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Frank Deford: A Career Spent Bringing 'Something New' To Sports

May 5, 2017
Originally published on May 5, 2017 3:50 pm

Frank Deford, NPR's longest-running sports commentator, announced Wednesday that he's retiring after 37 years on Morning Edition — 37 years of entertaining, educating and yes, annoying some listeners, like any good commentator should.

The warnings from Frank Deford arrived via email, days before our scheduled interview. When I get to his third floor apartment in Key West, Fla., Deford cautioned, I'll be greeted by a screeching dog.

He was right, although Miss Snickers, Deford's yorkiepoo rescue, sounded more ferocious than she actually was.

Deford also had this warning: "Unfortunately, I will be a terrible host."

He wasn't able to greet me at the door or give me a tour of the spacious apartment he shares with his wife Carol, which overlooks boats and turquoise water and palm trees. Prior to my visit, Deford had had a couple of tough days because of a lung condition. It left him short of breath and on oxygen. But his performer within carried the day.

The oxygen machine went off, Deford switched on.

The first topic of conversation: his adopted home of Key West. He first visited in 1996 and within hours of his arrival he was on the phone to Carol. "You're going to love this place," he told her.

A place nicknamed "the Conch Republic."

"Conch, y'know, the shells," he says. "And you get to be a 'conch' only one way and that's by being born here." You can, he says, be a "bubba" if you're not originally from Key West. "That's the greatest compliment I can get, when somebody from Key West says 'Hey, Bubba.' That means I'm in!" he says.

"Bubba" doesn't seem to fit this urbane man with his pencil mustache and natty dress. But Key West has been a haven for writers — some of the greats have lived and worked there, including Ernest Hemingway and playwright Tennessee Williams. Deford knows he's been a writer since a composition assignment in elementary school. His classmates wrote half a page. Deford filled eight.

So being a "bubba" in Key West, tapping out his prose, actually does fit him.

"It's off the beaten track," he explains — which, of course, is where Deford took Morning Edition listeners for nearly four decades.

The very model of a creative commentator

Who else would be inspired by 19th century comic opera as a way to address the subject of spitting in baseball?

I am the very model of a baseball star.

I hit them hard and hit them far.

No, not a swimmer nor a sprinter,

Nor a skier nor a point guard, me,

For I'm lean and mean and fit as a fiddle

Ready to show the world my spittle,

Ready to show my spittle.

"When Frank came on, being outrageous, it was very much what we wanted in our commentators," says former Morning Edition sports producer Ketzel Levine. "He just kind of took it in a whole different direction that no one had really taken it before."

Levine recruited Deford in 1979, the year Morning Edition first went on the air. At the time, Deford was one of the top writers at Sports Illustrated. She remembers flying to meet him in New York to make her pitch, and being nervous.

"I was kind of flipped out," Levine remembers, "because here was this super tall, handsome, sexy, intelligent, irreverent, well-traveled, well-spoken, erudite guy! And I was just kind of tripping all over myself knowing very little about sports. And he was very, very gracious."

And open to the idea.

"I am something of a ham," Deford says. "Yeah, I'd always been a writer. But in high school I acted in plays. So it wasn't as if you had to drag the words out of my vocal chords."

What Deford thought would be fun "for a few months" turned into 37 years.

From April 2, 1980 — the date of his first — until his last on Wednesday, Deford churned out 1,656 commentaries. He was given a lot of freedom, especially in the beginning. [Deford's NPR commentaries, Sweetness And Light, are here.]

"There was no doubt," says Levine, "that when I sold him on NPR, it was to do totally autonomous commentaries that would only be edited for grammar and time."

The only expectation was that Deford would be original — on Wednesdays, which just happens to be a notoriously slow sports day.

"If I come on three days after the Super Bowl and say pretty much what everybody else has said, what's the point?" Deford says. "That was the tricky thing ... coming up with a new angle every time — or most times, because you couldn't bat a thousand."

He came close. Deford imagined Shakespeare covering the Super Bowl. He compared Babe Ruth to Winnie-the-Pooh. And almost always, he had a fresh, pointed take on the issue of the moment.

In 2007, he seized upon anti-gay comments by a former NBA star to write about gay male athletes:

I believe that the reason gay male athletes stay in the closet has far more to do with the public than with the locker room. Especially in our society today where you find so much incivility in the grandstand, what player would dare risk giving the beered-up Neanderthal creeps a chance to scream vile personal insults every time he missed the basket or struck out?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell often was in Deford's crosshairs. In a 2014 commentary, Deford wrote that Goodell "just looks like a slick, selling us 76 trombones."

