I am warming up at Rancho Park’s driving range in July 2002 when the old instructor approaches. He is wearing a beige Gilligan’s hat pulled down to his eyebrows and quietly observes me hitting balls off a faded green mat.
“When did you start playing?” he asks. As a teenager, I reply. “How often do you practice?” Not enough. “What is your occupation?” Investigative reporter. He pauses a moment, then gently inquires, “Do you know Frank Deford?” Of course. “Are you familiar with his work?”
It seems an odd question. I am there for a golf lesson and the old instructor who barely knows me first wants to chat about one of the most accomplished sportswriters in America?
Indeed, he does. In the middle of my backswing, the old instructor mentions that Deford recently referred to Serena and Venus Williams as the first sisters ever to play in the finals of a major tennis tournament.
“That’s wrong!” he barks. “How is a writer with such prestige allowed to keep making errors?”
Ed Coleman, octogenarian, has been teaching golf professionally since 1949. He has a nimble, encyclopedic mind and has been a stickler for detail since the 1930s when, as a teenager, he wrote letters pointing out mistakes to the sports editor of the New York World-Telegram. These days, he takes pride in spotting a misspelled word on a movie billboard or a miscue in the Los Angeles Times.
At our next lesson, Ed informs me that he has caught other great sportswriters in the wrong, among them the late Jim Murray of The Times and Herbert Warren Wind of The New Yorker. But in Ed’s view, Murray and Wind were jaywalkers compared to Deford.
“I do respect the man,” Ed says. “He is a beautiful writer. But his articles lack integrity. Would it ruin his column to eliminate the exaggerations and mistakes?”
He’s got my attention. I begin listening to Deford’s weekly commentaries on National Public Radio every Wednesday at 7:45 a.m. My phone frequently rings minutes afterward. It’s Ed on the line.
“Deford did it again!” he exclaims on the morning of Nov. 6, 2002. Ed says Deford reported that no woman had ever before played in a men’s professional golf tournament. He tells me that Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias competed in the men’s Los Angeles Open in 1938 and 1945.
“This is reprehensible,” Ed complains. “It isn’t right to gloss over the Babe’s accomplishments . . . Are you getting my point? Don’t I have a right to be angry?”
Frank Deford is, by any measure, a distinguished writer. a google search of his name produces more than 21,000 hits, many of them calling him “the world’s greatest sportswriter.” The description is included in Deford’s biography and splashed across the cover of “The Best of Frank Deford,” the latest anthology of his work.
The “world’s greatest” title is cited frequently in introductions before Deford speaks on the lecture circuit and when he appears on radio or TV. He has been named “Sportswriter of the Year” six times by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Assn. The Sporting News wrote that he “arguably is the most influential sports voice among members of the print media.” The American Journalism Review hailed him as the nation’s best magazine writer. GQ magazine proclaimed him “the greatest sportswriter of the generation.”
In four decades as a journalist and an author, Deford has profiled some of the biggest names in sports, including Wilt Chamberlain, Billie Jean King, Jack Nicklaus, O.J. Simpson, Sadaharu Oh and Steve Cauthen.
In an interview with Inside Sports magazine, the late writer George Plimpton once said of Deford: “I just wish he wouldn’t write so much--and embarrass the rest of us.”
“Frank Deford with a pen in his hand is like Michael Jordan with a basketball and Tiger Woods with a driver,” Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, tells me.
“His description of people and places is unmatched in our business,” says Van McKenzie, associate managing editor for sports at the Orlando Sentinel. “He sees things that average writers and reporters don’t see. He gets information out of people that other reporters simply can’t get.”
Today, at 65, Deford remains remarkably productive. He is a senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, the publication where he got his first job in 1962. He left in 1989 to serve as editor-in-chief of The National, the all-sports daily tabloid that bled $150 million before collapsing within 18 months. After spending several years writing for Newsweek and Vanity Fair, Deford returned to SI in 1998.
His weekly NPR commentaries, which began in 1980, are published as columns on the Sports Illustrated Web site and in the Westport News, Deford’s local paper in Connecticut. He has served as a correspondent on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” since the program’s inception in 1995. His work as a television writer has garnered an Emmy, a Peabody and a Cable Ace award.
Deford is writing his 14th nonfiction book, “Matty and Muggsy,” about how baseball blossomed into the national pastime a century ago. He recently finished his ninth novel, “All the Best Ladies are Falcons,” about a murder in 15th century France.
In addition to delivering 15 to 20 speeches a year at up to $10,000 a pop, Deford makes appearances on behalf of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, an organization he has served for three decades. In 1980, the disease took the life of his 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra. Deford wrote a 1983 book, “Alex, The Life of a Child,” which was made into a network television movie.
