has called Frank Deford "the world's greatest sportswriter," which just about says it all. Six times, he's been voted Sportswriter of the Year by his peers. Deford has won an Emmy, a Peabody, and a National Magazine Award. Every week, his voice can be heard on National Public Radio. Still, you can't think of him without conjuring that image of dapper clothes and a suave mustache.
You'd expect top-notch baseball writing from Deford. It's his character portraits, and the ease with which he gets you turning pages, that might take you by surprise. He writes what he knows, and he knows people — particularly, men who turn ball games into a life's vocation. The Entitled, his new novel, has plenty to recommend it, whether you call yourself a seamhead or don't even know what that means.
At Powell's to introduce the new novel, Deford reflected upon Red Auerbach's earth tones, Red Barber's writing, Red Sox slugger Tony Conigliaro's truncated career, and plenty of not-Red-related subjects, besides.
Dave: Why do you always come back to sports?
Frank Deford: Most of my fiction has been outside of sports, which gives me a chance to get away. For example, it was great to write about polio in the 1950s [An American Summer], something different.
I'm doing fifty-two commentaries a year for National Public Radio, six or seven stories for Real Sports, I've written articles for Sports Illustrated.
This is the first sports novel I've done since Everybody's All American. Casey on the Loose doesn't really count — it was an outgrowth of a magazine article, and it's sort of silly. Though they're trying to make a musical of it, which I'd love to see. But the way athletes are today... it had been gnawing at me. And not just athletes, but all celebrities.
Dave: And yet The Entitled is not at all a scathing indictment of Jay Alcarez.
Deford: No. But you wouldn't like him.
Dave: Probably not.
Deford: He's accused of rape in the first chapter. It's necessary to care for him, or to be intrigued by him. The Entitled is wrestling with being entitled. I don't think I could write a book in which I didn't like at all the guy I was writing about.
Dave: That accusation kick-starts the book. You pull readers into the story — and away from the field — immediately.
Deford: The whole subject of date rape is very interesting to me. When I was growing up, and until fairly recently, rape brought the vision of some really awful guy dragging a woman into the alley and having his way with her. Rape now is much more ambiguous. Much more intriguing in that sense.
What constitutes rape? That's really the lynchpin on which the plot — if not the book, the plot — turns. Did he or didn't he? It's so prevalent in our society. And by the way, I've had no personal connection with it at all, no daughter of mine or cousin, but it's something that does interest me because it says a lot about the relationship between men and women today.
Dave: And the influence of money.
Deford: This could have been about rock stars.
Dave: Throw fifty million dollars into any relationship and things get complicated quickly.
Deford: Somebody told me after they'd read the book — I wish they'd told me ahead of time — that Wayne Gretzky, if he was on an elevator (and maybe to this day), if a woman gets on, he gets off.
I thought, Damn! Why couldn't I have gotten that into the book? But that says it. That's how tricky it gets.
I wrestled with how to end the book. Did he do it? Did she lie? But that's what date rape is sometimes: No one knows. I thought she was pretty persuasive.
Dave: As did Howie, his manager.
Deford: As did Howie.
Dave: We get a lot closer to Alcarez in the scene at Fenway. A fan runs onto the field...
Deford: Without giving too much away: One of the reviewers said how improbable that scene was. I thought, Uh-uh. Maybe I didn't do it well — I wasn't arguing that point. But this is very probable. It's going to happen, maybe not in baseball but in basketball or somewhere.
I hope I handled it well, but I know damn well that it's within the realm of possibility. Matter of fact, I'm sort of surprised it hasn't happened already.
Dave: We see the TV producer trying to decide whether to show viewers what's happening. Whatever he decides, though, thirty seconds later the whole world will know — via the Internet or some news program.
What does that immediacy mean to journalism?
Deford: I have a minor character named Mickey Huey, an old sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He's a type I've known for years, that guy, who's now going out of style. He's sort of the Greek chorus. He talks about how journalism, sports journalism or otherwise, has changed.