And Deford often spoke out against the NCAA, which oversees college sports. In 2013 he told the story of a woman who worked with University of North Carolina athletes who needed study help, and found herself in a system rife with academic fraud.

Hated by some – loved by many

Of course strong opinions beget strong reactions, and Deford got his share. After he wrote a controversial commentary about the National Hockey League, a listener responded with this particularly scorching letter, read on air by then-Morning Edition host Bob Edwards:

"His comment that perhaps hockey should stay in Canada, suggests to me that he lacks the drive to follow its victories, failures and personal triumphs. If Mr. Deford were to step off a plane in Detroit – Hockeytown — under anything but an assumed name, he probably wouldn't live to find his luggage."

Threats weren't the norm. But listener hackles went up, especially when the subject was soccer, a sport Deford pilloried over the years. And the angry response hasn't been limited to listener phone calls, emails and letters. Deford says about 10 years ago, fans at a major international soccer match in Washington, D.C., held up a banner that read, "Deford is clueless."

"If I'd grown up in Sao Paulo," Deford says, "I'm sure I would've been a great soccer fan."

But he didn't and he wasn't. Deford grew up in Baltimore, and he hates tie games. He hates that in soccer you can't use your hands. He hates the pace, which he calls "tedious."

Despite his anti-soccer feelings, Deford says it's never been his goal to alienate listeners. Rather, he wanted to show a largely non-sports audience that sports were closer to them than they thought.

"This is part of your life — it's the second tier," Deford says about sports. "The first tier is eating, drinking and procreation. The second tier is religion, the spirit, music, art and the physical. Sports. It deserves to have as much attention paid to it, seriously."

Many NPR listeners did, thanks to Deford.

"The number of letters I've gotten through the years, saying, 'y'know, I never really cared for sports, but I like listening to you because you bring something new to it,' " he says. "I'm sort of proud of that. I am proud of that."

Beyond the microphone

Beyond his NPR commentaries, Deford fed a sports-loving audience a steady diet of memorable Sports Illustrated articles, often they were athlete or coach profiles that delved deeply into the person's psyche, earning Deford the nickname "Frank De-Freud." They also earned him countless awards, and a spot in the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.

Deford has written 20 books, with a new novel coming out later this year. He was also a regular on HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel for 20 years.

And we're pretty sure Deford is the first and perhaps only NPR commentator featured in a beer commercial.

Thirty-two years after filming that ad, Deford made the leap from a bar to the White House. In 2013 he received what he calls his highest honor: a National Humanities Medal. He was the first sports writer to win the prestigious award.

Before former President Obama gave him his medal, the announcer mispronounced his name as "DEFF-erd." He was mortified at the time — but now he chuckles about it.

"Nothing's ever perfect," he says.

Many a listener, reader or viewer would argue that Deford's career came pretty close.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're saying goodbye to Frank Deford this week. NPR's longest running sports commentator announced Wednesday that he's retiring after 37 years on MORNING EDITION. Thirty-seven years of entertaining, educating and yes, annoying some listeners like any good commentator should. Frank could make us listen when words like this came out of the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: This may sound far-fetched, but football reminds me of Venice. Both are so tremendously popular, but it's the very things that made them so which could sow the seeds of their ruin.

MARTIN: Frank is 78 years old. He will retire in Key West, Fla. And that's where he had a recent exit interview with NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The warnings arrived via email.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR KNOCKING)

GOLDMAN: When I get to his Key West apartment, Frank Deford wrote, I'll be greeted by a screeching dog. He was right. And he said he will unfortunately be a terrible host.

Frank.

DEFORD: If you'll - I apologize.

GOLDMAN: I - don't apologize.

Frank wasn't able to greet me at the door or give me a tour of the spacious apartment he shares with his wife Carol which overlooks boats and turquoise water and palm trees. He'd had a couple of tough days with a lung condition. It left him short of breath and on oxygen. But his performer within carried the day. The oxygen machine went off. Frank switched on, talking first about his adopted home of Key West, nicknamed the Conch Republic.

DEFORD: Conch, you know, the shells. And you get to be a Conch only one way and that's by being born here. Now, you can get to be a bubba. That's the greatest compliment I can get when somebody from Key West says hey, bubba. That means I'm in.