“I have lived a relatively stable and happy existence save for one great sadness,” Deford wrote in a college reunion program. “This was an overwhelming event that instructed me in little except that of grief.”
Benjamin Franklin Deford III was born Dec. 16, 1938 in Baltimore. The oldest of three sons, Deford followed his grandfather (class of 1895) and his father (class of 1926) to Princeton University. He was a lackadaisical student, and received a reprimand for getting caught with a date in his dorm room. He devoted many hours to his roles as editor of the campus newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, and humor magazine, the Tiger.
Hired fresh out of college by Sports Illustrated as a researcher, Deford’s initial assignment was to confirm the accuracy of articles that were given to him for review. After covering pro basketball for several years, he drifted away from beat reporting in favor of the long, in-depth feature articles--called “bonus pieces"--for which he and the magazine became famous.
“He had started as a gifted but undisciplined reporter, prone to exactly the sort of mistakes that drove editors crazy,” author Michael MacCambridge wrote in “The Franchise,” a history of Sports Illustrated. “Deford had become an institution at SI, the master of the bonus piece, the biggest name at the magazine, and one of the most emulated, respected, eagerly read writers in the country.”
I remember admiring Deford’s magazine profiles from my sports-crazed youth in suburban Detroit and later enjoying his provocative commentaries on NPR. As a newspaper reporter and editor for the last 30 years, I am all too aware that Deford’s peers regard him as an icon.
Needless to say, I have little enthusiasm for taking on Deford. However, my golf instructor isn’t letting him off so easily. During our monthly lessons at Rancho Park, Ed continues to pester me about Deford’s penchant for embellishment.
I remind Ed that writers are human like everyone else and prone to occasional mistakes. But he persists. Finally, about a year ago, I print out a stack of Deford stories and hand them to Ed. To my surprise, the clips come back weeks later marked up with a number of errors and exaggerations. I am mildly curious and somewhat amused by Ed’s findings.
So last summer I decide to take a closer look at Deford. I have no idea that months later, while questioning the “world’s greatest sportswriter,” he will nearly lose control of the vehicle we are riding in and, only partly in jest, accuse me of trying to ruin him.
I begin reading dozens of Deford’s magazine articles and weekly columns from the past several years. A pattern soon emerges: Deford frequently uses breathtaking overstatement to portray athletes and their accomplishments--such as forever, never, greatest ever, most unique and one of a kind.
For example, in a June 2000 story for Sports Illustrated, Deford wrote, “There has never been anyone like Anna Kournikova in sports. Never anyone so rich and famous the world over just for being a beautiful athlete.”
In Deford’s world, Camden Yards in his native Baltimore is “the most influential sports structure ever built.” Mississippi prep football coach Robert Victor Sullivan was “the most unique of men.” Race car driver Michael Schumacher is “the most famous athlete in the world.” (Nine months later, Deford called soccer player David Beckham “without a doubt the most famous athlete in the world.”)
While devouring these stories, it occurs to me that perhaps “world’s greatest sportswriter” is, in an odd way, appropriate for Deford. Indeed, “world’s greatest” is certainly no more of an exaggeration than Deford’s assertion that sprinter Marion Jones is “the world’s fastest woman” when, in fact, Florence Griffith Joyner was faster.
But then, so what? Sports reporting has long been disparaged as the “toy department” of journalism. And his transgressions certainly pale compared to the journalistic crimes committed by Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Stephen Glass at the New Republic, two writers who passed off outright fiction as truth. Also, given the hundreds of articles and commentaries Deford has composed throughout his career, couldn’t he be viewed as a slick-fielding shortstop who occasionally lets a grounder through his legs?
On the other hand, not all of Deford’s troublesome passages were mere exaggerations. Many were flat out wrong and had not been corrected in print. So, with the assistance of Los Angeles Times researcher John Beckham and my golf instructor, I set out to compile a list of inaccurate statements that have appeared under Deford’s byline in the past several years.
We document about four dozen excerpts that contain factual errors or embellishment. Most come from Deford’s weekly commentaries and columns. That strikes me as a high number, particularly for a writer of Deford’s stature. I know how hard my colleagues labor to avoid mistakes--and how journalists who play loose with the facts do nothing to enhance the public’s trust in our profession.
Increasingly I am intrigued that a man who has received such acclaim for his work may well suffer from the human frailties that afflict writers much younger and far less famous. How could this be? I decide to pursue the story.
My next step is to talk to Deford. I dial his home in mid-September and speak with his wife, Carol, who takes a message. Two days later, Deford calls back.