It's changed in my lifetime. I came into it in the 1960s, on the cusp, the end of the ownership of sports by newspapers. Sports Illustrated had reared its ugly head just a few years before. Newspaper writers tried to keep us out of the press box. They owned the press box! They controlled the access. Can you imagine that?
I was there when the radio guys came in with packs on their backs, looking like astronauts; and, of course, television becoming more and more prominent, then sports radio, now sports blogs. It's an entirely different world.
As you say, something happens and thirty seconds later it's gone. I think it was Mark Twain who said, "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." Well, now, a lie can get all the way around the world eight or nine times before the truth can even start to lace up its boots. That's how things have changed.
Dave: A lot of your work now is commentary. You've earned that position. For younger people in the business now, though —
Deford: — what do you tell them?
Deford: And that's what they ask me.
I used to have a stock answer. It was easy to say, "You have to get as much writing done as you possibly can because it's important to show your clips. You get out of college, you may want to go to journalism school."
I can just hear myself saying this. "I'm not sure that's necessary, but it's good on a resume. And then you're going to have to go out to the boondocks somewhere, but if you're any good, it'll show itself. That's one thing about this business. You'll move up."
I used to be able to say that, but I can't anymore.
I don't have any idea what newspapers are going to stay in business. I got a call two or three weeks ago from one of the best sports columnists in the country. The top of the tree, this guy. He says, "I think they're going to let me go." Downsizing. "You got any ideas?" And I'm thinking to myself, No, because every other place is downsizing, too.
I don't even know how you recommended anybody get into the business these days. They're walking off a cliff. Something's going to survive out there, we all know that, but I sure as hell don't know what it is.
Dave: There's a lot of consternation within the book industry right now about the demise of book review sections. The Atlanta Constitution got rid of its section. The L.A. Times scaled back.
Newspapers are reorganizing. Book coverage is the latest victim. Readers shouldn't let that happen without making their feelings known, but it's not as if books are being singled out.
Deford: The only irony is that, presumably, people who read newspapers are liable to be the people who read books. Why would you cut off something that speaks to your audience?
I have a feeling that newspapers are going to be much more journals of opinion, much more thoughtful. They're not going to be chasing news because the news will be on the Internet first. The same people may be bringing it to you, but newspapers are going to be more like magazines or journals or gazettes than they ever were before. They would seem to me to be a place for more reviews, rather than less. But I don't know jack. That's just my guess.
Dave: Who do you recall as the best prospect you've seen?
Deford: Prospect who didn't make it?
Dave: Either way. At the time, the athlete who seemed to have the highest ceiling.
Deford: The name that pops into my mind is Tony Conigliaro because of the tragic ending he had. He started off to be so great, that's why it comes to mind.
The ones that were supposed to be so great and didn't turn out to be anything, you sort of forget about. The ones who turn out to be as good as everybody said, you shrug and say, "We all told you that, didn't we?"
Dave: What's your take on the Moneyball trend? In one form or another, statistical analysis has been adopted to gauge players' value in all sports, not just baseball.
Deford: Two things I didn't want to talk about in The Entitled at any length were the Moneyball thing and drugs. I didn't want them to be important.
The general manager's name is Moncrief. He's sort of a Moneyball guy. He sees players as fungible; he only sees statistics. Howie has to explain a couple things to him about people and what that part of managing is like.
The Moneyball guys can be just as wrong in the extremes as the other guys, the ones who said you had to throw the ball ninety-eight miles an hour, you had to be a certain size or we don't even look at you.
I'm sure I didn't succeed altogether, but I hoped that someone who really doesn't know baseball could read this book and learn a few things but not be stopped because of the inside-baseball talk. The characters would carry them beyond that. But at the same time, someone who knows baseball well could read the book and pick up a few little things and keep going. That was the idea. It's not that I'm writing it on two levels, but it's being read on two levels. You hope that they both connect. That's why to get into any extended discussion of Moneyball...