GOLDMAN: Bubba doesn't seem to fit this urbane man with his pencil mustache and natty dress, but Key West has been a haven for writers. Frank knows he's been one since that composition assignment in elementary school. His classmates wrote half a page. He filled eight. So being a bubba in Key West actually does fit. What is it about the writer that brings you to a place like this?

DEFORD: I think it's because it is off the beaten track.

GOLDMAN: Which, of course, is where Frank took MORNING EDITION listeners for nearly four decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEFORD: I am the very model of a baseball star. I hit them hard and hit them far. No, not a swimmer, nor a sprinter, nor a skier, nor a point guard - me, for I'm lean and mean and fit as a fiddle, ready to show the world my spittle, ready to show my spittle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN MAJOR-GENERAL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I am the very model of a modern major-general.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, he is the very model of a modern major-general.

KETZEL LEVINE: When Frank came on being outrageous, it was very much what we wanted in our commentators.

GOLDMAN: Ketzel Levine was the MORNING EDITION sports producer who recruited Frank in 1979, when he was one of the top writers for Sports Illustrated.

LEVINE: He just kind of took it in a whole different direction that no one had really taken it before.

GOLDMAN: From April 2, 1980, until two days ago, Frank churned out 1,656 commentaries. He was given a lot of freedom with the expectation he'd be original, every Wednesday, a notoriously slow sports day.

DEFORD: If I come on three days after the Super Bowl and say pretty much what everybody else has said, what's the point? That was the tricky thing was coming up with a new angle.

GOLDMAN: Mostly, he did. He imagined Shakespeare covering the Super Bowl. He compared Babe Ruth to Winnie the Pooh. And almost always, he had a fresh, pointed take on the issue of the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DEFORD: So I believe that the reason gay male athletes stay in the closet has far more to do with the public than with the locker room.

The exalted NFL so needs a leader of grace and vision. More and more, Roger Goodell just looks like a slick selling us 76 trombones.

It troubles her, she admits, that she herself lied about that - filling out boilerplate NCAA forms that affirmed that there was no cheating. But everybody does it, just tell the NCAA what it wants and sell more tickets.

GOLDMAN: Strong opinions beget strong reactions, and Frank got his share. After Frank suggested maybe hockey should stay in Canada, former MORNING EDITION host Bob Edwards read from a particularly scorching letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS, BYLINE: (Reading) If Mr. Ford were to step off a plane in Detroit, Hockeytown, under anything but an assumed name, he probably wouldn't live to find his luggage.

GOLDMAN: Yikes. Threats against Frank's life weren't the norm but heckles went up, especially when the subject was soccer.

DEFORD: If I had grown up in Sao Paulo, I'm sure I would have been a great soccer fan.

GOLDMAN: But he didn't and he wasn't. Frank grew up in Baltimore. And he hates tie games. He hates that you can't use your hands, hates the pace which he calls tedious. Despite his anti-soccer feelings, Frank says it's never been his goal to alienate listeners. Rather, he wanted to show a non-sports audience that sports were closer to them than they thought.

DEFORD: This is part of your life. And it's the second tier. The first tier is eating, drinking and procreation. The second tier is religion, the spirit, music, art and the physical - sports. It deserves to have as much attention paid to it seriously.

GOLDMAN: Many did.

DEFORD: And the number of letters that I have gotten through the years saying, you know, I never really cared for sports, but I like listening to you because you bring something new to it. I'm sort of proud of that. I am proud of that.

GOLDMAN: Beyond the commentaries, Frank fed a sports-loving audience a steady diet of memorable Sports Illustrated articles, often athlete and coach profiles that delved deeply into the person's psyche, earning him the nickname Frank Defreud (ph). They also earned him countless awards and a spot in the Sportswriters Hall of Fame. And we're pretty sure he's the first NPR commentator featured in a beer commercial. It was 1981.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEFORD: I've had to write some things about some tough guys. And there's one guy I can't write anything bad about. His unique brand of baseball has made him a living legend, so have his commercials. They got me to try his favorite beer, light beer from Miller.

GOLDMAN: Thirty-two years later, Frank made the leap from a bar to the White House. In 2013, he received what he calls his highest honor, the first-ever National Humanities Medal for a sportswriter. Right before former President Obama gave him the award, Frank was announced this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Frank Deferd (ph).

GOLDMAN: Nothing's ever perfect, chuckles Frank Deford. But for so many listeners and readers, his career came pretty close. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GALLANTHORN'S "DREAM")

MARTIN: Thank you, Frank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.