I introduce myself and say that I am working on a profile. Without asking what specifically I have in mind, Deford says he will gladly cooperate. As we make arrangements during a series of follow-up calls and e-mails, Deford could not be more polite or accommodating. He agrees to let me interview him at length in early October and accompany him to speaking engagements at a community college in Niagara County, N.Y., and a prep school in Tinton Falls, N.J.
I book a flight, feeling slightly apprehensive about the confrontation that lies ahead. I relish the opportunity to match wits with the “world’s greatest sportswriter.” But I also feel a bit overmatched, like a rookie stepping in to face a Nolan Ryan fastball.
We meet on a chilly, sunny October morning in Westport, an hour’s drive north of New York City. Deford pulls in front of my hotel at 8 sharp in a gleaming cranberry Jaguar. I instantly recognize the pencil-thin mustache, a Deford trademark that gives him the look of a wily riverboat gambler.
He is crisply attired in tan corduroy slacks and a striped grape shirt underneath a dark blue fleece pullover with “HBO SPORTS” emblazoned on one sleeve. Only the lines in his tanned face and long strands of gray hair combed back over a balding pate hint at his senior-citizen status.
We head off to a radio station at Sacred Heart University in nearby Fairfield, where Deford tapes his weekly commentary for NPR. Inside the small studio, Deford grabs a brown metal chair and settles his 6-foot, 4-inch frame in front of a microphone. Eyes darting to the ceiling and hands jabbing in constant motion, Deford does not so much read his column about passionate sports traditions as he performs it.
Next we visit Antony’s barbershop for Deford’s regular clipping, then pull into his Green’s Farms neighborhood. Paul Newman and Martha Stewart reside nearby. As we wander through the sprawling New England clapboard manse, it becomes evident that Deford is a man set in his ways.
He and his family have lived in the same home for 29 years--they moved in the same day Richard Nixon moved out of the White House. He has been married to Carol, a former model, for 38 years. He has worn the same mustache for more than 30 years. And he pecked away on a manual typewriter for about 35 years before editors ordered him to get a computer in the late 1990s
The Defords have two children--Christian, 34, a stockbroker who presently is in Los Angeles trying to peddle a screenplay, and Scarlet, 23, a graphic artist who was adopted shortly after Alex’s death.
The household has enough mementos to fill a wing of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, into which Deford was inducted in 1998. On the family room floor stands a bright yellow, coin-operated newsstand of The National. Displayed in the glass window is the Feb. 11, 1990 edition with the headline: “Tyson Loses! Biggest Upset in Boxing History.”
On a table rests a copy of the new book “Fifty Years of Great Writing,” an anthology of the “very best” articles that have appeared in Sports Illustrated. In a volume that includes authors such as Plimpton, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and A.J. Liebling, the work of Deford is prominently featured.
On the opposite wall hang framed photographs of a dashing young Deford with Princeton trustee Jimmy Stewart, of Deford with four models on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Tour, of Deford at a bar alongside baseball showmen Billy Martin and “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry during one of Miller Lite’s “Taste great, less filling” commercials.
In the garage, assorted souvenirs adorn the walls. Thin shelves hold more than 300 small, colorful containers. “I have the world’s largest collection of little hotel shampoo bottles,” Deford wrote in 2002.
We settle into a corner of the den for an interview. Deford kicks off his shoes and stretches back in an easy chair as Bijou, his bichon frise, falls asleep in his lap. On a table between us is a photograph of Deford and his wife at the White House with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I’ve been a natural writer since age 8,” he says. At 13, he won a national short story contest. He attended high school at Gilman, where he set a record by scoring 33 points in a varsity basketball game, he says proudly.
“Oh, I was a hotshot. That was as much fun as I had in my life.”
At Princeton, he played on the basketball practice squad while covering the varsity team for the campus newspaper. His coach, Franklin “Cappy” Cappon, set Deford straight about his talents.
“Deford, you write basketball better than you play it,” Cappon told him.
But Deford had no interest in studying journalism and no desire to become a sportswriter. He always knew what he wanted to be--a successful novelist. “That was my dream,” he says. “It still is.”
I ask what it was like working as a fact-checker during his first year at Sports Illustrated.
“When a story came in, you would mark a little red check next to every fact,” he recalls. “Did a player really hit .312? Check it.” The tedium of verifying other people’s work was not young Deford’s idea of captivating the New York literary world.
“It was awful,” he says.
I quickly discover that, in person as on paper, Deford is an engaging storyteller. He is a history buff and versed in the classics. He hates soccer and loves horse racing. His favorite color is purple. He exudes machismo and has a delightful, self-deprecating wit.
I do not relish the tough questions I need to ask. But those will come later. For now, I just want the two of us to become comfortable with each other. So I lob a few softballs.
Who is your most favorite athlete?