The other thing was that I didn't want to get into drugs. I only mention it here and there. This guy probably was on drugs. This guy might. Among other things, I wanted to make the story more universal. But the drug issue — this too will pass.
Dave: There has never been a time when some players weren't looking for an edge wherever they could find it.
Deford: Nothing's new. And even at the same time that drugs are being used, pitchers are scuffing baseballs. Now and then a guy corks his bat. Teams are stealing signs. It's funny that there's a gentleman's agreement on signs: It's okay if you steal signs, but not if you do it with binoculars. Why?! Where did that come from?
Athletes are always looking for an edge. That's never going out of fashion. It's always going to be cops and robbers. The robbers will continue to find some new designer drug, but I don't think it will ever play as big a part again. In the last ten years, there were no cops. It was just robbers. It's a phase we'll look back on as a dark era.
In the old days, they used to fix games all the time. Baseball survived. They finally fixed a whole World Series. Baseball survived. They will survive when Barry Bonds, tainted as he is, sets the home run record.
Dave: How do you think Bud Selig is handling Bonds's approach to the record?
Deford: I think he's keeping his fingers crossed. Maybe a bus will fall on Barry Bonds. Maybe something will happen. I don't have to make the decision until the last minute.
He can't win. He knows that. I think he's been let off the hook a great deal by what [Hank] Aaron did. Aaron saying, "I'm not going to be there," that spoke volumes.
Usually, guys, when somebody's going to break their record, they have to be gracious, even if they're really pissed off. They say, "I knew the record had to be broken sometime. Records are made to be broken. And I couldn't be happier that it's Joe Smith..."
The fact that Aaron said no, that gives Selig a big loophole to crawl through. I think he'll do something modest, maybe show up for one game. After all, Bonds could hit the tying home run on a Tuesday and not hit the other one for three-and-a-half weeks. Selig could say, "Hey, I've got a business to run."
But I don't know what he'll do. I don't think he's going to have the balloons come down and the confetti. It'll be as small as he can make it.
Dave: There's so much colorful, period detail in The Old Ball Game. How much did you know about that era before you did your research?
Deford: I knew some of it.
That was originally just a magazine article. The only reason I wrote the article was because I had read that John McGraw and Christy Mathewson were such good friends they actually lived together. That intrigued me.
Dave: Not just the two men but also their wives. The four of them lived together.
Deford: Their wives, too. It absolutely blew my mind. I read it one time, in a one-sentence reference. I thought it would make an interesting magazine article.
Publisher saw it. Called me up. Said, "Would you like to turn it into a book?" I said yes. I thought there was enough more there.
I wouldn't have the patience to write a biography. That's, what — five or six years out of your life if you're going to do a good job? I couldn't do it. But this was perfect. Researching, I could pretty much pick and choose what I wanted. I could throw whole chunks away. If something interested me, I could pursue it, but I didn't have to.
So many baseball history books, every goddamn game has to be accounted for. I pretty much threw the regular season away and just went through World Series. Going through old stuff, you would run across why they called it a Baltimore Chop. Or the fact that McGraw took the groundskeeper to New York with him, considered him as important as one of the ballplayers.
One day I just said, "Alright, I have to stop researching. I could go on another week. I could go on another month. It's the law of diminishing returns; I've got to stop."
Listen, I was having too much fun, sitting in the New York Historical Society with all these weirdoes, me being one of them. People reading real estate records from the Bronx in the 1880s. Me sitting there reading baseball box scores. Finally I just said, "That's it." And I sat down and wrote it.
Dave: It's such a colorful time in American history. Not far removed from the Chicago Erik Larson describes in Devil in the White City.
Deford: Which I loved.
Dave: The New York subway opened in 1904. Three hundred cars occupied New York City in 1895. Ten years later, there were 70,000.
Deford: Everything changes. It's not just that baseball was exploding; New York was, too.
