The King of Sportswriters

Frank Deford ’61
Lane Stewart /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

DEC. 16, 1938 | MAY 28, 2017

IN 1987, ABOUT A QUARTER-CENTURY INTO a career as one of the nation’s premier sports journalists, Frank Deford ’61 published a collection of his writing called The World’s Tallest Midget. The title was a self-deprecating gag about the literary stature of sportswriting. By the time he died last year, his achievements were no joke: almost 50 years at Sports Illustrated; 37 years at NPR; 20 books; the launch of The National, a daily sports newspaper; and the National Humanities Medal. In 1981, he even starred with former Yankees manager Billy Martin in a Miller Lite commercial.

“Nobody inspired more young people to become sportswriters than Frank Deford,” says sportswriter Joe Posnanski of “The elegance of his writing, the power of his convictions, and the depths with which he plunged into his subjects were irresistible.”

The oldest of three brothers in Baltimore, Deford published newsletters in elementary school and edited the school paper in high school, where he also played basketball. He followed his father, businessman Benjamin Deford ’26, to Princeton. According to legend, basketball coach Cappy Cappon told him, “Deford, you write basketball better than you play it.” So he concentrated on The Daily Princetonian and helped re-energize The Tiger. 

For a year, Deford left Princeton; friends aren’t sure whether he’d been caught with a girl in his room or struggled academically due to his heavy Prince workload. He joined Sports Illustrated the summer after graduating in 1962.

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The magazine then was only 8 years old and not yet profitable. “He really enjoyed the fact that from very early on, he didn’t just get assigned the typical nuts-and-bolts stuff, but was able to go behind the scenes — sports as part of the culture,” says his brother Gill. Peter Carry ’64, who worked with Deford at Sports Illustrated, says Deford was an early practitioner of “new journalism” literary techniques. “He liked Americana of the most basic sort”— roller derbies, small-town football coaches, and beauty queens, Carry says. He wrote about them all.

Deford was 6-foot-4, straight-backed, and had a Clark Gable pencil mustache; he was “the only guy I know, straight or gay, who regularly wore purple clothes,” says Carry. He was best known for long, richly reported features that were “definitive, knowing, sophisticated, and always had just enough of an edge, but not so much of an edge that they felt like hit jobs,” says Alexander Wolff ’79, a longtime S.I. writer. They included profiles of Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, tennis stars Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, boxer Billy Conn, football coach “Bear” Bryant, and golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Such pieces “were not just storytelling, but an inspired kind of literary pop psychology,” says Michael MacCambridge, author of The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine.

The great tragedy for Deford and his wife of 51 years, Carol, was their daughter Alex’s struggle with cystic fibrosis. After her death at 8 in 1980, Deford authored Alex: The Life of a Child, which became a TV movie. He chaired the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for most of the rest of his life. After their son, Christian, and daughter Scarlet were grown, the Defords began frequenting Key West, where the air suited Deford’s pulmonary challenges. He died there last May at 78. 

Louis Jacobson ’92 is the senior correspondent at PolitiFact in Washington, D.C.

AUDIO Frank Deford ’61 

Courtesy National Public Radio