“Bill Russell. Because he was different. He was the greatest team player. The other would be Johnny Unitas. Because I saw him growing up in Baltimore.”
Who were your favorite interviews?
Al McGuire, the former Marquette University basketball coach, and Bobby Knight, the longtime Indiana University coach now at Texas Tech. “Knight because he is very bright and likes talking about himself. He sort of understands what I want. I don’t want to ask how to set up the zone defense.”
Deford takes a moment to explain the art of interviewing.
“You know, interviewing is a little bit like a high school date . . . What’s your favorite color? All that. And you’re trying to get something out of somebody. And they’re trying to get something out of you. Never forget that. We’re playing a game here. You’re trying to get a good story. I’m trying to get you to do a favorable story. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. That is the way the game works.”
Deford has been interviewed so many times that he proves nearly as adept at giving scintillating quotes as he is at getting them. And, just as he occasionally laces his stories with words that stretch the truth, the same goes for his responses to my questions.
Growing up as a child, he tells me, “I was the skinniest kid you ever saw.”
He says he is fortunate to have earned a handsome living as a writer because “I am the most unmechanical person in the world.”
When I inquire about the story he is working on at the time--a long feature on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball program--Deford raves about the team’s star player, Diana Taurasi. “She is the most unbelievable woman I’ve ever seen.”
Such sweeping remarks provide an opening for me to ask Deford a preliminary question about the use of overstatement in his writing.
“Oh, really?” he replies, sounding dumbstruck. “I do that?”
our second day begins with a short flight to buffalo. after checking in at a Comfort Inn, we head for lunch to a diner in Niagara Falls. I decide to first ask Deford about the Ruthian-sized superlatives before raising the issue of outright factual mistakes.
Between bites of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, he defends most of the dozen examples I throw at him. He says he has “no doubt” that soccer player David Beckham is the “most famous athlete” on the planet. “Some say he is the most famous person in the world.”
But he seems taken aback by his portrayal of Larry Bird as “the greatest basketball player ever” in a March 21, 1988 Sports Illustrated article. “I’m so surprised I said that flat out.”
That evening, Deford delivers the first of two speeches at Niagara County Community College. Afterward, he signs autographs. “Happily, most people who ask for an autograph profess to really admire me and like the writing that I do,” he says. “People are real nice that way.”
Well, not everyone. The time has come, I know, to challenge the accuracy of Deford’s work--a task that isn’t getting any easier because, frankly, the more I hang with Deford, the more I like him.
I plan to raise the issue at dinner. We catch the first game of the Red Sox-Yankee playoff series at a nearby bar while washing down greasy burgers with Miller Lites. Much to our delight, Boston beats New York, 5-2. It turns out that if I share one trait with Deford, it is that we are longtime Yankee haters.
How can I confront him now?
Instead, I listen as he regales me with stories about covering athletes in the 1960s. When he broke in as a cub reporter, he made $7,500 a year plus overtime--more than many of the players he wrote about.
“I started my career at a time when writers and athletes could be friends,” he says. “I was lucky.”
Getting close to athletes, Deford reasons, permitted him to write more insightful stories. “I think all that has changed sadly. On balance, I think you’re better being close to somebody and having to sit on a few things.”
He says he enjoyed unfettered access to tennis champions such as John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. He traveled extensively with Arthur Ashe, shared an estate with him on a trip to South Africa, and in 1975 the two wrote a book called “Portrait in Motion.”
“Tennis players were the greatest guys in the world,” he says. “Now they are just the biggest jerks that ever walked the face of the earth.”
Deford says he has found most modern professional athletes so uninformed, self-absorbed and boring that he has stopped writing about them for the better part of the past two decades. Tiger Woods is “so guarded he doesn’t let you know where he had lunch,” Deford grumbles. “He hasn’t had anything interesting to say in five years.”
He says he has focused his reporting on “adults"--coaches, retired athletes and historical figures. The irony that the “world’s greatest sportswriter” has for so long disdained athletes is not lost on him.
“What can I do?” he says.
We fly back to New York City on day three and start driving to Tinton Falls. My time with Deford is running short. The two-hour ride in the Jaguar affords an ideal setting to ask the kind of sensitive questions not easily posed in a crowded jet or bustling restaurant. I pull out my list, turn on a tape recorder and explain to Deford what I’m up to.
“Bring ‘em on,” he says.
I begin with an April 16, 2003, column in which he called spouses Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery “the swiftest creatures God ever fashioned.” While Montgomery has the fastest 100-meter dash in history, I inform him, the women’s world record holder is Florence Griffith Joyner.
“I guess you are right,” he replies curtly. “But first of all, FloJo was on drugs. I think you are really nitpicking here.”
I move on.
