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The Mastery of Frank Deford – Two Pages at a Time

In 1987, an anthology of the sports writing by Frank Deford called “The World’s Tallest Midget” was published. In the second paragraph of his introduction, Deford wrote, “While the bias against sportswriting remains large, and any good sports writer is usually dismissed as the world’s tallest midget ...”

That single portion of a sentence raises two points. One, Deford could be clever and funny while trying to make an argument. Two, if there was a bias against the literary efforts of sports writers, Deford swatted such thoughts away with ease as his career went along.

Deford didn’t quite invent the long feature article when he worked for Sports Illustrated, but he may have perfected it. His intelligence, elegance and class leaked into every story he wrote, from Al McGuire to Jimmy Connors, from Billy Conn to Jack Nicklaus. Often they were stories that you wanted to save. He’s written nonfiction books (the first was on roller derby, interestingly enough) and novels, and he also has done some television work for HBO over the years.

Along the way, this writer for print publications picked up a part-time job on radio. He appeared on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition as a commentator each Wednesday – a position he held for 35 years. (He recently cut his NPR schedule back to once per month.) When Deford was introduced to Hillary Clinton at a White House reception, she said to him, “I’d know you anywhere, Frank. That voice wakes me up every Wednesday morning.”

When Deford decided to put together another anthology, this time of his broadcast work, it only took a little editing to come up with the title: “I’d Know That Voice Anywhere.”

Deford wrote in his 1987 book that he was glad to come along in the business when he did. An earlier entrance would have meant that he would have been a columnist for a newspaper instead of a longform writer for a magazine, and that wouldn’t have been a good fit. So what did he do in 1990? He started writing one essay per week, week after week, for radio.

It’s hard to tell how much leeway he had in length, but most of it covered two pages in print so it’s probably three minutes or so of talking. Deford makes his point in the time allotted, and moves on. This isn’t as easy as it looks. Mark Twain had the right idea when he said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Deford picked out about 100 of more than 2,000 commentaries for inclusion here. The ones that don’t date well are left behind, leaving us with an eclectic collection of subjects. There are essays on sports language, on America’s hatred of ties, the problems of women’s team sports, and baseball caps. There’s a comparison of the headlines of golf magazines and women’s magazines, the playing of the National Anthem at sports events, and the surprising (compared to the rest of the world) popularity of college sports in the United States.

There are also funny lines that come out of nowhere, such as this one in a fishing essay: “It is certified that salmon know geography better than 92 percent of American high-school students, and dolphins are not only cute as buttons, but they’re smarter than all talk-show hosts and most football players.” And if you like your writers to be incensed once in a while, he can do that too. The book goes by pretty quickly at two pages at a time, and the stories are not linked by subject so you never know what’s coming up next.

“I’d Know That Voice Anywhere” is probably Deford Light as these things go. But it’s done as well as it can be done by someone who probably could make a shopping list interesting to read.

Budd Bailey is a News Sports copy editor. email: bbailey@buffnews.com

I’d Know That Voice Anywhere

By Frank Deford

Atlantic Monthly Press

240 pages, $25