There are probably a hundred other facts that would have been just as interesting if I had found them. Again, you come across something that's interesting, but when you're writing a book like this you don't have to take it out to the eighteenth decimal place. You can stop. That's why I enjoyed it so much. Otherwise, you can get dragged down. Somebody writes and they think they have to tell you everything. This is incomplete. It's a sketch. I think that's why it's so much fun.
Dave: You pull out some of the language of the time, which helps create a tone and timbre. Once beyond the economic travails, as the century turned, Lord, did the country start busting its buttons.
Deford: I always try to write different voices, fiction and nonfiction. An American Summer, that's pretty much a little boy talking. That would be entirely different.
The most fun I ever had — I don't think it's the best book I ever did — I wrote a book on reincarnation called The Other Adonis. It's not written in the first person, but it's from the point of a view of a woman. That was the most fun. I couldn't quite go all the way and write it as a woman, but I took it as far as I could.
You can put on a different voice. The Old Ball Game is my voice talking, and yet maybe my voice if I'd lived a hundred years ago. Sort of.
Dave: What was the genesis of An American Summer? Aside from getting away from sports, what made you write that book?
Deford: Number one, I remember so vividly as a kid the scare of polio. Number two, I remember how it suddenly disappeared from our consciousness as soon as Salk got the vaccine. Overnight. It was like a page was turned, and polio didn't exist anymore; it had never happened.
It was amazing. I never got over that.
I can remember an anecdote, which sort of prompted me. It's sad to mention now, but I ran into David Halberstam on the street. I had just read his book on the 1950s. I said, "David, I really enjoyed your book, blah blah blah, but how the hell did you leave out polio?" He went into a rant, and he said, "God damnit, Deford, you're as bad as everybody else! Every son of a bitch I run into says, 'Why did you leave out this?'"
And then I felt like an asshole. I suddenly realized: Of course, that's what everybody did. Nonetheless, it heightened my interest in the subject.
I actually had an aunt, who during the war — it was my mother's younger sister — while her husband was abroad in the war, she lived with us. She had a little baby son, too. How we all lived together, I don't know.
She got polio. She was cured. But there was a period of about two weeks where we didn't know, a) whether she was going to be in an iron lung for the rest of her life; or b) whether anybody else in the family was going to come down with it. So that heightened my awareness.
Dave: What role did Alex, your daughter, play in the book, or in the character of Katherine?
Deford: She had nothing to do with the genesis of the book, but when I was creating the character of Katherine I felt very confident about what Katherine was like, even though Katherine was twenty years old. Alex died at eight, but the way Alex acted and dealt with her disease made me comfortable to write about Katherine. That was the part my daughter played.
People have come to me through the years and said, "Please help me write about my son, who has multiple sclerosis." Or a car accident. No, I did that. I can't do it again.
Dave: I haven't read many books that are so personal as Alex, and that follow the fate of the sufferer so intimately. It's not by the sufferer, but maybe it's more affecting for that perspective. This is what we fear, that a loved one — worse, a child — will contract an incurable disease.
I would assume that people still contact you about that book.
Deford: Literally, someone showed up on my doorstep the other day. She had traveled from California. She had called me up and asked to see me, and I said, "I'm sorry. I hope you understand." She asked to go to the cemetery, and I said, "Of course, you're welcome to go to the cemetery, and I'll give you directions." After she went to the cemetery, she stopped by the house anyway.
I was at a thing about a month ago, and a woman comes up and introduces her daughter to me: Alexandra. Now a young woman, twenty-four or twenty-five — she'd been named after her. That's not the first time that's happened, either. There are hundreds of Alexes out there.
No matter what I write, nothing will ever have the impact that that book did.
The funny thing was, from a professional point of view, when it was first printed Viking couldn't give the damn thing away. It was dismissed as just another father writing about his daughter. And then it was word of mouth that carried it, and it was reprinted again. It's still in print by a small publisher. Sort of extraordinary. There was a movie, too, and that certainly helped.