On Jan. 15, 2003, he wrote that the National Basketball Assn. “has never once in its history gone more than a couple of seasons without one dominant franchise.” But the record book shows that the Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics each won their only NBA championship in three consecutive seasons, from 1977 to 1979.
His response sounds a lot like Bill Clinton. “I guess the question there would have to be what your definition of ‘dominant’ is.”
In a Nov. 6, 2002 column, Deford wrote, “No woman has ever played in a PGA tournament.” His grimace says it all. He knows the correction before I give it to him: In 1938, Babe Zaharias became the first woman to play in a men’s professional golf tournament.
“God, I knew that,” he says. “I just said that flat out? Maybe I wasn’t aware of it at that time.”
On July 12, 2000, Deford stated, “No major championship has ever been contested in Africa. Of course, what has this desperate continent hosted but disease, war and tragedy?”
He glances my way and demands, “Name one that has!”
“Rumble in the Jungle,” I say, referring to the heavyweight title bout in 1974 between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
“Oh, I was thinking of a team championship . . . That’s the context. I think you’re really nitpicking here. I really do.”
Deford is clearly perturbed. The tension inside the Jaguar is building.
In an Aug. 6, 2001, Sports Illustrated feature on the “World’s Fastest Human,” Deford wrote that Carl Lewis is “the only 100-meter repeat gold medalist.” I tell him about Charles “Archie” Hahn, who won consecutive gold medals in the 100 meters in the early 1900s.
“If Archie Hahn won it, I’m wrong,” he says. “When did he win it?”
The 1904 Games in St. Louis and the 1906 Games in Athens, held to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Olympics.
“Oh! . . . Oh! . . . Oh! . . .” Deford shouts. The Jaguar veers out of its lane on the Jersey Turnpike. “The 1906 Olympics don’t exist! They don’t exist! There you go. Those were the Rump Olympics. Those don’t count! That’s wrong!”
(Deford is right. I later checked “The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics” by renowned Olympics historian David Wallechinsky. It states that the 1906 Games were “not considered official by the International Olympic Committee.”)
The next excerpt is from an Oct. 7, 1996 Newsweek article about hockey star Mario Lemieux. Deford wrote “posterity will never forget that no athlete--not even the sainted Lou Gehrig--has ever before Lemieux been struck down by a deadly disease at the very moment when he was the best of his sport at the best he would ever be.”
Who else, Deford wants to know, could possibly rank beside Lemieux?
Babe Zaharias returned to the women’s professional golf tour in 1953, only 14 weeks after she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery. She won five tournaments in 1954, including the Women’s U.S. Open, and the Associated Press named her “Woman Athlete of the Year” for the sixth time. In 1956 she died of colon cancer at age 45.
“She was not at the peak of her career,” he counters. “I will argue that forever.”
Early in the 1991 season, Los Angeles Laker all-star Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus and was retiring from the NBA.
“Was he the best at that time?” Deford asks me. “Again, I think you’re cutting hairs here.”
And while Deford had no way of knowing at the time, top-ranked cyclist Lance Armstrong, then 25, announced the day after the Lemieux article appeared in 1996 that he had undergone surgery to remove a malignant tumor from a testicle. He came back in 1999 to win the first of five consecutive Tour de France races.
Whatever composure Deford has maintained to this point flies out the window.
“I can’t beat you on this stuff,” he snaps. “This is just amazing! This is absolutely insane!”
He then utters a mild profanity. “Honestly. Hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and you’re taking two or three little things,” he tells me. “You act like this is sort of an epidemic.”
As we continue down the turnpike, Deford appears lost. “I’m looking for something called Pope Road,” he blurts in disgust. “They said it was easy!”
From my seat, this is not necessarily a discouraging turn of events. I need the extra time to run through more cases.
If there is one sport in which Deford is most knowledgeable, it is probably tennis. He covered it off and on for two decades and collaborated on books with some of the best players--Don Budge, Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King and Ashe.
On June 26, 2002, he wrote that Venus and Serena Williams are “the first sisters ever to play in the finals of a major tournament . . . .”
Once again, Deford knows better. “There were sisters back in the 19th century. I can’t think of their names right now.”
In 1884, Maud Watson defeated her sister, Lilian, in straight sets during the first women’s final at Wimbledon.
Deford holds his ground. “I’m surprised that’s in there, but I would stand by it in the sense that in 1884. . . about 17 people were playing tennis in the world.”
In an Aug. 28, 2002, column on tennis, he wrote that “except for the 1960s, the United States has produced a great champion in every decade of the 20th century.”
What about Arthur Ashe? Deford’s good friend won the U.S. Open in 1968.
