Writing about sports, with no apologies

The World's Tallest Midget: The Best of Frank Deford, by Frank Deford. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 306 pp. $17.95. Frank Deford makes no apologies for being a sportswriter, though he's sensitive to the fact that there are those who feel he should. ``I can't imagine that any of us worth a dime doesn't go through a phase in which we question whether it is a fulfilled life in the toy shop,'' says Deford, the ``toy shop'' being Jimmy Cannon's only slightly tongue-in-cheek assessment of newpaper sports departments. ``I could visualize grandchildren coming up to me in my dotage and saying, `Big Daddy, what did you do during Vietnam?' And I would reply that I had been at the NBA playoffs.... But finally I resolved the issue with myself: that I am a writer ... and what is important is to write well....'' Does he ever.

For 25 years, Deford has shown that the sports canvas offers much more than just the chance to sketch a scoreboard. Unlike Ring Lardner or Damon Runyon or Paul Gallico or other writers of vision and grace who began their careers in the toy shop, Deford feels no need to abandon the arena to pursue life itself; he has found abundant life within the arena. And he chronicles it in a way that can raise a sensitive reader's consciousness to what it is we treasure in sport. To read Deford is to have the cynicism allayed, to realize that it is the struggle and not the triumph that we celebrate. To realize, too, the tortuous human demands the struggle can make, and the awesome cost it can sometimes exact.

The 14 stories is this long-overdue collection of Deford's Sports Illustrated oeuvre span the years 1969-1986. There is a whimsical essay on Opening Day, with a quiz: Who invented Cracker Jack? (The Rueckheim brothers, in 1893.) Which model Louisville Slugger is the [1978] best-seller? (The Jackie Robinson model.) What is the right fielder's name in the ``Who's on First?'' routine? (There isn't one.) There are also radiant profiles of Pete Dawkins and Billy Conn; nail-biting looks back at the mano-a-mano duel between Watson and Nicklaus in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry, and the 1957 NCAA Final Four, when Carolina shocked Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas and changed college basketball forever. Stories carefully chosen and crafted, beautifully told.

But the soul of Deford's work is the melancholy. Maybe that is just the way it is with high art; ``Hamlet'' and ``King Lear'' are more enduring works than ``The Tempest'' or ``As You Like It.''

Eddie Bishop. A high-school football coach in Kentucky, ``a bona fide, certified hero going home again.... You see, in situations like this folks think: If we can only bring the old hero back, it's going to be jake again; he'll get it back for us.... Of course, it almost never works, but people keep trying.''

Bob ``Bull'' ``Cyclone'' Sullivan. A junior college football coach in Mississippi, ``the toughest coach there ever was,'' ruling his dominion ``with a passing attack that was a quarter century ahead of its time and a kind of discipline that was on its last legs.''

Benji Davis. A Golden Gloves boxer in New Mexico, boxing only because ``the Indian rodeo circuit wasn't starting up again for a few weeks. He had some time on his hands, that's all. Surely he wasn't any kind of troublemaker, no macho brawler.''

Nobody in America had heard of these three men before Deford told their stories; nobody who read those stories is ever likely to forget them. Bishop and Sullivan driven to insanity and heartbreak; Davis killed in the ring in his second fight, ``for the roar of the crowd and something dark in all our souls.''

This is sportswriting? This is sportswriting. The sort of literature that cannot help breaking down the bias against the profession that Deford says causes any capable sportswriter to be ``dismissed as the world's tallest midget.''

World's tallest midget, indeed. Frank Deford is a giant.

Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University.

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