I continue to be absolutely moved by the response, the letters I still get. Amazing. I suppose, to get back to your original question, that subconsciously, or on some level, my experience with Alex fed into An American Summer. I'm sure it did. Katherine was Alex had Alex lived another ten or twelve years. That I know.
You never throw everything away. You can't run away from everything.
Dave: What do you appreciate about television that print or radio can't offer?
Deford: Television is not as satisfying to me as writing. You write a book, and, man, it's you; you write fiction, and it's you without a net.
Television is so collegial. What I get out of it is that it's so entirely different from anything else I do.
Radio is much more like writing. Again, I'm alone until the last minute, when I go into a studio. The only difference is that I'm writing so you can hear me instead of so you can read me.
But television is entirely different. I think it's easier in many respects. You have so much support. It is rewarding when you finally see it on the screen. Surprising, in a way. When you write something and you see it on the printed page, it's not a hell of a lot different from when you typed it out. In television it all comes together. There's a sense of being on a team.
That's probably the best answer. Though I never sat down and plotted this, the things I do all complement each other because they don't overlap. I don't write that many articles any more, but writing an article or a book doesn't conflict with a three-minute commentary, which doesn't conflict with a television story.
It's all different, which helps me not get stuck in a rut. Mickey Huey is stuck in a rut. He's been doing the same damn crap forever. I never could have lasted that long. I bailed out of going to games a long time ago.
People are always amazed to find out how few games I go to. They just assume that sportswriters go to a lot of games.
Dave: Do you watch many on TV or listen on the radio?
Deford: Oh, sure. But probably not as much as many, many American men. I watch a game when I feel like it. For years, I've covered sports, not covered games. Most people can't divorce the two. I'm different, which has been great for me.
Dave: If you were going to open a new sports journalism Hall of Fame, who's in your inaugural class?
Deford: Red Smith was the finest columnist, and I mean not just sports columnist. I've always said that Red is like Vermeer, with those tiny, priceless pieces. Five hundred words, perfectly chosen, crafted. Best literary columnist, in any newspaper, that I've ever seen.
I think Cosell would have to get in.
Dave: How would you define his impact?
Deford: He was a one-off. Name the heir to Cosell — you can't. He came when he came. Things changed after him. Nobody would allow Howard Cosell today.
Sometimes you just happen to arrive at the right moment. There's never been anything like him. He was a comet that blazed. He used to win those polls where he was the most hated and the most respected. That says it all.
The third person I would name is Andre Laguerre, the guy who made Sports Illustrated. He was a Frenchman, De Gaulle's press secretary during the war. By making Sports Illustrated, and making it successful, he lifted all sports journalism and had an influence on all the written press.
Sadly, that's fading away now. The sort of thing I did for years, not a lot of people have that chance anymore. If I were coming into the business today, I don't know that there'd be a place for me that I'd want. So much of it is, Who's going to be drafted? This player, what are his negatives, what are his positives? He can't hit the curve or the inside pitch — it's all this inside-baseball, or it's just arguments, screaming at the top of lungs. It's changed, that's all.
And Roone Arledge would be the other one I'd put in there.
Dave: I have a list of names here: Terry Bradshaw, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Mohammad Ali, Robert Irsay, George Steinbrenner, Nadia Comaneci, Red Auerbach.
Deford: Auerbach is the model for how Howie Traveler dresses.
Deford: I knew Red for twenty or twenty-five years. Suddenly it occurred to me that he only dressed in earth tones. He was a colorful guy and all that, and he dressed pretty well, but I never saw red or blue, never mind purple or yellow.
Red was a terrific coach. He plays a role in the social history of sports, the fact that he played so many blacks. He made Russell the first African American coach, and basically told everybody to stick it up their ass if they didn't like it.
He was outspoken, a pain in the ass with that cigar. For all the discipline Red talked about, he really was sort of the original trash talker with that cigar. But I liked him a lot. He was the last you named. Give me another.
