checkout line at a local Connecticut supermarket for his dying daughter, Alex, who had requested it, I became that anguished, distraught parent. Later that day after she had died, when he described how he emptied the contents of the bottle in his backyard after she had just died, a little bit of me died as well.

  12. Richard says:

    Can’t leave it on Shaun’s sad note…

  13. Zeke Bob says:

    Are we not allowed to disagree on this either? Deford’s the greatest full stop? Should I bother pimpin’ for Plimpton?

    You’ve become curiously adamant lately Joe.

    • invitro says:

      Go for it. I should probably read a Plimpton. I think the greatest sportswriter is Bill James by about a million miles. Next is probably Terry Pluto, only because I loved both of his books that I’ve read. I don’t know who’s next. Maybe Wilt Chamberlain, since I greatly enjoyed both the books he got a ghostwriter to write. But I probably have read less sports writing than most people here.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I don’t see Joe saying you can’t disagree. It’s pointless, though. Joe is telling a story about how much DeFord meant to him. It’s not a matter of agreement or disagreement. What difference does it make if someone thinks Bill James or George Plimpton is better. It’s like writing about Lou Gehrig’s speech and, saying, yeah, but it wasn’t as good as Babe Ruth’s farewell. Sometimes I’m stunned at the cynicism displayed here. I guess a lot of people are just embarrassed and uncomfortable at stuff like this.

      • Graydon Rasp says:

        Like Joe’s story above, Gilbert Gottfried says that his entire career has been spent emulating Babe Ruth’s farewell speech.

  14. DB says:

    Neither Plimpton or James could rock that shirt though (I doubt Joe could either and I know that I cannot). Wilt could though but doubt his ghostwriter could.

  15. Rob Smith says:

    DeFord and Sport Illustrated. Boy, that was another era. I had my SI subscription for about two and a half decades. But these days things end much more quickly. I did catch DeFord on Real Sports a few times. But his era was definitely with SI. His stuff was almost always good.

  16. Heather Moore says:

    Simply wonderful, Joe. I was blessed to be able to work with Frank on some of his books, including his novel, The Entitled. One of the smartest, classiest, kindest men I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

  17. Jerry Esses says:

    My wife was recruited to work for The National. Big ideas, big dreams. I had the chance to meet Frank at some office functions, and he was as gracious in person as you could ever want. A wonderful writer and man who will be sorely missed

  18. I read him and heard him on NPR and he was every bit as wonderful as Joe says. Was he the best? To Joe and to some others, yes (and Joe is more than one person’s Frank Deford these days, for sure). But I’m reminded of Deford telling his professor at Princeton, Kingsley Amis (how many sportswriters took a class from Kingsley Amis?) that Red Smith was a great writer. Deford also learned from the best.

    My favorite Deford line was in a story about Jim Bouton trying to make a comeback and describing Ted Turner as signing him and describing it “just as the lord of the manor might explain why he had added another dwarf or concubine to the castle manifest.” Perfect.

  19. Jeeves says:

    Deford’s writing was so over the top it was almost comical. TV certainly didnt do him any favors.

    • Rob Smith says:

      If you’re trying write with flair, going too far will happen from time to time. Jim Murray had a tendency to be over the top too. It sure beats boring, even if occasionally, and later in the careers a bit more often, you ended up thinking “WTF was that?!!” after a few of their installments. The first sin of writing is playing it safe & trying not to bother anyone. Who the hell wants to read a safe column?

      • jeeves says:

        I get what you are saying, but it came off as him being a pompous ass to me. Between him and Leigh Montville it was literary masturbation. Did not get the appeal of either one’s writing.

        • Rob Smith says:

          I think a majority of the top sports writers are pompous asses. They have high opinions of themselves so they’re not afraid to just throw some stuff out there. I think if you’re limiting yourself to reading nice friendly, self effacing sportswriters, you’ll have a very short reading list.

  20. […] I urge you to read these two tributes to Frank: First, from Charlie Pierce, on Deford’s humanity in the face of Alex’s death, and second from Joe Posnanski, on why Deford inspired him and so many others. […]

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