Frank Deford, 1938-2017

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Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

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.

It began:

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.

Really short entry, WTF edition

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I’ll just post my tweet here, because I’d just repeat it:

Though, well, it bears repeating: What … The … Fuck? Guaranteed Rate Field? Even Finazzle Field, my suggestion for the Braves’ new ballpark, would be better. (“SunTrust Park” is merely bland by today’s standards.)

If I were commissioner, I would require all ballparks to be named after cities/neighborhoods, teams or people. Enough with the 20-year naming rights contract crap.

Next thing you know, they’ll be giving bowl games names like R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl and AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl. Oh, wait.

(Late) Sunday read: They don’t say, ‘Work ball!’

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Image from Twitter.

Today is baseball’s Opening Day. It’s changed a lot since I first started following the sport; back then it was usually on Tuesday and always started in Cincinnati, in honor of the city’s status as the first home of a professional team. Now it’s on Sunday so ESPN can get a big audience, and one of the games will feature the Yankees, because we don’t see the Yankees enough the other 161 games of the year.

(Tonight’s marquee game is Cubs-Cardinals, the National League’s version of Yankees-Red Sox.)

The New York Times has a wonderful piece on six baseball lifers — a coach, an umpire, a pitcher, a slugger, a hitter and (my favorite) a broadcaster. Dip into it; it’s my Sunday read.

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Odds and ends: Baseball, awards, ‘Face’

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Image from BaseballHotCorner.com.
A few things that have crossed my brain …

  • Three cheers for Jeff Bagwell, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Tim “Rock” Raines for making the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday. All three are deserved Hall of Famers, and I was particularly pleased to see Raines — much overlooked, even in his heyday, because of the truly amazing Rickey Henderson — finally get the necessary 75% of ballots. The guy could always steal a base, but unlike folks like Vince Coleman, he could also hit, hit for (some) power and play solid defense. The big problem for Raines was that he mainly played for the Montreal Expos, where he was never going to get any notice. Hell, I’d forgotten that he had some late-career years with the Yankees and actually picked up a World Series ring.

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Ralph Branca, RIP

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Image from USA Today.

Ralph Branca won 21 games in 1947. Ralph Branca had a respectable lifetime ERA of 3.79. Ralph Branca pitched for all or part of 12 seasons in the majors, was a three-time All-Star and a respected member of the Brooklyn Dodgers pitching staff for years.

But almost all of his obits lead with the same thing: Ralph Branca, gave up ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ dead at 90.

Some baseball players are forever associated with one pitch or one event. I know a guy who spit every time he heard Calvin Schiraldi’s name because of Schiraldi’s role in losing Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. I think of Donnie Moore as a Braves reliever, but most people probably remember him for giving up that home run to Dave Henderson in the 1986 ALCS.

And Branca? He gave up the most famous home run of them all, the one by Bobby Thomson that won the 1951 pennant for the Giants in a game they were losing 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth.

Branca, though devastated by the home run, was a true sportsman. He appeared at card shows with Thomson and helped form the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), which helps former major leaguers in need. The priest he visited after the homer had it right.

Later Branca recalled sitting with a priest and family friend, asking why this had happened to him.

“Because,” he was told, “you’re strong enough to bear it.”

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a link to Red Smith’s column about the game, still one of the greatest deadline-written pieces in journalism history: “Now it is done,” it begins. “Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. …”

Review: ‘Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner’ by Jonathan Yardley

Ring: A Biography Of Ring LardnerRing: A Biography Of Ring Lardner by Jonathan Yardley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d had Jonathan Yardley’s Ring Lardner biography sitting on my shelf for some time — long enough that I hadn’t the slightest idea where I bought it. Powell’s old Lincoln Avenue store in Chicago? Oxford Too in Atlanta? The Strand?

I bring up the provenance because, had I known what a slog “Ring” would be, I would have just left it where I saw it.

It’s a shame, really. Few remember Lardner these days; his son, the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter (and Hollywood Ten member) Ring Lardner Jr., is better known. I first ran across Ring Sr. in baseball books, where authors would talk about his baseball-themed short stories — such as “You Know Me Al” — with a sense of awe. He was one of the leading — and best-paid — authors of the 1920s, good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, pen pal to Maxwell Perkins, friend to the Algonquin Round Table and resident of tony Great Neck, N.Y.

He was also a character in the Black Sox saga, sitting in the press box and making note of questionable plays. In the film “Eight Men Out,” he’s played by John Sayles, who’s a dead ringer for the writer. (Pardon the pun.)