Dave: Three people on the list from Baltimore, where you grew up: Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, and Robert Irsay.
Deford: Irsay, of course, I just hate his guts. My contemporaries in Cleveland would say the same thing about Art Modell. I'm afraid it's the way the world is played.
Probably there are two sides to the story. I think Irsay was promised things. I know Modell was promised things, and he finally said, "Okay, you've jerked my chain enough and I'm leaving." But having said that, I sort of agree with the late Johnny Unitas, who didn't even want his records in the Indianapolis Colts' books. He said, "I never played for the Indianapolis Colts."
Palmer and Weaver — there's a lot of Weaver in Howie Traveler, too. Weaver and Palmer, the two of them are sort of Alcazar and Traveler.
My wife still thinks Palmer was the best looking man who ever walked the face of the earth. She'd get googy when she'd see him. She'd get weak in the knees. Weaver is much more profane than Howie, but there are similarities. Matter of fact, there are a couple things that I borrowed. Just like Auerbach's clothes, there are a couple Weaverisms in there.
The relationship between Palmer and Weaver is somewhat like Alcazar and Traveler. Palmer was a pitcher, Alcazar a hitter. Palmer the classic WASP, Alcazar Latin. But notwithstanding.
Dave: In the novel, Alcazar returns to Cuba, his birthplace. I assume that you've been?
Deford: Two times.
Dave: What did you take from those trips?
Deford: Let me back up a little bit.
When I first plotted this out in my mind, I had Alcazar as a Dominican. Then I thought, If he's a Dominican, he's going to have to speak for 75,000 words in broken English. He's going to seem dumb, even if he isn't. It would have been like "Baseball been berry, berry good to me" on Saturday Night Live. So I made him a Dominican who'd grown up in the States speaking English.
Then I realized, Wait a minute. You've been in Cuba. You could make much more of this if you make him a Cuban.
You say, "What did I take from Cuba?" It's pretty much in the book. Sadness more than anything else. Havana is a vibrant city. There's nothing like it in all of the Caribbean. San Juan, maybe, but it's even greater than that. And yet it's crumbling. It's almost like science fiction. Picture the Dorian Gray. A glamorous city crumbling before your eyes. There's an Alice in Wonderland quality to it: Nothing is quite the way you see it, nothing makes any sense. You come away baffled as much as anything else. Baffled, intrigued, and sad, above all.
I really think the Cuban element let me to take what was sort of a novelette and make it into a full-scale novel.
Dave: Howie is another interesting character. A lifelong baseball man.
Deford: He's a type. Alcazar is a type, as well: the superstar. But superstars are all sort of different; all the Howies are the same. They're very much the same, almost by definition. Otherwise, why did they stay in the damn game? To the exclusion of everything else.
They weren't any good at it. How did they know they were going to get to the top? Most of them do lose their families one way or another. They lose touch with so much around them. All they have is baseball. They love baseball much more than the Alcazars. They're the real soul of the game. And they tend to be sort of salt of the earth, nature's noblemen. I've known a lot of Howies. Some of them are more profane than he is. Some of them are funnier. Some are smarter. But at heart, cut them open and they're the same; you can see the same stuff inside.
Frank Deford arrived at Powells.com world headquarters (otherwise known as Indy) and immediately started asking questions. About Powell's, bookselling in general, our web site, Portland, the McEwan film (a poster hangs on the wall of my office), and the new Powell's store at Cedar Hills Crossing, where he'd be reading later in the evening. An information gatherer, he is. Chicken or the egg — do some people become journalists because they were born into a natural state of inquiry? Or, do years of being a journalist, thousands of interviews, day after day listening to people tell their stories — does the repetition become habit forming until inquiry simply becomes your perpetual interface with the world?
Maybe I was over-thinking it.
Deford was wearing a purple tie. He's taller than you might imagine — several people in the office remarked about his long, jangly frame. He visited on June 25, 2007.