“I’m a pretty good tennis authority. So what’s the argument?” he shoots back. “You can get people who would say Arthur Ashe was great. I don’t think so. He was very, very good. But you start throwing ‘great’ around, you devalue it.”
Over the past hour, Deford’s disposition in the Jaguar has downshifted from amiable to irritable to angry. He appears relieved when he locates the Pope Road exit and pulls into the parking lot of the Courtyard Tinton Falls hotel. As he turns off the ignition, I quickly throw out another excerpt.
On March 11, 1998, he wrote, “One of the unchallenged conclusions in sport is that great players don’t make even good coaches. It was an accepted truth going back into the dawn of sports time, but it was set in stone forever when Babe Ruth was not even given a chance to manage.”
In fact, Ruth turned down the opportunity to manage the Yankees’ minor league Newark Bears in 1935.
“This is the first I’ve ever heard that,” Deford says.
In the same column, he wrote, “Likewise, how ironic it is that good quarterbacks don’t become football coaches . . . But someone like Steve Spurrier. . . is one of a kind.”
Deford braces himself. “I’m sure there are other quarterbacks through history who have become football coaches. Again, I meant in general.”
I name three Hall of Fame quarterbacks who also served as head coaches: Norm Van Brocklin, Otto Graham and Bart Starr.
“I wouldn’t have written these things if I wasn’t pretty damned sure of them,” Deford says. “But I also do not have either the time or the resources to go through every football record book or whatever.”
Deford is all too familiar with what can happen when factual errors go uncorrected. He says he routinely sees inaccurate information about his own background on the Internet and in newspapers and magazines.
“Every time I read a story, there’s always something that is not quite right. Then the next time somebody makes it really wrong. It’s enough to drive me crazy.”
On occasion, he apologizes for mistakes in his weekly column. On Oct. 25, 1999, for example, he acknowledged that he erred in calling former football coach Jimmy Johnson “the only man in America in any major sport ever to win both a college and professional championship.” In fact, Barry Switzer won three national championships at the University of Oklahoma and, like Johnson, won a Super Bowl as coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
The inaccuracy was caught by an inmate at a Pennsylvania state penitentiary, who wrote: “I would like NPR and Sports Illustrated to know that we all make mistakes--mine landing me in prison and Mr. Deford’s landing him in the Incorrectional Facility.”
For the most part, however, mistakes in Deford’s copy are rarely disclosed to readers or listeners. This is contrary to standard practices at many media organizations. A computer-assisted search of his work over the past decade, together with interviews of editors at Sports Illustrated, National Public Radio, Newsweek and the Westport News, turned up only two formal correction notices.
In the Dec. 15, 2003, issue of Sports Illustrated, a correction on the letters page states that Deford’s March 17 cover story on the downfall of Hall of Fame outfielder Kirby Puckett contained two quotations that should have been attributed to another publication. Editors at Sports Illustrated said they could not recall another instance when the magazine published a correction involving an article written by Deford.
“It was just so surprising to me that anything like this would come forward,” says SI managing editor Terry McDonell. “Frank is a heroic figure to me as a writer . . . . My experience with him is that he is very meticulous and very careful.”
Similarly, a search of NPR archives found one correction since November 2001, when the radio network began posting formal notices on its Web site. NPR representatives said they were unaware of any other corrections involving Deford’s work.
“He’s such a class act,” says Ellen McDonnell, executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition. “It is hard to imagine he makes a mistake.”
Researchers at NPR and Sports Illustrated are assigned to carefully scrutinize Deford’s stories. Mistakes that appeared in Deford’s Web site column “should have been caught by our fact-checkers,” says Steve Robinson, managing editor of si.com.
Sports Illustrated does not post corrections on its Web site, Robinson says. Instead, if a legitimate error is called to an editor’s attention, the mistake is fixed on the Internet. Robinson says he has no way of knowing the number of Deford columns that have been revised.
Last month’s correction in Sports Illustrated involves two quotes that originally appeared in a Dec. 19, 2002, front-page article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. One is from Puckett’s ex-wife; the other from his former mistress. A third quotation in Deford’s story was attributed to the Pioneer Press.
The editor of the Pioneer Press, Vicki Gowler, had alerted Sports Illustrated to a case of “potential plagiarism” in November after I began inquiring about the identical quotes. Editors at Sports Illustrated say an internal investigation concluded that the magazine’s rigorous fact-checking system had failed.
“We looked at everything very closely,” SI’s McDonell says. “We don’t know why those two things were not attributed. They should have been. That is our policy. We are going to do much better next time.”
Deford says he doesn’t remember how the two Pioneer Press quotations slipped into his story.
Gowler say she is satisfied with the magazine’s findings. “I’m disappointed they didn’t clearly attribute the quotes, but pleased they did take it seriously and did an investigation. It’s a real wake-up call for them on how they do things.”
