Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.
It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.
I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.
I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.
Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.
How could you not read that?
Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.
He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)
Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.