So I was expecting to find something boisterous, charming and a little sour, perhaps a character somewhere between Mark Twain and Will Rogers, in Yardley’s biography. Instead, what I got was a rather dull fellow whose writing, particularly the dialect-flavored pieces with deliberate misspellings, is at best a time capsule of early-20th century America. It hasn’t aged well.

It doesn’t help that Yardley, formerly the longtime lead book critic of the Washington Post, doesn’t really get inside Lardner’s head. The man was apparently a formidable drinker, something Yardley mentions frequently but doesn’t really try to explain. He was also a beloved father and husband, but again, there’s little warmth that comes off the pages. Even Lardner’s early days, before he married and became one of the leading voices of the ’20s, come across as kind of rote. (And there are all of two paragraphs on the 1919 World Series, an event that really shook Lardner; Eliot Asinof was far kinder to him in the book “Eight Men Out.”)

Equally sadly, Yardley’s frequent breaks for Lardner clips simply slow down the narrative. The whimsical verse and nonsense plays just don’t resonate today; you can see why Lardner, for all of his fame decades ago, has been relegated to the realm of minor author. (I can’t speak to his short stories, including “Haircut” and “The Golden Honeymoon.” They’re available online, but I haven’t felt the need to seek them out.)

Still, I think Lardner would be a more engaging subject in the hands of a different biographer. It’s ironic, since Yardley once won the Pulitzer for his criticism and was known for both making some careers and driving a stake through others, that he suffers from such restraint. Lardner may not have had Twain’s colorful life, but surely someone like Ron Powers (who wrote an amazing Twain biography a decade ago) could have placed him in context of his exciting times.

I’m giving the book three stars because it’s not really a one- or two-star book, which in my thinking is either poorly written or frustratingly offensive. “Ring” is neither, but the third star is granted grudgingly. “Ring” really belongs on a used bookstore’s shelves, where it can look thoughtful and a touch erudite. And perhaps it’s best if it stays there.

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We interrupt this blog for signs of the apocalypse

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Image from AP via Business Insider.

Cubs win! Cubs win! After a 108-year drought, the Chicago Cubs are World Champions!

What could be wrong with that?

Well, it could be a sign of the End Times — at least if you’re a Democrat, or someone who doesn’t trust a certain orange-haired bankruptcy expert running for president.

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#WorldSeries: Hearts left on the baseball field

Baseball, Bart Giamatti said, is designed to break your heart.

All credit to the Chicago Cubs, of course. They were down 3-1 in games and had to win three in a row — the last two on the road — to take the series.

But take a moment to shed a tear for the Cleveland Indians. (My wife is.) They scrapped and they pushed and they never gave up, even when they were down 6-3 in the eighth and facing Aroldis Chapman, only to come up one run short.

I didn’t see the all the excitement, by the way. As the cliche has it, I’m getting too old for this shit, and I had fallen asleep in the seventh. I had imagined — dreamed? — of a Bernie Carbo moment but didn’t think it was going to happen.

But it wasn’t to be for the Indians, even after they managed to get within a run in the bottom of the 10th.

It sucks that someone had to lose this game.

I’m happy for the Cubs and their fans, who faced down both the forecasts of their championship (they were the betting favorites going into the season) and all the curses they’d been laden with over the years. Bill Murray deserves to dance in the clubhouse. Theo Epstein will never have to buy a beer again.

But the Indians were so close — so close! They’d lost two of their starters before the season was even over. (Terry Francona should be in Cooperstown, too, for his managing job.) They looked lost midway through this game and somehow sent it into extra innings. They deserved a championship, too.

Francona said it best afterwards.

“It’s going to hurt,” he said. “It hurts because we care, but they need to walk with their head held high because they left nothing on the field. And that’s all the things we ever ask them to do. They tried until there was nothing left.”

Nothing but heart.

 

Playing Cubbies and Indians

My wife is upset.

My wife is upset because she is a hardcore Cleveland Indians fan and her team is in the World Series.

Now, why would this be upsetting, you ask? She should be thrilled. It’s been 19 years since the Indians have made it. They’ve won their postseason series with guts and guile, a tribute to their bullpen and Terry Francona’s management.

Well, my Cleveland-born wife is upset for one reason: their opponent.

The Chicago Cubs.

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Baseball vs. football … stadiums

Are pro baseball stadiums better than pro football stadiums?

Anybody who reads this blog (that would be both of you) knows I love baseball and don’t think much of football. I never had a fantasy of visiting football stadiums, but there was a time in my life I thought I’d get to every baseball park. (I had that fantasy 30 years ago, which means that most of the stadiums I originally hoped to visit have long since vanished from the earth.)

But there’s another reason I wanted to visit baseball parks. They have personality, like their cities.

Do football stadiums have that quality?

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