In recent years, many media organizations have taken a more aggressive stance in disclosing mistakes to their readers. For example, The Times last year published 2,745 corrections through Dec. 29, compared to a total of 876 in 1993.
As editor-in-chief of The National, Deford occasionally pointed out mistakes that he spotted in the newspaper. In one instance, Deford sent a memo to an editor regarding an article by basketball writer Ted Green:
The next time you talk to friend Green, tell him to get a copy of MacBeth, where he will be surprised to learn that it was written by a gentleman named William Shakespeare--not William Faulkner, as reported exclusively by Ted in today’s National.
Also tell Ted that the line before “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” reads: “It is a tale told by an idiot.”
And boy does he look like one.
On the fourth day of my visit, Deford graciously volunteers to drop me off at JFK Airport following his morning speech and luncheon at nearby Ranney School. “For me, the life of a writer has been wonderful,” he tells a group of students.
As we head back to New York City, I bring up other excerpts from his articles.
On Nov. 13, 2002, he wrote that Myles Brand, formerly the head of Indiana University, is “the first college president ever chosen to lead the NCAA.” But James Frank, the president of Lincoln University in Missouri, became the NCAA’s first president in 1981.
“I anticipated that one,” he says. While taking several minutes to passionately describe the changes in titles of those who sit atop the NCAA, Deford becomes so rattled that he nearly drives the Jaguar onto a median strip as the Jersey Turnpike merges into Interstate 95.
“Oh Christ!” he shrieks, steering the vehicle back onto the highway. “See, you are ruining me here!”
He tells me he is unaccustomed to arguing and navigating a car simultaneously. Surely, I suggest, he has had his share of front-seat spats with his wife during 38 years of marriage.
“Yeah,” he retorts, “but she doesn’t have evidence!”
While glad to see Deford still has his sense of humor, I press ahead.
On June 18, 2002, he wrote, “You never hear about [cheating] in sports such as golf and tennis . . . .” But two months later, Deford himself suggested that players on the PGA Tour were sneaking in illegal drivers.
“OK, I’ll give you that one,” he tells me. “Overstatement. Absolutely.”
On Aug. 28, 2002, he wrote, “Curious as it may be for this nation of immigrants, we Americans have never cottoned to foreign athletes.” Yet in his own writings, Deford has described the popularity in this country of such international sports figures as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, soccer star Pele, gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut and figure skater Sonja Henie. That doesn’t include foreign-born sports celebrities such as Fernando Valenzuela, Sergio Garcia and Ichiro Suzuki.
“Never is an overstatement,” he says. “I still stand by the principle of the thing.”
In a Feb. 16, 1998, Newsweek article, he wrote, " . . . in a celebrity sports world, hockey never creates identifiable stars.” Again, Deford himself previously used terms such as “The Great One” and a “fabulous legend” to describe Gretzky.
“What’s sort of silly is obviously I know about Wayne Gretzky,” he says. “This is not some obscure thing . . . . OK, sometimes I overstate the case. I think you’ve made the point.”
He adds: “I have not used any of this hyperbole to hurt people. If you’re going to criticize, you must be absolutely certain of your facts. If you praise, you have a certain license.”
He then accuses me of unfairly attacking his work. “You pick out these few things and say, ‘Oh my God, Frank, how could you do this? This destroys everything you’ve ever done.’ ”
I tell him that I have carefully refrained from making any such judgments and suggest he is being overly dramatic.
He pauses and reflects, then says in his wry way, “I like to be dramatic, though, and feel sorry for myself.”
In all, I cite 30 excerpts to Deford in the Jaguar. There are about a dozen more on my list. But as we cross the wind-whipped Whitestone Bridge near the airport, it is evident that he has had enough. And I’m not wild about distracting him further.
So I put my notes away and invite him to deliver a final verdict.
“I think so many of the cases were the same thing over and over. This and this and this . . . . Then on August 13 . . . . My God, you make it sound like I’m a serial killer!
“The ones that you caught me on I plead guilty,” he says. “But I think the examples that you have pulled out show it is only a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony.”
I ask him to define a felony.
“A felony is a much greater crime. It would be purposely misleading people with an attempt to deceive the listener. And all I’m really trying to do is make a point a little more emphatically.
“I’ll be very honest with you. I had no idea that I had been so sweeping in these. I really didn’t. I’ll be more careful in the future.”
On the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 10--two months after my visit with Deford--I check for phone messages and hear the distinctive voice of my golf instructor.
“He can’t help himself!” Ed bellows. “Call me back and I’ll give you the details.”
In a column saluting the accomplishments of athletes young and old, Deford wrote that Doug Flutie of the last-place San Diego Chargers “is accomplishing things that no 41-year-old quarterback ever has.”
By the time I return Ed’s call, he has already visited the public library to document the far greater feats of an older quarterback. In 1970, AP named 43-year-old George Blanda “Male Athlete of the Year” for leading the Oakland Raiders to the AFC championship game.
Ed lowers his voice to nearly a whisper and cracks, “To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there he goes again!”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Excerpts from the writings of Frank Deford:
“So I started to lay her down where they would cut her open. And in that moment, I could not hold back any longer; one tear fell from all those welling in my eyes. And Alex saw it, saw my face as I bent to put her down. Softer, but urgently, she cried out, “Wait!” We all thought she was only delaying the operation again, but instead, so gently, so dear, she reached up, and with an angel’s touch, swept the tear from my face. I will never know such sweetness again in all my life.” -- “Alex, The Life of a Child,” 1983
“It was 30 years ago, and the car containing the old retired basketball player and the young sportswriter stopped at a traffic light on the way to the airport in Los Angeles .... The old player said, “I’m sorry, I’d like to be your friend.” The young writer said, “But I thought we were friends.”
“No ... friendship takes a lot of effort if it’s going to work, and we’re going off in different directions in our lives, so, no, we really can’t be friends.”
And that was as close as I ever got to being on Bill Russell’s team.” -- Sports Illustrated, May 10, 1999
“The current penny-pinching owners of the Cubs are the Tribune Company. Should they operate the Los Angeles Times as they have the Cubs, The Times will soon be without editorial pages, comic strips and the NASDAQ listings. -- National Public Radio, July 5, 2000
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Widely known as “the world’s greatest sportswriter,” Frank Deford has displayed a penchant for using inaccurate superlatives throughout his distinguished writing career. Here are some examples of Deford’s mistakes, along with Deford’s responses to the corrections.
DeFord article: June 18, 2003: “You never hear about [cheating] in sports such as golf and tennis . . . “
Correction: Deford himself later wrote about reports of pro golfers using illegal drivers.
Deford’s response: “OK, I’ll give you that one . . . . Overstatement. Absolutely.”
DeFord article: April 16, 2003: Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery are “the swiftest creatures God ever fashioned.”
Correction: Florence Griffith-Joyner holds the women’s world record in the 100-meter dash.
Deford’s response: “I guess you are right. But first of all, FloJo was on drugs. I think you are really nitpicking here.”
DeFord article: Nov. 6, 2002: “No woman has ever played in a PGA tournament.”
Correction: Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias competed in the men’s L.A. Open in 1938 and 1945.
Deford’s response: “I’m surprised. God, I knew that . . . maybe I wasn’t aware of it at that time.”
DeFord article: Sept. 4, 2002: " . . . you can’t win [the Heisman Trophy] unless you’re a quarterback or a running back on a winning team . . . . “
Correction: Six players from other positions won the Heisman, the most recent defensive back Charles Woodson in 1997.
Deford’s response: “There are a couple of exceptions. I really think you’re splitting hairs.”
DeFord article: Aug. 28, 2002: “Curious as it may be for this nation of immigrants, we Americans have never cottoned to foreign athletes.”
Correction: Deford himself has written about popular foreign-born athletes such as Wayne Gretzky, Pele, Orga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci.
Deford’s response: “Never is an overstatement . . . I still stand by the principle of the thing.”
DeFord article: Feb. 16, 1998: " . . . in a celebrity sports world, hockey never creates identifiable stars.”
Correction: Deford himself wrote that Gretzky was a “fabulous legend.”
Deford’s response: “What’s sort of silly is obviously I know about Wayne Gretzky. . . OK, sometimes I overstate the case.”
DeFord article: June 26, 2002: " . . . the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena [are] the first sisters ever to play in the finals of a major tournament . . . “
Correction: In 1884, Maud Watson defeated her sister, Lilian, in the first women’s finals at Wimbledon.
Deford’s response: ". . . I would stand by it in the sense that in 1884 . . . about 17 people were playing tennis in the world.”
DeFord article: July 12, 2000: “No major championship has ever been contested in Africa.”
Correction: In 1974 in Zaire, Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing title.
Deford’s response: “Oh, I was thinking of a team championship . . . I think you’re really nit-picking here. I really do.”
DeFord article: March 11, 1998: " . . . good quarterbacks don’t become football coaches . . . but someone like Steve Spurrier . . . is one of a kind.”
Correction: Hall of Fame quarterbacks Norm van Brocklin, Otto Graham and Bart Starr also became head coaches in the NFL.
Deford’s response: “But I also do not have either the time or the resources to go through every football record book or whatever.”
Sources: Times research and interviews
Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.